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The premises are the following:

1) First person POV (but advice for third person works too)

2) Protagonist-driven plot

3) Some backstory that hasn't been explored yet (and which ties into the MC motivation).

4) Multiple (convergent) plot threads introduced in sequence.

The inciting incident is the most used way to set up a plot promise. The event happens, it inconveniences the MC, and readers expect the plot is about addressing that inciting incident.

But how do you set up plot promises where the protagonist is driving the plot, without having them go at front stage and declaim their motivation to the readers? I, the MC, am trying to achieve this, because of reasons.

Moreover, say you actually had the MC doing that (more or less) but placed their aim and motivation more subtly among other stuff, so it's not glaring, and readers missed that it was a plot promise? It just happened to me that readers assumed certain scenes were character setup and not "really part of the plot". It was a big series of scenes, so the problem must've been that the plot promise and the MC motivation wasn't clear. Additionally, I am weaving several plot threads and this was the second introduced, so people were possibly too hung on the first open plot to accept a second one.

So what are my steps for troubleshooting? Do I move the motivation at the front of the chapter and strengthen it by making things harder/riskier? How do I avoid the MC outlining their motivation in first person not coming across as unsubtle telling?

I nailed a characteristic voice for the MC that's been received well, so I can fly a lot of stuff under the radar, but I dislike having to outright tell things.

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    Mary Robinette Kowal teaches a system called MACE (her variant of MICE Quotient). I suggest taking a look at her system (you can grasp it in <2 min), and possibly leaning into the type of the 1st MACE question harder. You don't say what your promise is about, but maybe it's less about identifying the MC's direction and more about emphasizing the kind of world they live in… Maybe offer a failed example of the promise (someone Protag doesn't particularly like, but readers will spot similarities) especially if it means Protag replaces them. – wetcircuit Mar 21 at 22:57
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    I am confused. What exactly do you mean with protagonist driven plot? What is the plot promise you want to make? Why do you want to make it? – Ville Niemi Mar 22 at 19:30
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    By showing the stakes on someone else by proxy, possibly someone who fails – thus showing the stakes to reader (if not the Protag). I said this already twice, I can't keep repeating it. Maybe if you told us your promise we could use a specific example so you'd have the idea, but otherwise you will have to figure out who or what is available in your story besides just the MC. If s/he can't be used, but you want to show the stakes, you have to work out another character to 'kill off' as an example. Good luck. – wetcircuit Mar 23 at 3:28
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    Thanks. That actually helped more than I expected. I think your issue is simply that you have 3 intertwined main plots but that has not been signalled to the readers so they expect a single main plot with subplots instead. You can either simplify the plot structure to what readers expect or take the time to introduce them to there being several "main plots" before worrying about plot promises for individual plots. – Ville Niemi Mar 23 at 11:45
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    Perhaps letting the reader know of his motivations isn't the way to go: perhaps you should just let them know he has motivations. But you don't specify them, just show that he is driven and focused on some cause that isn't evidently clear. That will make them curious, invested (only for so long) and they'll be on the lookout for any clues about his motivations, which is where you can drop those subtle hints. – A. Kvåle Mar 26 at 21:15
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Using 1st-person plays a significant role in the success of your story here.

I'll give you an example.

"Every morning I go out to work, I see this nice old woman sitting on a bench and waves at me for over a year. I wave her back and continue on my day. Today was different, though. She didn't even notice me and was outright crying. I didn't know her, but heck, I felt for her. Instead of continuing with my day, I came to her and asked what happened..."

Now, this is a relatively quick example. What you're creating is probably a more extended form of a story. A novel? Novella? You could transform the words "every day I go out to work, I see this woman waves at me." into actual scenes throughout your book.

And what happened here to divert the character from their usual plans? A hook. Curiosity killed the cat, right? You need to think about your character as a human being. If you would go out into the street and there were a bunch of people crowded looking at something, you would probably notice that, too. Now, you might be running to the bus and couldn't stop to investigate, or you might give a look. It's the character's choice.

The actual event being registered in their mind is enough to let the reader know that other things are happening in your world. It's alive and kicking outside of your character's skin.

They might register the event was happening and 'give up' on investigating it, only to realize later that it was their grandpa that fell on the sidewalk and broke a leg.

So, my advice to you is to think about your own life. What led you to some critical decisions you had taken in your life. Try to realize not just the aftermath of the decision but rather what happened before that led you there. Doing this will enrich your storytelling is so many ways and thinking about your characters as human beings will make them lead the story without any significant effort on your part.

Give them hooks and watch them change the world.

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    Thank you @Oren_C! This does help but can I ask you the following? I've started with an in medias and the MC developed their motivation in the past, so dramatizing scenes where motivation develops is what I was trying to avoid. MC, however, does bump into that motivation in the present, but my question was if there's a trick to establish the plot promise very quickly, to suit the in medias res. I wanted a quick start to the story and the whole backstory motivation trickled in over years, which I've cut from the narration. – geneaux Apr 4 at 18:03
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    Well, since you're using first person, the motivation can already be there and you just have to make your MC react to it. How would their actions change if that motivation is already burning within them? It's also possible to use flashbacks (or memories) like this wikipedia page (which I didn't know about and is pretty interesting) about in medias res explains to make your MC motivations clearer to the reader if you want to reveal them faster. Hope this helps! – Oren_C Apr 6 at 8:09

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