The Ends Justify the Means)
The 1960 film The Magnificent Seven opens on a town being taken advantage of by Calvera, the head of a notorious gang of bandits. Calvera has the local farmers waiting on him hand and foot, takes from them whatever he desires, and when one of the farmers charges at him with a cutlass, Calvera guns him down in cold blood.
Honestly, it’s a weak opening to the film. The story needs us to despise Calvera so we approve of the fight that will soon be brought against him, but he is such a caricature of moustache-twirling evil that things almost stray into the realm of satire.
Interestingly, though, the film has a sort of second opening, and it plays much better. Immediately following the scene with Calvera, we go to a totally different town, where a newcomer named Chris Adams observes a bit of a conundrum. A dead man has been prepared for burial and loaded into a hearse, but no one will drive it because that man is an Indian, and there is a gang of men prepared to shoot anyone who tries to bring him into a “white man’s” cemetery. Chris volunteers to take the job and succeeds after a small exchange of bullets.
Unlike with Calvera’s introduction, the film wastes very little time establishing character motivations. The bad-guys are racist and Chris is principled. Taking more time to hammer in those single-dimensional aspects would only weigh things down. Instead, it establishes these facts as quickly as possible and then proceeds with the action.
Shortly after this scene a contingent of farmers from the first town approach Chris and briefly tell him how bad of a man Calvera is, and how they would like to hire him to defend their village. And honestly, that brief description of Calvera’s evil would have been enough for the audience to accept their cause as just. The actual first scene could have been cut out entirely, and the motivation of the film’s conflict would not have been any weaker for it.
We are often told to “show, not tell” in our writing, but that doesn’t mean we should over-show.
And while one might think that the inciting incident which launches our heroes into their adventure is extremely important and must be extensively established, the evidence on the matter suggests otherwise.
Trust Me, There Are Reasons)
Luke Skywalker yearns to join the fight against the Empire, but what but what justification we do have for this desire? Simply that the empire is…vaguely evil. We have an opening scene that shows how the Empire aggressively pursues its objectives with no regard for human life, but the film doesn’t delve any further into the tyranny’s motivations or history.
Who is behind the empire? How did they come into power? Why are their methods so severe? We never are told. Several of these questions were later explored in future entries, but in 1977 audiences didn’t really care. The Empire was bad and that was enough.
Frodo Baggins decides to destroy the ring so that Sauron won’t be able to use it to enslave the hearts of men anymore. But how exactly does the ring pull on the desires of men? Why does Sauron choose to warp men’s hearts toward evil? What warped his own heart in such a way?
Again, some answers were later published in The Silmarillion, but these were not necessary to get readers to buy into Frodo’s quest. It was enough just to know that Sauron was evil and needed to be stopped.
Why does Goldfinger value gold over human life? Why is Voldemort a genocidal racist? Why is Amon Goeth a psychopath? Why isn’t Jafar content being the Sultan’s vizier?
It doesn’t matter why; we just need to know that they are. Yes, these characters are strongly motivated in these ways, and their being so is essential to the story, but strong and essential does not necessarily mean requiring detail or embellishment. In each of these examples the story tellers understood that these core characters’ motivations could be understood in simple terms, and therefore did not linger unnecessarily on them.
What Does Matter?)
Simple motivations only require simple explanations, but most stories will move from the simple to the complex. A character that pushes into their adventure for basic reasons is eventually challenged, and they only persevere by finding deeper motivations, ones which take more time to express.
Take, for example, Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. When we first meet him, he is a surly, cynical thief. His motivation for being so is that he stole food in a moment of desperation, and was then beaten down by the law for a solid nineteen years. Thus, he has powerful, yet easily explainable reasons for why he is the way that he is.
But then his soul is reclaimed, and it all begins when a priest is unexpectedly merciful to him. The transformation that Valjean goes through is complex and narratively significant, and so several large scenes are spent in developing it. By the end of his transformation he has an entirely new personality driven by entirely new motivations that we have been made to thoroughly understand.
But this isn’t the end of his journey. Valjean then meets an opponent in Javert, a former guard who knows Valjean’s history and wishes to pull him back into the identity of a criminal. To resist this, Valjean needs even more motivation, and this is given to him in his relationships to Fantine and her daughter, which relationships are established and developed over many chapters.
Thus, if you were to ask me the reasons why Valjean is cynical and jaded at the beginning of his tale I can explain it to you in a sentence or two. But if you were to ask me the reasons why he became a man reborn and held to that until the very end…well, to explain that I’d have to tell you an entire story. The story of Les Miserables.
My Own Motivations)
In my latest story I introduced a team of hunters who were attempting a dangerous catch. I needed to provide a motivation for them to be engaging in this dangerous practice, but I didn’t want to linger overly long on what that reason was.
I took a brief moment in my last chapter to explain that they are performing this hunt to try and preserve their community which is dying. Did I dive into why the community is dying and in what ways this hunt will counteract that? No, because those are unnecessary details. Once we know that there is a real reason for them to be here, that is enough.
But I don’t want that to be the whole reason that they stay here. I want their initial motivations to be challenged and new motivations to be developed. That is what will give my story its essence. So, when I post the next chapter on Wednesday, I’m going to start challenging those basic reasons that I have already given and ask my characters to give me something more.