I’ve said before that the most important question we can ask when it comes to our writing is why. That question helps us get in touch with every aspect of our story.
Let’s dig into all the ways that asking why can help our storytelling, even helping us escape generic or cliché writing…
The Basis of Storytelling is the Question “Why?”
We’ve probably heard that many authors come up with their story idea by thinking of a “what if?” What if a woman’s lottery win leads to trouble?
Okay, what about it? That’s a story seed, but it’s not yet a story. Why would we care about this woman or her troubles?
Instead of what if?, a question that better gets us to the heart of a story might be why?
- “Why would a lottery win lead to trouble?” helps us find the story to go with that initial situation.
- “Why are these troubles happening now and not earlier?” helps us find where our story should start.
- “Why would readers care?” helps us figure out what’s going to make our story special.
In short, the question of why helps us discover and develop additional layers of our story. Without digging into the why, our story will be shallower.
I’ve posted before about two specific ways that asking why can help our story: editing and character motivations. Let’s review those first and then talk about how the question also helps us escape clichéd writing.
Asking Why Helps with Editing
We’ve previously talked about how why is important for revising and editing. Specifically, we can ask “Why did we write X? What was our purpose?”
Sometimes the best way to improve our writing is to have to justify the choices we’ve made. Having to justify our choices ensures that everything on the page is intentional.
As we draft, our brain often grasps onto the first idea it thinks of. However, that first idea—whether we’re talking about a plot event, a character reaction, a dialogue line, or whatever—is frequently lazy, generic, or cliché.
Forcing ourselves to ask why during revision and editing helps us dig deeper:
- Did we have a reason for including that specific idea, or was it just the first thing that popped into our head?
- Is that reason important enough to not change or tweak the idea to something fresher or more unexpected?
- Even if the answer is yes, can we fulfill that reason and still make it less generic by asking why—specifically—it matters for our story?
We’ll get more into that last question in a bit. For now, it’s enough to understand that asking why helps us make our writing more intentional. *smile*
Asking Why Helps with Motivations
We’ve also previously talked about how why is important for understanding our characters’ motivations. Specifically, we can ask “Why is our character saying/doing/planning/thinking… whatever?”
- Why is it important to our character to succeed?
- Why do their feelings/priorities/behavior change during the story?
- Why are they acting they way they are (especially when acting illogically or seemingly against their best interest)?
Motivations drive reader understanding, so if readers don’t know why a character is doing something, the character might come across as Too Stupid To Live or a puppet to the plot.
As readers, we know we can forgive a lot if we understand where someone is coming from and why they’re doing what they’re doing. So giving at least hints of the answers to those questions about their motivations will help readers relate to our characters.
Asking Why Helps Us Avoid the Generic
I was reminded of how important the question why is to our writing by Jeff Lyons, who’s guest posted here several times. Recently in his Facebook group about storytelling, Jeff mentioned the truism “the first 5 ideas that pop into your mind are generic.”
Asking “why?” can help us with many aspects of our story, from editing to avoiding generic ideas Click To TweetWhether that’s actually true—or whether it actually applies to our first five ideas—isn’t important. What matters is that, yes, many easy ideas (the ones we first think of) are lazy and generic on their surface.
That truth can apply to many aspects of our writing, from our premise or theme to our character’s goals, flaws, or false beliefs. Our ideas start off generic, cliché, and/or shallow.
How do we overcome that weakness? As Jeff pointed out in his Facebook discussion, we need to ask why: Why does it matter to our story and/or character?
Example of Asking Why with Theme
Themes are almost always generic because they’re usually a universal statement about a “truth” or worldview:
- Love is powerful.
- Justice is important.
- Humanity is good.
How we take a generic idea like those and make it apply to our story is by asking: Why does this matter to our character or story? How does our story make that idea personal to our character?
- Do they need to learn/believe/see evidence of this truth? (internal goal/longing)
- What happens to them or their beliefs if they don’t get it? (stakes)
- What happens to them or their beliefs if they do? (internal arc)
Those questions help us take a generic theme like “love is powerful” and make it unique for our story and character:
Our character needs to learn that love is powerful (internal goal/longing) because without that belief, they’ll always be held back by fear (stakes) rather than trusting that they can overcome obstacles (internal arc).
Asking Why an Idea Matters Gets to the Specific
We can do the same type of questioning why with any aspect of our story:
Let’s say our character has a goal of getting a promotion. Okay, great. That’s not super helpful for developing a story though.
But let’s ask the question: Why does that goal matter to them? Now we can start creating a more unique story:
- Are they trying to earn more money to pay down debt or support a child?
- Are they trying to earn a parent’s respect?
- Are they trying to prevent a rival from getting it?
Goals that are personal give our story stakes.
Let’s take the last example of trying to prevent a rival from getting the promotion. Okay, so far, so good, but let’s dig deeper into the stakes or consequences: Why does preventing the rival from getting the promotion matter to them?
- Are they afraid of failure or being left behind on the career ladder?
- Are they afraid they don’t fit into their company’s goals or priorities?
- Are they afraid they aren’t good enough to deserve the position?
Stakes that are personal illustrate our character’s fears.
Again, let’s take the last example of being afraid they aren’t good enough. Let’s dig deeper: Why does that fear matter to them? Why are they afraid they aren’t good enough?
- Did a previous job and/or work project end badly, and they suspect they’re not up to the task?
- Did their parents criticize them constantly?
- Are they too much of a coward to truly go after what they want and succeed?
Fears that are personal can show us our character’s false beliefs and/or hint at their backstory wound and/or weakness/flaw.
The Order Doesn’t Matter
While these examples led us through a certain order of story elements, we can ask these questions in any order. We could instead start with an idea for a character’s backstory wound and ask why that matters to them and the story.
That answer would help us figure out their false belief, fears, stakes, etc. in a different direction. All story elements are interconnected, so we can start with any one element and ask questions to discover the other layers.
Asking Why an Idea Matters Gives Us a Story
Whatever order we approach our ideas, the answers we uncover to the question of “why our idea matters” help us escape the generic. Beyond those shallow thoughts, we can come up with specific, unique ideas for our story.
Understanding why things matter to our character will give us a unique story Click To TweetAsking why any idea matters to our story and/or character forces us to see the idea from that unique, specific point of view. And just as we’re the only ones who can write our story, our characters are the only ones who can tell their story. Their perspective makes the story different from how any other character or author would tell it.
So even when we start with a generic premise like “a teenage girl must fight the government to save her world,” asking why it matters gives us a unique story:
- Why does the world need saving? (generic goals and stakes)
- Why does the government need fighting? (generic conflicts and obstacles)
- Why must she be the one to fight them? (generic plot)
- Why does any of it matter to her? (specific/personal story and character arc)
The question why is important to our story for all those reasons. If we ever get stuck in our story’s ideas or feel like our ideas are too generic, shallow, or cliché, we can stop and ask ourselves: Why does this matter to this story and/or character? Our answers will help us find specific, unique ideas for our story. *smile*
Have you read stories that felt too generic? Do you think making it clearer why events/goals/etc. mattered would have helped? Do you struggle with generic or shallow ideas? Do understand how questioning why might help dig deeper? Do you have any questions about how this works, or do you have further insights to share?Pin It