It's All About The "Why"

In journalism, there is no story unless you have all of the facts. They call it the Five W's: the who, what, where, when and why.

I discovered this decades ago. It's a simple equation. Without it you've got a half-baked notion. Your story falls flat and will never see print. No front page, hot off the presses, sweeping off the stands kind of stuff. The Five W's make or break a story. And the same is true with writing fiction.

When crafting a story we put the Five W's in place to form scenes, chapters, and full stories. Simply put we present a key character (who) performing an action (what) in a location (where) during a time period (when) to accomplish a goal (why).

Easy math. That's the fiction writing formula. No magic or mystery. John (who) went shopping for eggs (what) at the grocery story (where) this morning (when) because he was hungry (why).

Bingo! We have a story. All the pieces are in place. Bring on the awards and accolades. Winner!

This was how I first approached fiction writing. It made perfect sense. Using this formula all things were covered. Lined my ducks up in a row and sent them out to the pond for a healthy swim. That was until I noticed that my Why sucked. More specifically... it was lazy.

Nothing can kill a story more than a lazy Why. Motivation is one of the key factors in storycraft. If the reader can't believe in the character's motivation they won't stick it out for the entire story. You wouldn't follow a leader you didn't believe in, would you?

Sure, in my example, John was hungry and needed eggs. But was that enough to propel a reader into following him on his tedious and terrifying journey?

No. Not at all. Here's another example:

I was watching a show on the TV with my wife one evening. A former hacker turned government super secret agent for a super secret agency (who) gets contacted by old associates to hack some bad shit (what) from her super secret base (where) right now (when) because they kidnapped her mom and plan on killing her (why). Pretty standard plot in spy thrillers. So, she does the hack without any back up or notifying anyone she works for. Why? Because they threatened to kill her mommy.

I know, if someone kidnapped anyone in my family I'd move Heaven and Earth to save them. But this gal worked for The super secret spy agency. She had resources. She had international pull. She had mega back up. And when asked why she didn't use any of that, her response was "I had no choice."

Weak! Lazy Why!

That derailed the show for me. I lost any faith in the program right about there. This character could have pulled massive resources to get her mom back but went rogue. The writers could have put up road blocks to prevent her and the agency from foiling their plans. They could have written in many things to make this more believeable but chose to go the easy, or lazy route.

After seeing this I had to ask myself why? Why take the easy route? This worked back in the day (I won't place a time frame in there for fear of acknowledging how many moons have passed since my birth) but nowadays people ask too many questions. Readers expect -- demand -- intelligence in the stories they invest themselves in. They expect the writers to do not only their homework but think through the characters' motivations and possible outcomes for taking certain actions. If the writer wants a character to buckle under pressure and take the easy route they better make damned sure that it's logical, or at least plausible.

At the very least, writers should invest some time in thinking through actions of the people on the page or screen and find out what they should do to propel the story, make things difficult for other characters, and most of all make some sort of sense that doesn't have people shooting up from the sofa pitching their paperbacks, remotes, or Kindles. That shit can get expensive.

Invest some time into the Why. Ask yourself if your character would do this or that. Ask if what foolish plan they're about to hatch makes is smart or an irrational decision, but in the end makes sense do to the circumstances. It can be time consuming but worth it in the end.

Motivation is key. How we make (or watch) our characters react is crucial to the livelihood of our stories. In the end, it's all about the Why.


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