Monday, August 16, 2021

Why Ask Why? Because Your Readers Will

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Making readers wonder is a good thing—unless they have no clue why your characters are acting as they do, or your world makes no sense.

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 strong plot will combine both the what and the why.

A weak novel often has characters who are acting only because plot says they need to—there’s no plausible reason for them to behave that way. And worse, none of their actions have consequences that force them to act again so the whole GMC plot cycle can continue. Your scenes get stuck and you aren’t sure why, they feel flat and it’s hard not to skim, and you probably have a nagging feeling the scene isn’t doing enough. You know what happens, but not why.
Try looking at the why.

Why Is the Character Doing This?

It’s vital to ask your protagonist “why are you doing this?” in every scene for every action they take. This is what’s motivating them and causing the plot to happen. Look for answers that are:
  • Personal or unique to that character
  • 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, so 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 match your character’s motivations (the why) to situations where the easiest path is the path you want your protagonist to tale for story reasons, even if that "easiest" path is quite hard. It's just easier than the other options available to them.

Some whys (and a few whats) to consider:
  • What is the protagonist 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 protagonist pick the one they do?
  • What can go wrong?
  • Why does it matter?
The plot will come from the whats. The story will come from the whys. What the protagonist is doing and why they’re doing it.

(Here’s more with Two Questions to Ask for Stronger Character Goals and Motivations)

Why Are Things Like This?

This is the harder aspect of why. We often need our settings to reflect something for the plot, but we haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about why that thing is the way it is. This might be a bit of history or world building, or a situation that needs to happen in the novel.

The sci-fi spoof Galaxy Quest makes fun of this when two of the protagonists find a dangerous Rube Goldberg-esque device they have to get through to reach a critical spot 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 that chomper thing was there other to cause random trouble for the characters. It served zero purpose in the ship.

No matter how exciting the scene may be all on its lonesome, random trouble is often boring. Throw a bunch of random scenes together, and it’s a major yawnfest.

This frequently happens when we have a cool idea and world developing, but we don’t take the extra time to figure out why things work as they do. The reason for those “cool things” to be in the world or story beyond that one scene.

In some cases, the characters don’t even interact with the world other than basic pre-designed plot points, so the world never feels real. And in really bad cases, those worlds don’t make sense, because nothing was designed to work in that world, only in that scene.

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?
Asking one why typically leads to another, so don’t be afraid to dig down a few layers and make sure the situation works for more than one scene or plot point. You don’t need to know the answers six layers deep to every little why, but for the big questions, your world will feel more solid if you know the why for a few questions. For example:

In a scene for one of my old WIPs, I needed my protagonist to use hallways that weren’t used anymore. It was important to the plot that she 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 protagonist 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 was once undesirable, but isn’t anymore. 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 more progressive now. They'd rather have quick service than not see servants.
This was as far as I needed to go with this chain of whys, because that answer made sense to the world and was a plausible reason for unused hallways to exist. But I could go one more layer and figure out why society changed and what happened to trigger that change if I needed to—such as, if my critique partners or beta readers asked that question, or it became relevant to the story.

(Here’s more with The Difference Between Setting and World Building)

Character goals and motivations create the plot and drive the story, and the better we understand those, the better our novels will be. 

If readers can think, “Yeah, but what if they just did X” and your plot falls apart, you’ll lose credibility as an author and they’ll likely toss the book aside. But if all the whys are plausible, and readers feel grounded in a real world where things make sense, then you’ll be able to craft a strong story readers can lose themselves in.

Having a clever idea is a great start to a plot, but if there are too many holes, the plot will likely end up feeling contrived.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and ask “why” for the key elements of your plot and characters. Make sure they hold up to questioning and aren’t built on a shaky foundation.

How deep do you go when creating your world and plot?

*Originally published April 2011. Last updated August 2021.

Find out more about characters, internalization, and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  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.

    1. Oh, yes! Galaxy Quest is one of my favorites, too, probably because it's a spoof, and because I'm a Star Trek fan, so I can relate to the fun-poking of the one at the other. (I never have cared one whit for the Star Wars stuff, and don't care enough to look deeply into why.)

      Also, this post is definitely a keeper in my 'writing art & craft how-to' folder. No matter how experienced an author is, there's always room for more learning, sometimes reminders, too, of what we once knew.

  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 :)

    1. Oooo! That book sounds like a valuable addition to my library. Thanks!

  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,


    1. It seems like you might be focusing too much on the ends of the spectrum, but your point is important - it is a balancing act.

      I wonder if the balance might be found more easily if you reread your material with yourself in mind as the reader - you are writing to an audience of similar intelligence to yourself (at least, that's how I assume my audience).

      Especially after having let the rough draft 'percolate' for a few weeks or months before looking at it again, you always find unclear places that need a bit more work, or overly done places that can be streamlined. If you find yourself bored or puzzled, you know that's where the piece needs work.

      And beta readers are invaluable for this, too. I hope you have a bunch of them whose opinions you trust. About half of mine are writers (they provide more technical critique) and half are not writers (they often pick up on broader problems, even if they don't know why it's a problem).

      Anything that breaks the reader's 'suspension of disbelief' because of an obstacle in the flow in the narrative needs to be addressed.

      It'll be interesting to see the comments of others on your question.

  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.

    1. Maybe 'beta' readers should be considered 'alpha' - the top dogs! Ha ha! They are tops in my book.

  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.

  16. Lots of good questions to ask during the writing process, thanks Janice. Your question: "What could go wrong?" is a great way to keep a story moving forward regardless of genre.

    1. Thanks! It's one of my favorite techniques.

  17. Thank you, that are good questions.