Hide the Motivation

What holds people’s interest is a mystery and the best way to create a mystery is to hide a character’s motivation. Instead, show the character’s actions and make it a mystery as to why the character behaves that way. Then as the story gradually progresses, you reveal hints of the character’s motivation until the real answer appears for maximum emotional impact.

Although “Trolls” is a decent animation film, it hides the motivation of the main character well. In “Trolls,” there’s a grumpy troll who’s always pessimistic despite being surrounded by so many happy trolls. Initially his behavior just seems odd, but eventually we learn that he’s grumpy because he’s actually sad since he lost his grandmother to a monster while singing cheerfully away. His grandmother rushes to save him but got caught by the monster. Ever since then, the troll has become grumpy and pessimistic.

In “Casablanca,” the hero, Rick, is moody and distant with an attitude of not caring about anyone but himself. Only later after he meets Ilsa, the woman he loved, do we finally understand his motivation because of his affair with her. When he planned to leave with her, she broke his heart by failing to show up. He thought she didn’t love him as much as he loved her, but he later learns that she did it because she discovered her husband was really alive after all and she did still love him.

In “Source Code,” the hero is tasked with finding a bomber by constantly being sent back to the same eight minutes before a bomb blows up a train. His motivation initially stems from being a good soldier, but later it turns out that he’s actually motivated by wanting to make up to his father after leaving on bad terms and not being able to talk to him one last time. So much of his motivation stems from regret from not making the most of life when he had the chance.

Take any good movie and you’ll find a main character’s motivation initially hidden. In nearly every good movie, the mentor’s motivation is hidden because it’s based on redeeming themselves from a past mistake. In “The Karate Kid,” the karate teacher lost his wife, so part of his motivation is to redeem himself in his own eyes that he’s not a bad person after all.

Think of any of your main characters and hide their motivation. This will make tier actions seem mysterious and curious, and then as hints appear, audiences will actively start putting the pieces together until they learn the final reason for the character’s motivation. Then they’ll be ready to see how the character redeems him or herself.

Hide the motivation. It’s an effective tool for creating a mystery that audiences will want to discover as the story goes on.

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