It’s easy to think plotting is all about the what. After all, the plot is what happens to your characters. But while the what is important to how the story unfolds, the why is what’s driving that story to unfold in the first place. What without why is just action with any motivation.
A workable plot will combine both the what and the why. Characters will act for reasons and those actions will have consequences. Those consequences force the protag to act again, and the whole cycle continues.
A common plot snag is to have your characters acting because plot says they need to, but there’s no plausible reason for them to do it. So you end up kinda stuck, or you get that nagging feeling that the scene it flat or just not doing enough. Try looking at the why.
Why Are They Doing This?
This is the easiest why and vital to ask your protag in every scene for every action they take. Why are they doing this instead of that? You should be able to answer with a reason that is:
- Personal or unique to them
- Not a detached plot reason
- Plausible for the problem they’re facing
- The most logical and easiest step for them to take
- What is the protag trying to do?
- Why are they trying to do it?
- What are the easiest and most obvious ways to accomplish this goal?
- Why does the protag pick the one she does?
- What can go wrong?
- Why does it matter?
Why Are Things Like This?
This is the harder aspect of why. We often need our settings to reflect something for plot, but we haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about why that thing is the way it is. The sci fi spoof Galaxy Quest makes fun of this when the heroes find a dangerous Rube Goldberg-esque device they have to get through to get somewhere on the ship. After nearly dying to get through it, Sigourney Weaver’s character complains about how that episode was badly written and that thing never should have been there in the first place. And she's right. Like many problematic scenes, there was no reason why it was there other to cause random trouble for the characters.
Random trouble is boring, no matter how exciting the scene may be all on its lonesome. Throw a bunch of them together, and it’s a major yawnfest. Often this happens because the writer has a cool idea and world going, but they never took the extra time to figure out why things work as they do, so the characters have no real way to interact with that world other than basic pre-designed plot points. Try taking a few minutes to look at your world and ask:
- Why is this society/city/people like this?
- Why do they believe/think/feel as they do?
- Why is this a problem for the characters?
- Why do they think differently/the same?
- Why would someone do/make/create this?
A good example here is a scene I wrote for my spy novel. I needed my protag to use hallways that weren’t used anymore. It’s important to the plot for her to be able to get around without being seen, and I didn’t want to use the “secret passages in the palace” device. My why layers looked like this:
- Why is the protag using these halls?
- Answer: Because they’re not used anymore and she can get around without being seen.
- Why are the halls unused?
- Answer: Because they were once used for servants to get around without using the main hall where the nobles could see them. It’s a caste society and seeing the lower caste is bad. Using these halls now takes longer than using the main halls, so no one uses them anymore.
- Why did this change?
- Answer: Because social customs changed and the society is a bit more progressive now. They'd rather have quick service than not see servants.
Having a really cool idea is a great start to a plot, but if there are too many holes and the foundation on which that idea is built is shaky, the plot will likely end up feeling contrived. If your reader can think, “Yeah, but what if they just did X” and your plot falls apart, that’s bad. You lose credibility and they toss the book aside. If all the whys make sense and feel grounded in a real world where these things can likely occur as you’ve described, then you’ve got a workable plot to show your story off in.