Posted On February 24, 2017 by Print This Post

The Secret Driver by Laurie Schnebly Campbell

Whom what, when, where and why. Questions you ask yourself for each book you start. Sometimes the answers are clear as a bell, other times, well you just don’t know where your characters are going or why. And here’s Laurie Schnebly Campbell to help you find out how to answer those questions!

Your characters might think they know where they’re going.

They set out to reach London, and they have a pretty good idea of how long the trip will take. Whether they’re driving themselves or letting someone else do it, they feel confident they’ll reach London around the desired time unless something unexpected happens along the way.

Being a reader as well as a writer, you’re already suspecting something WILL happen…right? Otherwise the characters would get to London just fine, and there wouldn’t be much of a story.

So does that mean every story requires something like a train wreck? (I’ll admit, I’ve used that myself.) Or the unexpected return of a lost love, or an alien invasion, or a secret baby (okay, I’ve used that one too)?




There’s nothing wrong with such things. But they’re sure not the ONLY events that can make a story work.

What makes the biggest difference in how well they work — and in whether you even need them — is:

Who’s Driving the Train

Ideally, that’ll be your characters. Because otherwise, if they’re being driven by circumstances willy-nilly from beginning to end, why would we CARE what happens? If an iron-dragging robot has no volition of its own, and never acquires any, there won’t be much for readers to get excited about.

We’d rather read about robots who decide to move beyond their circumstances.

Your characters might not (yet) realize they’re at the helm of their own story, which is okay at the beginning of a book. They might view themselves as essentially powerless, only to discover — once they start choosing to take action — that’s not the case after all.

Or they might start Chapter One with no doubt they’re in the driver’s seat, since they have total control over their billion-dollar business. (Although perhaps very little over their teenager.)

Either way, what matters is the character’s inner drive.


We’re All Driven by Something

Some people know exactly what’s driving them:

“I’ve gotta be the best chef in Paris.”


“I need to make up for my younger brother’s death.”

“I want my children born outside of slavery.”

“I want the neighbors to like me.”

Others have no idea what it is, but if you asked ‘em “what’s driving you?” they’d come up with some sort of answer. It might be absolutely on target, or it might be part of the truth yet not the whole truth, or it might be wildly off base but the best thing they can come up with at the moment.

It’s okay if your characters aren’t sure how to answer, or if their answer is completely wrong. They don’t need to know what’s REALLY driving ‘em. (At least not yet.)


But you do.

Why? Because that’s what makes ‘em:

The Kind of Person They Are

And the kind of person they are is going to determine how they react to whatever happens in the story. Whether it’s a train wreck, a secret baby, a lost love or an alien invasion, each character is going to respond differently.




Why? Because of what’s been driving them long before Chapter One ever began.

What is it? What do they need, way deep down, to be Okay?

That’s what we call motivation. When you hear about Goal, Motivation & Conflict, motivation is the easiest one to skip past — because far too often, it gets confused with the goal.

“She wants to marry the prince.”

Okay, that’s a perfectly good goal. And what’s her motivation for wanting to marry the prince?


Well, maybe she’d like to live in a castle.

Or she wants him to spare her tribe.

Or her sister the smart one gets all the acclaim.

Or she dreams of gaining votes for women.

Or she’s always fancied a diamond tiara.

You could build a story around any of those desires, but you see what a difference this character’s motivation will make? The story inspired by somebody who wants a diamond will be completely unlike that of somebody who wants to win votes for women.


Neither one is a bad story, but each of those characters who wants to marry a prince will run into different challenges. Which is true even if — and this is a BIG “even if” —

The Prince is the Exact Same Guy

That’s because the greatest challenges, especially in a romance, come not from the external goal but from within the characters themselves.

So how do each of your main characters’ motivations help create a problem?

Some writers know that before they ever begin Chapter One. Some discover it as they’re polishing the final chapter. If you love the method you’re currently using, by all means stick with it.

But if you sometimes feel like your plotting doesn’t go quite as smoothly as you’d like it to, it’s probably because you’re having trouble with consistent, sustained motivation.

And motivation always comes down to who’s driving the train. What’s making your character want what they want, dream of what they dream of, wish for what they wish for?


What’s making ‘em feel like:

“If Only I _____, Then Life Will Be Better”

Sometimes that fill-in-the-blank word is a motivation so close to their goal, it’s hard to tell which one you’re looking at.

Either way, though, you need SOME word to fill in that blank. And since goal and motivation work equally well for getting started, that’s my question for you today.

(Plus, if at least 25 people fill in the blank, one of ‘em will win free registration to “Plotting Via Motivation” from March 6-31 at

So, the prize-drawing question:

How would one of your characters, either from the work in progress or an earlier one or a story yet to come, fill in the “If only I _____, then life will be better” blank?

I’ll let you know this weekend if you won!


Join us next Monday for Jane Austen as a Literary Influence by Marilyn Brant


BIO: Laurie Schnebly Campbell was amazed when she totaled the number of people who, over the past five years, have credited “Plotting Via Motivation” for their first sale and discovered it was 28. She’s hoping to see that number get bigger this year.

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88 Responses to “The Secret Driver by Laurie Schnebly Campbell”

  1. Hi Laurie,

    I love the example you gave in the post: “I want my children born outside of slavery.” *grin*

    For one of my current WIPs Mary Lou wants to be reunited with her sister. If that happens, her life will be better.

    Posted by Haley Whitehall | February 24, 2017, 1:09 am
  2. Hi Laurie,

    Great post as usual. In my current WIP, the Hero thinks,

    If only I could get over the past, life would be better. (And since the Heroine is a part of that complicated past as well as the present, it’s not going to happen in a hurry! 🙂


    Posted by Adite Banerjie | February 24, 2017, 2:22 am
  3. Wonderful post! You really helped get me thinking about the importance of getting inside your character in order to truly bring them to life! My current WIP’s character is If I could only forgive my Father for walking out I could start to trust the men in my life and finally find love.


    Posted by Margie Hall | February 24, 2017, 5:37 am
  4. Great post, loved the examples.

    In the ms I am currently plotting my heroine is caring for her orphaned cousin. If only I could have a child with my husband then I could have the family I’ve always wanted. She was an orphan too.


    Posted by Tracey Turner | February 24, 2017, 5:48 am
  5. Wonderful post, Laurie! And I hope you’re counting me and my “Riley” as one of your 28 success stories. Plotting Via Motivation helped me–a total panster–pull together my characters and their motivations into a cohesive story aka plot. Before your class they were wandering around in the dark and now Rescuing Riley will be a January 2018 release from Harlequin Special Edition!!

    Posted by Carrie Nichols | February 24, 2017, 6:20 am
  6. Laurie, yet again, you hit the proverbial nail on its head! I don’t know how you always manage to find fresh material and a slant others missed.

    This is a timely post as I wrestle with making my characters more engaging. Your clear examples and practical suggestions are only part of what makes you a great teachers.

    Posted by Sharon Moore | February 24, 2017, 6:49 am
  7. If only I “knew I was strong enough.” When its something like this — less easily seen than freeing a child from slaavery — how do you effectively show that achievement? I realize there’s no one way…just looking for ideas…

    Posted by Lisa Heidinger | February 24, 2017, 7:17 am
    • Lisa, that’s a great example of a bookend — because at the beginning, the character probably won’t yet KNOW this is their driving desire, so we’ll get to see that realization dawn over the course of the book. (We readers will discover it first, of course.) Then at the end, discovering “I -am- strong enough” will be all the more of a triumph!

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | February 24, 2017, 7:24 am
  8. Hi, Laurie. My poor hero. His motivation is to stay away from any relationships. So he’d say, If only people would leave me alone, life would be perfect.

    Posted by Stephanie Berget | February 24, 2017, 7:20 am
    • Steph, my heart goes out to this hero — it’s so easy to appreciate his desire for being alone, AND to envision how unsatisfying that wish will actually be when he gets it, not to mention how flummoxed he’ll be when being left alone doesn’t make him as happy as he expected. 🙂

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | February 24, 2017, 7:27 am
  9. Laurie, Great info as usual. It’s easy to think I know what drives my characters as I do an outline. But sometimes they change course without my decision. Then I lose what I think is driving them or motivating them. I can see I need to keep better control of my characters. Thanks for the tips.

    Posted by Roz Fox | February 24, 2017, 7:40 am
  10. Nice clarification of the difference between goal and motivation, and the possibilities of different motivations – thanks. I’ll play…in one of my drafts, a bus driver who considers herself a failed actor believes “If only I get this part, then life will be better.”

    Posted by Bethany Rose Artin | February 24, 2017, 8:13 am
  11. in my experience, in most cases what is truly driving a person’s behaviour can be somewhat subconscious almost knee-jerk reactions to external situations. Habits and methods of attempting to control the outside situation that were developed long ago that the person has forgotten about. Since they are mostly unconscious while this inner faulty solution version of themselves is driving the bus, they don’t always recognize that behaviour that seemed to solve their problems long ago no longer works for them in the adult world. Thus we have a story.

    Posted by Eva Lefoy | February 24, 2017, 8:50 am
  12. I echo Sharon’s comment: A fresh way to look at something becomes more rare when you’ve been studying for over 20 years! So I loved this post.

    I also love when you pose a question like this and it validates that I’m doing something right because I can answer it. LOL

    In one of my WIPs, the heroine would answer “If only I could let go of my dead fiancé and move forward.” The hero doesn’t think he can fill in the blank, but his actions prove his desperation to redeem his past.

    Posted by Natalie Damschroder | February 24, 2017, 8:56 am
  13. I have a character who was a prisoner of war in a Nazi concentration camp whose answer would be “if only I can ensure justice for others, then life will be better.

    His problem is that he discovers that what constitutes justice isn’t the same for everyone, and what masquerades as justice might be anything but.

    Posted by Heather Jackson | February 24, 2017, 8:58 am
  14. Well, you already know how much I love, love, love your classes. I remember your suggestion for digging deep by asking, “why” until I got to the root of what motivated my characters. In the book I worked on in your class, here’s how I’d answer the question:
    “If only I could tell him the truth about my baby, then life would be better.”
    Yes, that’s from my dumpster baby novel which should be published this July!
    Thanks, Laurie.

    Posted by Patricia Yager Delagrange | February 24, 2017, 9:26 am
  15. Hi Laurie,

    My emotionally detached hero was rescued from a miserable life when his grandfather took him to live with him as a young teen. Now his grandfather is very ill and doesn’t seem to have any fight left in him.

    Hero who feels indebted to his grandfather for rescuing him all those years ago (but can’t acknowledge he loves him) thinks: “If only I can do something to give my grandfather the will to live then life will be better”

    It’s a goal for someone else, though rather than something for himself. I should probably keep asking why? until I find a more selfish reason behind his goal. 🙂

    Posted by Janet Ch | February 24, 2017, 9:28 am
  16. You know Laurie, I’ve been taking your classes for how long? Heard you speak often, yet the light bulbs still go off and you’ve cleared the fog for me. Yesterday I struggled with my hero in a new WIP. I have 1/2 a chapter written and lots of mental images flitting through my head. Something clicked when I read “If only I_____, then life will be better.” My character said clear as a bell: “If only I could save Scotland, then life would be better.”

    Thanks Laurie! You saved me muddling through my stream-of-conscious writing!

    Posted by Gina Conkle | February 24, 2017, 9:44 am
  17. Hi Laurie!
    What a great post and I loved your examples.

    Mine is from my currently stalled WIP about an ex-Green Beret who is trying to figure out who set up his unit, left them dishonorably discharged, and in prison. Except he’s on the run, in hiding, with no money, weapons, or help. And he has a slight addiction to anti-seizure meds from an injury the night his unit was ambushed and set up.

    “If only I could save my men, then life will be better”

    Posted by Sharon Wray | February 24, 2017, 9:47 am
  18. Terrific post, Laurie. I will be using the fill-in-the-blank example – such a great way to make characters specific and keep moving them forward.
    Thank you!

    Posted by Nan McNamara | February 24, 2017, 9:58 am
  19. Hi Laurie,

    Happy day! I love it when I log into my email and find a post from you. Such helpful information.
    So glad I took your workshop because it’s helping me along through the revision of my second draft for a regency romance. I can ask the question you pose–and even answer it, mostly.
    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    Posted by Elaine S Bedigian | February 24, 2017, 10:17 am
  20. Morning Laurie…

    I have to tell everyone, in case they haven’t heard me say it before! but your PVM class is the best I’ve ever taken. I learned so much, and still go through the notes!

    The latest idea – which is barely a glimmer – for a book I have is “If only I could make everyone happy, then life will be better”

    Is that too vague? She’s trying so hard to make everyone else happy, and then she’d be free to be happy too…

    Just tossing that out there…


    Lovely to see you as always Laurie!


    Posted by Carrie Peters | February 24, 2017, 10:22 am
    • Carrie, that’s a great glimmer for starting a story — you remember the one-sentence idea, right? “Making everyone happy” will be stronger if she’s got specific people in mind with specific steps needed to ensure their happiness, even though we already know those steps won’t QUITE work out the way she envisions…

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | February 24, 2017, 10:58 am
  21. Hi, Laurie,

    Great post, as always! I loved this class when I took it, because I love poking around in characters’ heads to figure out what makes them tick.

    My character’s answer to that statement would be, “If only I can make sure my house stays at the center of my world, then life will be better.” It may sound like an odd motivating statement, but she’s a woman who was frequently homeless as a child.

    Posted by Linda Fletcher | February 24, 2017, 10:31 am
  22. Hello Laurie,
    Thanks for the great post – your fill-in-the-blank is the perfect, one-sentence way for making sure the motivation is lining up with the goal and conflict. In my WIP, my hero, Zach’s, motivation is: If only I could feel I was doing the honourable thing, then life would be better (because, of course, for most of the story, neither being with the heroine or not being with the heroine feel entirely honourable.)

    Posted by Laurel Greer | February 24, 2017, 10:35 am
  23. Can’t wait to start your PVM class. I just have to choose which WIP to tackle!

    The main character in my historical romance would say, “If only I felt loved again, then life would be better.”

    Posted by Jackie Marilla | February 24, 2017, 10:47 am
  24. Thanks, Laurie, for a great post. I haven’t written fiction in quite a while, but recently my characters started talking to me again. Your question “If only I _____, then life will be better” triggered a new plot twist for me. I plan on getting back to this story over the long, hot summer. You’re information and insights are always so helpful!

    Posted by Pegster | February 24, 2017, 11:34 am
  25. Laurie, whenever I read your posts, it’s like a new shot of motivation for my muse. Loved this. For my wip, my hero values honesty above all else. As a bodyguard, his life, the lives of others – and the safety of his client – depend on it. The Heroine, however, has some secrets and that’s pitting them against each other. So…for my hero..

    “If only I get her to reveal the whole truth, then life will be better”

    A past lie from a past client cost the life of an innocent. There’s no way my hero’s life will be better without all the facts so he can act on them with confidence. And now I’m going back into my wip with my own confidence. Thank you, Laurie!

    Posted by Debora Dale | February 24, 2017, 11:40 am
  26. I just have a hint of an idea. Finn is a privateer. If only he acquired enough money to make restitution for his father’s crimes then his life would be better.

    Posted by Shiloh Saddler | February 24, 2017, 11:54 am
  27. Hm, the fact I’m having trouble answering this question for some of my characters speaks volumes! I’m going to have to check back…off to go wrestle some information from them.

    Posted by Rowan Worth | February 24, 2017, 12:12 pm
    • Rowan, you’ve absolutely got the right idea going back to wrestle some info out of those characters. And, heck, who can blame ’em for not revealing it readily? Not many of us WOULD answer that question from an author we don’t know very well yet. Although it says a lot about the character of someone who would…

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | February 24, 2017, 12:47 pm
  28. “If only Rene would become my friend, life would be better. I could forget that Mom is a total drunk and my brother is a loser drug-dealer. The parties my brother throws, and the men Mom brings home after bar close-up will all disappear. Rene will make everything better for me because his life is already perfect. He doesn’t have any problems. How can he when he’s from the richest and most powerful family on the reserve?”– Billy, from my drafted ms.

    Posted by Mercy | February 24, 2017, 1:05 pm
    • Mercy, wow, it’s wonderfully revealing that you’ve got Billy’s thoughts so well organized. I like how he’s saying them almost formally, as if he’s wishing on a star or making a request of Santa, because that shows he doesn’t yet realize HE can make his dreams come true. Which is a great way to get us on his side at the start!

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | February 24, 2017, 1:23 pm
  29. You sure know how to ask the tough questions! I thought I knew what my hero’s motivation was, but now I see I wasn’t. And I like this much better:

    If only I could tell my co-workers I see ghosts, then life will be better.

    My hero is a homicide detective, so he knows he can’t tell anyone because he’d be laughed out of the precinct, even with his track record. Deep down he doesn’t feel like he’s all that good because he always has ghostly help. What better way to torment him than to give him a ghost who won’t tell who killed him.

    So thank you for that little sentence. I think it’ll help me move further in my story now. 🙂

    Posted by Stacy McKitrick | February 24, 2017, 1:13 pm
  30. Hi Laurie

    Another great post on how character motivation is the plot for romance.

    When the heroine wants something so badly that she’ll sacrifice almost anything to get it, and the hero wants more than anything else to thwart her reaching her goal, then motivation equals conflict equals romantic plot.

    Love your learning posts.


    Posted by Alison Hentges | February 24, 2017, 1:43 pm
    • Alison, isn’t it fun deciding what makes them want what they want? (Other than, for instance, “she’s greedy” and “he’s a jerk.” 🙂 ) Even more fun is figuring out how such attitudes complicate their lives in OTHER ways, unrelated to one another…because then, wow, do they ever seem real!

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | February 24, 2017, 1:52 pm
  31. Hi Laurie,

    I know if I don’t establish a character’s internal GMC before I start the story, I’m just putting words on the screen. Usually, it’s something from my character’s past that holds them back.

    If only I would accept that I can’t change the past, then life would be better.

    It’s always great to have you with us.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | February 24, 2017, 2:56 pm
    • Jennifer, a character who knows their problem is accepting “can’t change the past” is just about ready to move on. But one who’s thinking “If only I could change, the past then life would be better” is at a fabulous starting place. All KINDS of ways they can go from there…

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | February 24, 2017, 3:02 pm
  32. Awesome post as always. Your class and fill in the blank templates have become a must in our plot/development process. 🙂 For my fill in the blank, the heroine in our current WIP would say: If only I didn’t have to send soldiers back into the line of fire, then life will be better.

    Posted by Cecilia Aubrey | February 24, 2017, 3:06 pm
  33. Hi Laurie! This post comes at the perfect time: Revisions!

    For the hero in our current WIP, that sentence would read:
    If only I learn to compartmentalize my demons, then life will be better.

    Looking forward to more of your classes!

    Posted by Chris Almeida | February 24, 2017, 5:08 pm
  34. Laurie, I think you ask me this same question when we met in Laughlin! I can’t remember what my answer was, but I think Jace would say: “If I could show Ramie how together, we could be an awesome family, then life will be better.” Your PVM class was the greatest! Marcia

    Posted by M. Lee Scott | February 24, 2017, 8:45 pm
  35. Wow, what a day! Thanks to everyone who shared their character’s fill-in-the-blank answer; it’s been very cool getting a preview of so many intriguing books.

    I know some of you will be in Plotting Via Motivation from March 6-31, and it’ll be great watching your ideas take shape.

    You can register anytime over at, although if you’re #9 (which is what drew) you’ve won free registration…which means, congratulations to Bethany Artin!

    Just email me at Book Laurie gmail and I’ll get you into the yahoogroups loop this week.

    Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | February 24, 2017, 8:58 pm
  36. This from the email files today..

    If only I gained the music scholarship then life would be better

    Linda Carroll-Bradd

    Posted by Carrie Peters | February 24, 2017, 9:11 pm
  37. Always love your classes, Laurie!

    If only I ______, then life would be so much better.

    Well, if it’s my character Nellie, it’d be more like, “If only women ran the world, then life would be better.”

    If it were my hero, it’d be, “If only I were brave and capable (like a hero), then life would be so much better.”

    And if it were Steve, one of the antagonists, it would be, “If only I were the Captain’s son, then life would be so much better.”

    Posted by Hellion | February 24, 2017, 9:15 pm
    • Fran, I’m getting a kick out of Nellie’s and Steve’s wishes because they’re so much at odds with reality — but I suspect neither character uses that as an excuse not to try for SOMETHING. Whereas the hero has his mission built right into the wish; all he needs to do (big job, though) is figure out how to act that way. 🙂

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | February 25, 2017, 11:23 am
  38. Laurie,
    Wow! My ninja plotter popped awake after reading your post. My heroine believes if only I could find a professional job near the res, my life would be better because I could take care of grandpa without plunging into a life circumscribed by the few choices available. I’m scribbling answers to why and she’s searching for those reasons with me.

    Posted by Laura Russell | February 25, 2017, 9:31 am
    • Laura, what a kick that your ninja plotter popped awake — gotta love it when that happens. And you’re doing a fabulous job sitting down with your heroine to figure out what’s driving her; it’ll be great when you both get her motivation…and very convenient that it’ll happen at the exact same moment.

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | February 25, 2017, 11:24 am
  39. Hi Laurie,

    I still don’t completely understand the big motivation. I just took a workshop that deals with the little motivations which spark dialogue or another type of reaction on the micro level in the sentence-to-sentence or paragraph-to-paragraph minutia. If there’s an alien vessel outside a farm house, what propels Dorothy to look outside if she’s watching her favorite Food Network show? Would her dog set up barking, or does she hear a scratching at the door which is actually the bruised and bloody hero escaped from the Mothership? What motivates her to stop watching and move to look out the window or open the door. Whatever that is, leads to a reaction and then something else will have to motivate the heroine to do the next action or talk. Can the little stuff still be motivated by the BIG MOTIVATION? I think so. But then I’m far from an expert on motivation the BIG or the MINUTE!

    Posted by Carol A Malone | February 28, 2017, 1:46 pm
    • Carol, you’re absolutely right that the little stuff can still be (and ideally IS) motivated by the big ‘un. For instance, if Dorothy wants to become the best chef in Paris she’s less likely to interrupt her Food Network viewing than if she wants to become an investigative reporter. And what makes her want to BE a chef or reporter? Now we’re getting someplace!

      Posted by Laurie Schnebly Campbell | March 1, 2017, 10:08 am

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