Have you ever been happily reading through a book and then all of a sudden felt strange and had to stop? Have you ever been watching a movie and you feel suddenly jarred out of the movie and you become keenly aware of the seat, the people around you, and the crap stuck to your shoe? Most of the time, these aren’t random events. This happens, whether we’re conscious of it or not, because someone in a scene has committed one of 3 illegal acts. Committing one of these illegal acts will cause immediate discomfort for the reader or viewer.
The three biggest offenders that will ruin your scenes are: Acts Against Motivation, Acts Against Rules, and Acts Against Soul.
Acts Against Motivation
An act against motivation is pretty self-explanatory. This is when a person (not a character, I hate calling them that. They are fictional people, characters are mockeries or shadows of people) does something in a scene either without visible motivation or worse, against their current motivation. Huge offenders in this category include a lot of fantasy. In many fantasy tales, characters go off on these world-saving epic quests without ever being properly motivated. For a lot of people this can be overlooked, but for some, seeing some farm boy leave home and everything he holds dear without proper motivation is a huge turn-off and enough to put the book down.
Every single thing every person in your story does needs to be motivated. They shouldn’t eat if they’re not hungry, they shouldn’t fight if someone in their position wouldn’t fight. When people move from scene to scene in a story without ever being properly motivated, what you have is a thin plot. Movies often take short cuts in the motivation area because they simply don’t have time to build up the proper motivation and most moviegoers accept that. A 700-page epic fantasy, however, should be rife with motivation and you, as the reader, should never ever doubt why a character did what they did (unless the author wants you to doubt it… but authors that can do that don’t have to worry about spinning motivation properly as they’ve already mastered it).
So next time you put down a book and have that strange, unidentifiable feeling of “this sucks but I don’t know why”, ask yourself if someone in the book just did something without any clear reason for doing so other than furthering the contrivance of a flimsy plot.
Acts Against Rules
This one is far more subtle. The more complacent the reader or viewer, the harder it is to spot these problems. Every world, fictional or real, has an internal set of rules that govern everything that can or cannot take place in that world. In the real world, these rules are simple: the laws of physics, quantum mechanics, chemistry, etc are the rules that everyone and everything must obey. In a fictional world, however, there is usually a second set of rules. These rules dictate how magic works, or what level of technology exists in the science fiction world, how strong people are, what the average person can do versus what the protagonists and other heroes can do. If someone in your scene violates the world’s internal rule set, everyone will immediately know it. The reaction may range from almost no reaction whatsoever to outright rage.
A standard plot tactic to enrich a story often involves hindering the protagonist somehow at the behest of the antagonist. The classic “villain traps the hero” scenario. This, unfortunately, is also where a lot of stories violate their own internal rules. Let’s say you have a character that is a master thief. This character is then captured and placed in an ordinary prison cell. Your brain expects that thief to break out of that cell and, if written well enough, you might even have been in suspense waiting for that thief to break out. However, if the author leaves the thief to rot in the cell while someone else breaks them out, you will feel disappointed. This is because the world rules were violated: thieves, especially protagonist thieves, can break out of ordinary confines.
Here’s another example. Let’s say J.K. Rowling throws Harry Potter with his wand into a locked room in a muggle house. If Harry were to spend more than 30 seconds confined in that room against his will, we would all feel disappointed because we know the rules, and we know that a muggle door is no match for a wand.
World rules can be an author’s worst enemy but they can also be a huge ally. Think about this: take that same ordinary prison cell and lock someone like Gandalf up in it. When the reader sees Gandalf not escape, the reader is likely to start thinking that something else, something bigger and more epic might be at play. The reader, knowing Gandalf’s true power and position in the universe, is probably thinking that Gandalf has something up his sleeve. None of that has to be explicitly told to the reader, the reader will guess that something is amiss because world rules were intentionally violated, or at least, appeared to be.
I’m going to leave this topic cut off here because I could spend several additional blog posts on the topic of world rules alone. Suffice it to say that if you trap superman in a wooden box and there’s no kryptonite around, your readers will stop reading.
Acts Against Soul
This one on the surface might look like an act against motivation but if you think about all of the times in all of the books where this comes up, a character often has to choose between the direction of motivation and the direction of their soul.
If someone in your story does something that is so completely against their true, inner nature then you run the risk of jarring readers out of your world and back into the real world. If you see a highly moral character turn and suddenly start butchering innocent women and children, there’s a problem. If a character who has consistently made choices to never sacrifice the innocent suddenly chooses a selfish path that hurts everyone around him, it can cause problems and halt the reader.
On the other hand, if you deliberately make one of your characters do something against their true nature, you can, if done properly, use that to great effect. This is often called “hanging a lantern”. In other words, if you’re going to break a world rule (or commit one of the 3 illegal acts), you’d better hang a lantern on that fact so the reader knows you’re intentionally doing it and that it isn’t the result of you being a terrible author.
In my opinion, the scene in one of the (bad) Star Wars movies where Anakin kills all the kids in the school is a classic rule breaker. In fact, it breaks all three illegal acts in a single scene. First, it breaks the “Acts Against Soul” rule. I don’t care how much propaganda he’d been filled with, it should take a LOT more than we saw to convince a Jedi learner to murder innocent kids. Second, it violates the “Acts Against Motivation” rule. There is absolutely no clear motivation for him to kill the kids. You can tell in a blatantly obvious way that particular scene is nothing more than a contrivance to get the plot from point A to point B. Everything in that scene is a rule breaker. Finally, that scene also violates the “Acts Against Rules” rule. Given everything that everybody knows about Jedi, the Jedi homeworld, and everything they’ve seen up to that point, the fact that a pile of guards doesn’t immediately rip Anakin to bits once they discover what he’s doing is just inconceivable.
So, in conclusion, I always keep these three “illegal acts” in mind when writing a scene. Before I edit a single piece of grammar, spelling, or writing style, I double-check the scene to make sure that everyone is acting in accordance to the world rules, to their inner core, and to their motivation. If a character isn’t motivated or is otherwise breaking rules, I re-work the scene. To me, breaking any of these three rules means I don’t have a scene and I need to fix it immediately.