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April 7, 2020

Escape Generic Storytelling by Asking “Why?”

Industrial, gray-block hallway to infinity with text: Escape Generic Storytelling... Ask "Why"

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:

Goals

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.

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.

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?

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Sieran Lane

Hey Jami, I really like the point that, even if an idea you thought of seems generic and cliche at first, if you keep asking why and digging deeper, it becomes more personal and relevant to your unique character. A generic plot idea could be: “a guy falls in love with another guy, but needs to keep his feelings a secret, because everyone around him, possibly even his love interest, are homophobic.” This is a plot I have read countless times. So we can dig deeper into the “why’s”: Why does he think that even his love interest is homophobic? Is everyone around him indeed homophobic, or is it just a few people? Has he seen awful things happening to peers who were outed as gay? Does he have internalized homophobia himself? If so, why? How did the guy fall in love with his love interest? (I.e. Why did he fall for this guy in particular?) Surely there must be something about the love interest that the protagonist likes and is drawn to. Why does the MC care so much about the opinions of others? Is he afraid that he will be disowned by his family if he is found out? Is he fearful that he won’t be able to find a job and go hungry? Is he worried that no one will accept him anymore, and that he will lose all his friends? How is his relationship with his family and friends like, that may his explain his possible…  — Read More »

Anne Greening
Anne Greening

Reading your article sent me off at an introspective tangent. Any woman who has raised a child from infancy will have experienced the infant’s “why?” phase. It can test the patience of a busy mother, but is the inborn inquisitiveness of the child needing to learn about this alien world in which it finds itself. Eventually most children grow out of it. But some people never do. I wonder why? Why do some of us always remain seekers after information? Why does the world interest us so much? Why can we not put down a newspaper or a magazine, or tear ourselves away from Google? Why do our minds pick away at things – try to understand what it is and how it works and what it’s for? Could this unquenchable inquisitiveness be a symptom, or even a cause of ADHD? The reason why we are mental butterflies – chasing one gaudy fact, but easily distracted when another flutters into our ambit and catches our interest? I have a theory – new and untested, inspired by your article. The “Why?” people of the world, the inveterate questioners, the collectors of a myriad facts, become story-tellers and hence writers. By this, I do not mean necessarily that we become successful authors of fiction. Story-telling per se is telling, and as I have had drummed into me, writing a novel requires Showing and not just Telling. Aha! A light-bulb moment. When telling a story, one is able to dramatise it: change the…  — Read More »

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Thanks, Jami. Journalists often ask why, and the answer often is found by following the money.

Dawn

Thanks! This will help me revamp the first chapter of my second novel. A lot of people said the first chapter was lacking. I think if I ask why, I can better be able to set up my MC fears and what’s at stake.

Vivienne

Thank you for this enlightening post, Jami. I’m currently working on 2 projects at the rewrite stage. Asking why will help.

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