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Friday, April 22, 2011

Why Ask Why? Because Your Readers Will

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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
That last one is where a lot of folks stumble. Human nature means we typically take the path of least resistance. If walking in the door and sneaking past the receptionist will get us what we want, we’re not going to scale the outside of the building and cut the windows while dangling ten stories up. The trick is to craft motivations (the why) and situations where the easiest path is the path you want your protag to go for story reasons. Even if that "easiest" path is quite hard. It's just easier than the other options available. How? Ask:
  • 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?
The plot will come from the whats. The story will come from the whys.

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?
Usually asking one why leads to another, so don’t be afraid to dig down a few layers. You don’t need to go crazy and know the answers six layers deep to every little why, but for the big ones, it’s good to be able to say why to a few questions.

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.
I could go one more layer since it relates to my plot, but there’s no need to here. I can explain why the halls are unused and it makes sense to my reader in a way that fits my world and the story.

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.


  1. I agree a well thought out plot is vital. I read a mystery recently (it shall remain nameless) where the plot relied on a long chain of improbable coincidences. It was awful, awful, awful!

  2. Yeah. There's a series I read because I like one of the secondary characters (there already was a bit of a "why" failing in the previous book), but I'm not sure now if I'll read the next one thanks to an epic "why" failing in the most recent one.

  3. wonderful post!!! when reading (and reviewing) I'm constantly looking out for the "why", because that's my favorite part.

  4. This is all excellent advice. I have to admit that I've had to fix plots where the rationale didn't make sense for doing something. And I absolutely love Galaxy Quest. It's one of the few movies I've watched several times and I know I'll watch again.

  5. When I'm critiquing this is almost always the problem I run into - I don't understand why a character is acting in a certain way. I'll make sure to reference people to this post when they ask why it's so important =)

  6. Al: Bummer :( There are times when things need to happen just cause they do, but the fewer of those the better.

    Carradee: What a shame. But it does show how important this is.

    Redhead: Thanks! It's one of my favorite parts, too.

    Natalie: My friends and I quote Galaxy Quest on a regular basis. So brilliantly done. Probably helps that I'm a big Star Trek geek on top of it, hehe.

    Sierra: Thanks! Sometimes character motivation is in the writer's head, it just doesn't make it to the page.

  7. Debra Dixon is a god. Her book "Goal, Motivation and Conflict" is my bible, which addresses this topic more deeply :)

  8. Great post. For me, at least, the `why' question is what makes re-writes so important. It's so nice to be able to go back, once you have your plot down, and fill in the blanks. On a side-note, I love Galaxy Quest! I think the most awesome part is the Checkov's Gun of fans who know the ship better than the actors. :)

  9. Great post. It is very informative and helpful. I love the way you show us what you mean with easy to understand examples.

    I could spend hours reading your post. They always offer me useful advice.

  10. That said, a writer can make himself crazy when playing the "What if...?" and "Why?" games for far too long.

    I'm so guilty of this myself.

    So that begs the questions, how can you do this without going the opposite end of this issue, and not off like you don't trust the reader to figure anything out, and yet not have the doubts they may have stop reading all together?

    Again, I find these two issues in a constant battle for me, and if neither extreme is good, how can you be in the middle?

    How can you guide the reader through the story without making being either too vague or boorishly predictable? Either extreme doesn't help the writer anymore than the reader, and the story itself, right?

    Just a friendly interjection to consider,


  11. Las Vegas Writer: I haven't read that one, but I'll have to take a peek.

    Chicory: I fill in a lot of blanks on the second and third drafts. And heck, even during first drafts as I figure out the whys. I love when the kid has to take out the trash in the middle of the conversation.

    Sugar Scribes: Aw, thanks so much :) I try hard to make the examples work well, so I'm glad to hear they're doing their jobs.

    Taurean: This is true. You have to find the balance, and that's just something you develop as you write. Sadly there is no rule or even a guideline for that. You just have to decide how far folks are going to wonder, and go just far enough to cover that. Usually it's just one or two questions.

    Beta readers help here, as they spot holes a lot faster than the author does.

  12. What a great post! I'm currently working on the why's for my WIP and wow, it's a lot of work, but definitely worth it!

  13. Janet: Thanks! It does take work. And every time I slack off and think "nah, no one will ask that" a beta reader does.

  14. Janice, for me, it's never been just one or two things, it's always a laundry list. No matter how much better I'm told I've gotten, I feel like the tug of war between hand holding the reader, versus let the reader figure it out, without me spelling it out, whether told or shown, is a war I'm just not winning.

    Yeah, I know, not YET, it's getting hard to put "Yet" after these problems, but it's not like this is a new thing, I've spent nearly a decade trying to get this, and I'm not sure what to do next.

    If nothing else, as you prove I'm not the only one who's felt this way, and trust me, that helps me come back to the laptop every day.


  15. Taurean: Jody Hedlund had a great post last week about growth. I bookmarked it for a future link, but it might help you now:

    She breaks down different things and says pick one that you're weak on and work on that. I agree that trying to do everything is overwhelming, so her breakdown might have some good insights for you on where to go next and what to work on.