The PushmePullyou of Story

Do you get bogged down in the middle of your story?  Do you have half-finished novels on your hard drive? For me the answer is “yes” to both questions.

Yeah , but how do they… Overthinking, overthinking…

The key to driving through the middle is the PushmePullyou of story: Goals and Motivation.

Goal is the “what” of the story.

Motivation is the “why” of the story.

You’re probably thinking I’ll use Dr. Dolittle as the example here, where the PushmePullyou two-headed llama comes from, but instead I’ll fall back on my standby example, The Wizard of Oz.

Once we get through the black and white beginning and into the second act in color, Dorothy’s goal is to get to the Emerald City and the Wizard of Oz.

Her motive is also her chief characteristic. She’s worried about Auntie Em and wants to help. Dorothy’s driving characteristic is her desire to help and it’s key to understanding why she ran away. On the farm, she has chores, but no one to help. To help Toto, she runs away. Her concern for her Aunt drives her from the Dr. Marvel’s wagon back to the farm through a tornado, which doesn’t (or does) turn out well for her.

Glinda gives Dorothy her goal, which sets her path, conveniently on the Yellow Brick Road. Soon, where anyone else would be terrified of a living Scarecrow, she quickly helps him. Then she goes against Scarecrow’s advice and oils Tin Man. She comes to their aid when they’re attacked by a Lion, then to his aid when he’s found to be cowardly.

In fact, whenever things get slow, a problem requiring her help appears. And something else happens, her expectations of Oz are constantly confounded. Apple trees are alive, animals talk, inanimate objects animate… She learns that perhaps she’s also failed to see what was always there back home.

That’s what she had to discover by finding her way to the Emerald City… that there is no place like home.

When I saw this as a kid, maybe 6 years old, I couldn’t understand why she’d go back. My dad said, “Because they’re no place like home.” I looked around and said, “I’d stay in Oz.” I hadn’t learned that lesson.

In the book, Dorothy was 12. In the movie, Dorothy is 16, so staying wouldn’t be unthinkable. So why didn’t she?

It’s important to recognize that Dorothy was flawed. It isn’t obvious. She has a skewed belief, not recognizing the value of home. She’s naïve and has much to learn.

A movie is generally paired way down. There is much more going on in a book; more story lines, more flaws, greater depth. Goals are what the character wants and that may be a counterpoint to what others want, producing conflict. Goals keep the story on track. Motivation is why a character wants what she wants. It may be an untrue or underdeveloped motivation, or it may be something that needs to be changed or completely left behind. It drives the fundamental characteristic. Dorothy was all about helping. Your character may be about solving puzzles, winning at all costs, being liked, getting drunk.

If you’re bogged down in the middle, ask yourself if your character is flawed enough, if you’ve discovered her driving characteristic, if you know what needs to be changed, learned, or left behind. How do you illustrate that change? What problems push learning? Perhaps a conflicting character is needed.

In Save the Cat, Snyder calls the second act Fun ‘n Games. It isn’t, though. Your second act is a finely crafted obstacle course designed to sharpen motivation, change character, correct flaws, and gain what the character needs to enter the third act.

Why does your character do what she does; what is she supposed to achieve? Establish these in the beginning and demonstrate them in the middle.

Next week, Endings.

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