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"A Simple Plan" and Believable Motivation

Last month I watched A Simple Plan for the first time.  Pretty good movie.

The thing I think I appreciated about it the most was that it had a believable enough premise for the characters to start betraying each other and committing horrible murders.  Not long before A Simple Plan, I watched Route 9 (made in the same year, perhaps not coincidentally), which has roughly the same plot with a slightly different flavor.

The concept in both films is that a couple of down-on-their-luck folks stumble across a large amount of cash at a crime scene, and rather than calling in their discovery to the proper authorities, they decide to keep the money.  Unfortunately, their greed gets in the way of what would (could?) have otherwise been a perfect crime.  So something that starts out as a seemingly victimless theft escalates to horrible violence and murder.

I ended up giving Route 9 a pass just because I thought it was entertaining enough to pass the time, but putting it next to A Simple Plan is kind of like comparing Mean Girls 2 to Mean Girls.  Everybody's just so much stupider.

For example, the first murder in ASP doesn't happen until maybe minute 30 or so, and it's long after the characters have had a chance to let their suspicions and fears brew for a night and turn into panic.  By contrast, the first murder in R9 happens after like 10 minutes and a brain fart.  In ASP, the guys come across about five million bucks, enough for them all to split evenly and retire.  In R9. two guys stumble onto a stash of just under one million dollars, which gets further subdivided as other accomplices get involved.

In all, it just feels like the stakes are lower in R9, and as a result, the murderous consequences feel a little more forced.  But watching the two movies was a good chance to compare notes and see how different people approached a fairly stock story.

It's especially important to me since one of my recent drafts, "Born Loser," is specifically about a similar situation.  I'd like to think my novel adds a few interesting turns, but ultimately it's the same idea: group of dummies finds money, treachery ensues.

So how do you build good motivation for your conflict?  Where's the line drawn between a believable descent into chaos and a bunch of idiots being idiotic?

Part of it definitely has to do with the dollar amount that's offered, but I think the more important factor is fear.  Whether it's a fear of getting caught or a fear of losing out on the spoils, I don't think I can really buy into a criminal plot gone wrong unless there is valid terror.  ASP works so well in large part because the protagonists have an inherent distrust of one another, compounded with chance encounters with bystanders who could bring the plot crashing down.  R9 doesn't really bother with that until halfway through or so and it suffers for it.

Anyway, the real takeaway from all this is that I need to go back and reread "Born Loser" with fear on the brain.  It's not meant to be the same kind of story - "Born Loser" is a comedy - but if it doesn't capture the right spirit, then I don't think I'll have done my job,