Motivation, Hitchcock, and Why Cheaters Never Win by Maegan Beaumont
Yesterday afternoon, as I was passing through the living room on my way to the kitchen, I caught a flash of a beautiful blonde woman herding a room full of school children away from a bank of windows and the mass of birds camped outside of them, on the entirely too large TV screen.
Catching that flash reminded me of another movie—The Girl. The bio-pic about the dynamic between Hitchcock and Hedren while filming that movie and with that reminder came another about something that Hitchcock said to Hedren, particularly during the filming of The Birds. Something that’s stuck with me. Something that plays into the vanity of Hitchcock (specifically) and writers (in general).
In the scene where Hedren (played by Sienna Miller) and Hitchcock (played by Toby Jones) discuss her character’s motivation for going into the attic alone, knowing there would be birds there, Hedren asked, “Why would Melanie go into that attic all alone?”
Hitchcock replied, “Because I want her to.”
Because I want her to.
While a cinematic genius like Hitchcock might be able to get away with that, for a lowly novelist like me, writing takes a bit more work. Just because I want my characters to do something, doesn’t mean that I should just make them do it. There has to be a reason my characters do and say the things they do and it’s my job to give it to them.
It’s called motivation.
Motivation is what a writer weaves throughout a plot to bind it tight. Motivation is what makes even the implausible seem possible. Even the most unlikely seem inevitable. But what is it?
A traumatic past? Money? Love? Revenge?
I can’t simply decide that I want my protagonist to rob a bank or rescue a bunch of kids from a burning orphanage. There has to be a trigger that sets them on their course. Are they days away from losing their home to foreclosure? Are they drowning in gambling debts and on the run from a loan shark? Did they lose their child in a fire? Did they grow up in an orphanage themselves?
These are the seeds from which future action grows and if you want your novel to feel real, they must be planted. From these seeds should sprout a chain of events, fed on emotion, and tended by circumstance, that will eventually lead your protagonist to a place where the life-altering decisions they make are the only ones that make sense.
Look at it this way…
If a novel is a vehicle, then motivation is the fuel in its tank. It makes us move and takes us places—maybe to places we never intended to go. Places we don’t want to be… places we have a hard time visiting. If there’s no gas in the tank, that vehicle isn’t moving. But if we put the wrong kind of fuel in the tank then your vehicle breaks down completely. It becomes an undrivable hunk of junk that nobody wants to drive.
When Hitchcock sent his character into that attic full of live, pissed off birds, he wasn’t sending Melanie—he was sending Hedren. He allowed his personal motivations to color the actions of his character… and in doing so, changed the movie completely.
It was no longer about the story or his character’s motivations at all. It was about Hitchcock’s and desire to punish Hedren for finding him repulsive. In punishing Hedren, Hitchcock gave us a peek behind the curtain. Even though we may not have known it at the time, we saw a writer at work and that is something your reader should never see.
The stories we write should be seamless. Our characters should be fully formed, with their own set of experiences that give their choices weight and purpose and the conclusion of those choices lead them to, should seem inevitable.
Anything less would be cheating.
Maegan Beaumont is the author of the award-winning Sabrina Vaughn thriller series. Her debut novel, Carved in Darkness was awarded the 2014 gold medal by Independent Publishers for outstanding thriller as well as being named a Forward, book of the year finalist and a debut novel of the year by Suspense Magazine. She also writes hot, contemporary romance as USA Today bestselling author and evil twin, Megyn Ward. When she isn’t locked in her office, torturing her protagonists, she’s busy chasing chickens (and kids), hanging laundry, and burning dinner. Either way, she is almost always in the company of her eleven dogs, her truest and most faithful companions and her almost as faithful husband, Joe. Look for her latest, The Darkwater Girls, to be released in the fall of 2021 through Bookouture.