THE BLOG
01/16/2014 02:37 pm ET | Updated Mar 18, 2014

BUT, NOT AND: The Three Letter Word that Helps the Writer Best

In the years I've been teaching playwriting and writing fiction, I've set up a series of warnings that have helped me and students to get on the track again when we've slipped off. One of those warnings has to do with motivation -- which I always hope will be complex, but which sometimes gets muddy with that complexity. It seems often when I've asked a student why a character does something, and that student gives me several reasons, the script is usually not working. I have found this in my own work many times. A string of motivations is a way of not making a decision. The word "and" is a dangerous word.

The question -- in our for instance -- is: "Why does Matt leave home?"

The answers are several: "Well, he doesn't much get along with his parents, and he always liked a city better than a small town, and he would like to be a musician and might meet some other people who could help if he leaves home, and there is a woman he is interested in who lives in the city."

In life, this is a reasonable set of complications. In terms of storytelling, it can make everything muddy. Notice how many motives Matt has, how many "ands."

"But," it seems to me, works better. The full complement of reasons doesn't have to go away. In fact it doesn't. The motives only need to be rearranged, some becoming subsidiary. In almost every circumstance, the person writing a story or play will get more mileage out of one major motive, and one major obstacle. Matt wants to leave home to make a music career in the big city, "but" his parents are getting frail, and they need him.

Notice he can still not get along with his parents as well as would be ideal. That would make things complex. Good. He can still love the city. And there might still be a possibility of romance for him. Those don't go away. They, more or less, "ride along with" the major motivations.

This problem of a multiplicity of motivations is a recurring situation for writers. The problem is that more (more reasons) at first seems better, but is not. The scenes are likely to lose focus, and the writer is negating the plus point of adding new inspirations along the way. What if, for instance, in your equivalent of Act II, the parents are tugging just as the new woman comes onto the scene. More pull in each direction, more conflict.

While I always counsel spending freely instead of hoarding material, with the idea that hoarding will build suspense (this is often just false withholding), I also believe in the case of motives or intentions that one strong motive is worth five paler ones. It's fun to watch feelings grow and morph over time, gathering momentum. It's one of the fascinating aspects of story.

If you believe, as I do, that you should be able to state the premise in a single sentence, and if you are in danger of defending an action with too many "ands," try "but," not "and."

Kathleen George is the author of A Measure of Blood, just out. Previous novels are: Taken, Fallen, AfterImage, The Odds (Edgar finalist for Best Novel). Hideout, and Simple. She is also the editor of Pittsburgh Noir. For more, go to www.kathleengeorge.com