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The motivation behind the motivation

Chicken crossing the road

I had a reading of my show a few weeks ago, which is about a tailor who joins in the Prague Uprising of 1848, and one of the actors asked a devastating question:

Why does Jaroslav join the revolution? Why? He seems to have a comfortable life. Why not just stay at home?

It was devastating because I didn’t have a good answer. I mean, it fits the protagonist’s character that he joined in the revolution — he’s politically-conscious, impulsive, and lives in an unjust society — but that doesn’t quite explain why he’d risk life and limb to join a revolution when his own position in society is pretty comfortable.

It made me realise that I’d done a good job of being able to answer the clichéd actor’s question, What’s my motivation?, in that it was clear that the characters did what they did to get what they want, but that I obviously hadn’t done a good enough job of working out why the characters want what they want — what I’ll call the motivation behind the motivation.

I’d done a better job for some characters more than others. For instance, if I kept on asking Why? of Epstein’s motivation I could answer the question easily:

What does Epstein want?

To get paid.


Because he wants to pay off his debts.


Because he doesn’t want to go bust.


Because he wants to be able to support his family.


Because he loves them, and wants to provide them with security, which he never had growing up.


Because his parents emigrated from Russia.


Because of anti-Semitism.

The fact that I kept on being able to answer the Why? questions so easily for that character probably explains why I find him so easy to write.

And it might seem like overkill — surely I could have stopped at Because he wants to pay off his debts, because doesn’t everyone want to pay off their debts? But being able to answer the Why? questions to such depth is useful because it allowed me to put in a throwaway joke when Epstein’s getting out of a dress the protagonist made him wear (it’s a very silly play in many ways): I can’t believe my parents emigrated from Russia for this. It adds depth and tragedy to a comic moment, making it funnier and giving the feeling of the play existing in a complete universe rather than a hermetically-sealed box.

(Of course, just because I know the answers to these questions doesn’t mean that I have to put that information in the script. I just think it’s important for me to know the answers. If a character feels inferior because their parents were peasants whereas their girlfriend’s were middle class, it affects how they ask for a cup of tea.)

So for the latest redraft I’ve kept on asking Why? for every character in every scene, and already answering those questions is solving structural problems.

Keep on asking Why?.


This has caused me to spot another parallel between playwriting and composing:

Sometimes people say to me, I think I’m really musical, I hear symphonies in my head, and they probably are musically-inclined, but I want to say, Really? How many different notes are in the 2nd chord? Can you hum the bass under the 3rd phrase?. These questions are hard to answer. A large part of the process of becoming a composer is training yourself to imagine in high-definition.

With each significant rewrite of my show I feel like I become a better writer, and part of that process is training myself to imagine in higher resolution. I can picture the farce in my head. Really? How would the protagonist persuade his girlfriend to get a cake? How would he phrase it? Why would she comply?