Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Elements of a Scene: Objective and Motive

This is the third in a series analyzing a scene from The Grapes of Wrath. For this entry, I want to talk about the concepts of objective and motive.

These two things are the motor behind every actor in every scene. An objective is a concrete thing that a character wants to accomplish. The motive is the reason the objective is important. The objective is the what and the motive is the why.

The example I always give my students is that if the classroom is on fire, our objective is to get out the door. Our motive is to stay alive. In the scene above, Pa Joad's objective is to buy bread. His motive is the well-being of his family members. That same motive is what causes him to ask about the candy and then to purchase some for this children.

The waitress's objective is to sit down next to the truck driver and hear a dirty joke. Her motive is pleasure. The cook's objective is to cook whatever is ordered. His motive is to earn a living so that he can survive. The truck drivers' objective is to eat. Their motive is to keep going so that they can also earn a living and survive.

It's important to understand that a single motive can lead to a variety of objectives. If a character is motivated by the desire to get rich, the character could get a gun and rob people, study hard and become a brain surgeon, marry somebody rich, or buy lottery tickets. Each of these objectives might satisfy the character's motive, but we would judge the character differently based on his or her objective. Someone who works hard and benefits others, such as a brain surgeon, is more admirable than someone who robs people or takes no action beyond buying lottery tickets. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "action is character," meaning that what characters do to satisfy their motives determines who they are.

I often refer to Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs as a good tool regarding motive. If you're writing a character or trying to understand a character that you're performing, the hierarchy is a way of determining a motivation. Those items lower on the pyramid have to be in place before a person can worry about things higher on it. In addition, the things lower on the pyramid are common to every person alive, regardless of location or circumstances. It's one of the reasons that Chaplin's tramp character was so popular with audiences; anyone could understand his need for food, shelter, security (from the police), and love.

The Grapes of Wrath is dominated by the lower three rungs of the pyramid. The family has been evicted from their farm and they have to struggle to find food and shelter. They are victimized by police and by big agriculture and all these things are a threat to the survival of the family. Their motive is to stay alive and together. Their objective is to get to California, where they hope they will find work to allow them to do that.

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