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Put a Body in the Trunk

Put a Body in the Trunk

I hope I’m not disappointing anyone, but the “fingers crossed behind the back” gesture does not, in fact, negate real-life promises. This gesture exists solely to inform movie audiences that a secret is being kept.

Without a doubt, this bromide is a bromide for a reason: secrets are an effective way to establish character motivation before we get to know the characters.

What is your character’s “front story”?

Your character may be shy, irascible, loving, giving, damaged, apathetic, commanding, brilliant, silly, psychotic, or some combination of those and more; your reader will get to know that in time, but at the beginning, your character just has to be (must be) motivated.

Secrets are a great character motivation, but they aren’t the only choice. You can use fear, desire, anxiety, escape, haste, hunger, discomfort, disgust, or the pursuit of any short-term goal. (Don’t forget to give them reasons not to pursue it.)

In a short story, this might be all we ever know about your character.

An Example

I was motivated to write about this topic when I recently saw a particularly good example. I’m going to summarize (from memory) the story here to better show the mechanics, but I suspect the full version will be available shortly at Bayou City Press.

The example is particularly good because two characters have different motivations–each unknown to the other–and both are immediately identified. They behave very differently, and we don’t have to know their “back stories” to understand why.

The second paragraph is where the short-term character motivation is revealed. Without that second paragraph, the story would just be a sequence of events. Try skipping it.

An American woman and her adult son are travelling in Spain along the Camino de Santiago. Along the way, a local man overhears their travel plans and offers a ride to the next city on the route.

The mother recognizes this immediately as a romantic overture, but the son sees an irresistible opportunity to step away from what may be, literally, the worlds most well-beaten path.

Reluctantly, the mother agrees, the Americans get into the stranger’s car, and the three drive away.

As soon as they are too far to reasonably turn back, the affable stranger makes an excuse to stop by his house. The Americans have little choice but to go along.

The stranger is not an attractive man, but his home has a charming pastoral allure, augmented by wild truffles, hunting dogs, and the ruins of a medieval Catholic church on the grounds.

The son, captivated, accompanies the stranger on a complete tour of the property and listens eagerly as the stranger describes the pains, particulars, and profits of the truffle market.

The mother, seeking to avoid the discomfort of any direct proposition, confines herself to the public portions of the stranger’s house.

After some time, the three leave the home and complete their journey.

The mother and son part ways with the stranger. The son, having enjoyed the day fully, asks why his mother had been so guarded.

The mother recounts the events of the trip–the offer of assistance, the tour of the home, the imprudent discussion of business profits–and informs her “naive” son that the stranger had more interest in a rich American wife than in playing tour guide.

The son, incredulous–as sons are about the romantic appeal of their mothers–abandons the conversation.

As the story ends, the mother regrets not touring the medieval church and wonders what might have been had she been more romantically inclined.

(summarized work of **Julie Gianelloni Connor – 2019) **

So there’s everything a story needs: logic, conflict, and a little bit of whist, all of which would have been lost if we’d made our readers wait to “get to know” the characters.