Story Stuff: E Is For External Motivation

Are we digging the alphabetic layout of the A to Z challenge? Sure, it’s a little Sesame Street, but we may end up with something comprehensive by the end. 😉

Anyway, welcome to day 5, where we’ll be discussing external motivation.


People (and characters) can be motivated for a number of reasons. We eat because we’re hungry. We go to work because we need money to live (and hopefully find personal fulfillment in whatever we’re doing). We fight to win. Pretty much everything we do has either external or internal motivations behind them.

External (or extrinsic) motivations are things we do for a reward outside ourselves. Kids do chores for an allowance. They play soccer to get a trophy. They study to pass the class.

This post digs deeper into the idea:

“Extrinsic motivation refers to our tendency to perform activities for known external rewards, whether they be tangible (e.g., money) or psychological (e.g., praise) in nature.”
(Brown, Psychology of Motivation, 2007)

How can we apply this to writing?

In the post about agency, we discussed how characters drive the story. Knowing why they do what they do offers depth. A character pursuing a specific course of action to allay guilt will behave differently than one trying to steal a fortune.

Consider one of my favorite movies, The Italian Job.

Italian Job


In the beginning, all of the characters were externally motivated: they wanted to steal the gold. Then, after Steve betrays them all, their motivation changed – somewhat. They still wanted the gold and had big dreams for it, but there was an added measure of revenge (especially for Stella). How they planned and behaved changed as their motivation moved from external to internal (which we’ll get more into when we reach day I).

Scrooge wanted money. Gollum wanted the ring. The boys in October Sky wanted to win scholarships. Their motivations formed their roles in their respective stories.

What are your favorite stories with externally motivated characters?

8 thoughts on “Story Stuff: E Is For External Motivation

  1. Your choice, External Motivation is really interesting. And you provided good examples to understand better.
    I read a few stories in Sherlock Holmes. Holmes, as narrated by Watson, is self motivated to solve the mystery. At times, clients meets him and requests him to solve their case. So, he is motivated by the clients to fulfill their expectations.


  2. Pingback: Blogging From A to Z Challenge – Theme Reveal! | Allison Maruska

  3. On of the best movies I ever saw was called Gallipoli, a story about two young Australian runners who meet up a track and field event. One has heard of the other, is a bit of an extrovert, a tad conniving; the other is quieter and more introverted. They both admire the great runner Lasalles and wish to emulate him, becoming friends mostly because, like in Shrek, the more outgoing of the two decides they should be. Their motivations are fame, fortune, women… and for the introvert, the fulfillment of a dream his grandfather gave him.

    Well, along come the war and the dang introvert says they should join up, do what’s best for their country. The extrovert, more selfish, says it’s not Australia’s war and he and his friend should not join. But the introvert is motivated by doing what is the greater good, and they end up signing up – even thought they are about a year too young for military service.

    World War I was a tragic event, with rapid fire machine guns aimed at cowering kids in trenches who held rifles that could barely shoot two rounds in the time the machine guns could fire twenty. The slaughter is endless and merciless. The field commander signals each attack with a whistle; the boys climb out of the trenches and point their rifles and run across the open field – to be mowed down by the superior gunfire of the many, many, MANY machine guns on the other side.

    Soldier after soldier dies, many barely getting out of the trench for the attack.

    The last whistle for the last attacks sounds. The kids are shot to pieces

    The introvert wakes up to reality and at the sound of the last whistle, makes a run for it – being shot to death as he flees the battlefield.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. SWAT – get the bad guy. But that moves to internal as the movie progresses.
    The Entire Fast Furious Franchise – External moving to internal.
    Hrm, every movie I truly adore that has an external motivation moves to internal at some point now that I start trying to name some with external. LOL
    Wait, got one, Indiana Jones and the Lost Ark. That one is pretty external. Get the Ark, then save the girl.

    Liked by 1 person

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