Ask Yourself Why

Ask Yourself Why

Terry Odell

Ask yourself why

Image by Anand Kumar from Pixabay

Everyone, I’m sure, has heard of using the “What if?” question to start a story, and to help move things along throughout. But for me, there’s an even more helpful question for me while I’m writing. WHY?

Disclaimer. I’m not a Plotter. Not a true Pantser. More of a Planster.

In one of his workshops, James Scott Bell has an exercise designed to help you understand your characters. There, he sets up a scene of a gorgeous room with a huge picture window overlooking a pastoral view and your character picks up a chair and throws it, breaking the window. He asks Why he or she would do that.

While that can be helpful when it comes to characterization, my question relates to the story. Even though we write fiction, it has to come across as reality. One technique I use to make sure things seem “real” is to ask myself Why a character would do or say something.

If the answer is “Because I need it for tension/conflict/humor/plot advancement,” it’s probably wrong. When I was writing Danger in Deer Ridge, the first major ‘error’ I spotted in my opening draft was having the hero appear while the heroine was looking in her car’s trunk for her tool kit.

  • Why didn’t she hear him drive up?
  • Why did he park the truck there?
  • Why did he come down without a toolkit of his own?

All these Why questions require answers. Answering them drives the story forward for me. My thought processes might not end up on the page, (and this is most prevalent in the early chapters, while things are taking shape) but the results do.

So, where it ended up: She didn’t hear him drive up because he parked at the top of the drive. Why?

He parked the car there because his son is asleep in the truck. It’s a quiet rural area, one he knows well, and he’s not concerned that someone will come by and Do a Bad Thing.

That’s still weak, so I added a dog who would take the head off of anyone who tried anything. (Note to self: don’t forget you’ve now saddled yourself with yet another ‘character’ to keep track of.)

More Why questions.

Why not go all the way down the drive? It’s steep, curves, and riddled with potholes, and he doesn’t want to wake the kid.

Weak. What if he’s not an experienced father? Why not? Because his wife left him, took the kid and remarried, and he hasn’t seen the kid since he was an infant.

Why does he have the kid now? Because the ex-wife and the boy’s stepfather were killed in a Tragic Accident? Works for now. (Note to self: revisit this before Grinch has to tell anyone about it.) Also, having him a new and inexperienced father allows for more conflict between hero and the Very Caring Mother who is our heroine.

More notes: Why doesn’t the hero work for Blackthorne, Inc. when the book opens, since the other books in the series open with a scene of a Blackthorne op. Why does he live conveniently near the heroine’s new digs?

By the time I’d written the scene, answers to my Why questions gave me more insight into my characters. I realized that the hero’s friendly demeanor and magnetic grin weren’t consistent with a man who’s worried about leaving a young child asleep in his truck. I ended up tweaking that scene, which added to the tension, because the heroine sees someone who’s in a rush, who keeps looking over his shoulder. She extrapolates from her own secret-keeping life, and it seems logical for her to worry that this guy might be out to get her.

If you don’t want your story to seem contrived, try asking yourself “Why?”

What other questions help you move forward in your writing?



Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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22 thoughts on “Ask Yourself Why

  1. Good point and good examples, Terry.

    Another question, for me anyway, is ‘where?’ It’s not nearly as important as ‘why?’ and probably not very important at all for some people. But I’ve been a map geek all my life. I always love the house floor plans in some of the Christie novels. And I spent way too much time on Google Maps while reading Cleeves’ _The Long Call_.

    Eventually my ‘Bible’ will include a detailed map of my fictional town, Maasdam, OH. I know that for many people it won’t matter that The Cottage Bar is a half-block from Main Street in one story and a half-block from 3rd Ave. in another, but it would for me if I were reading the stories.

    In any case, we owe it to our readers to make the ‘where’ consistent within a story. Again, though, not nearly as important as the ‘why.’

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    • Good for you, Eric. I’m not as faithful as I should be about mapping out the “wheres” in my books. I keep denying that I’ll ever need them again, and then the book becomes a series, and I go back to find out where the mayor’s office is located, what the building looks like. And how long it takes to get from point A to point B. I do have a few very rough sketches of town layouts. Somewhere.
      John Sandford once said he makes all the houses in his books conform to his own floorplans so he knows a character will have to go out the backdoor and turn left to get to the street, etc.

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  2. That’s a good question to ask of characters. It’s also a good question to ask yourself. Why do I want to write this story? What is it that I’m not seeing that I should see? Dig deep to find out what’s driving you…because if nothing is, here’s another question; Why bother?

    Good morning thought sparker, Terry.

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  3. Isn’t it amazing that a simple question like Why? can force us to dig deeper? Love that about writing. Great post, Terry.

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    • Thanks, Sue. Who ever thought our two-year-olds would teach us about writing?

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  4. Yes, why indeed? I like your approach, Terry. Following the what if? should be why?, otherwise the reader will ask the question and if the answer is illogical, may not finish the story. I know, atrocious punctuation… 🙂

    JSB points out something I’ve pondered and answered with my first two novels-in-progress.

    So far, the answer to why I want to write them has nothing to do with want. More to do with need, because both novels contain human-kind themes I’m trying to explain to myself. I’ve tried to put my characters into situations that will help explain to them the why of their world; and help explain to me the why of mine.

    Maybe a reader somewhere wrestles with the same “unanswerable” themes.

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    • If someone asks me why I write, I’ll say it’s because otherwise I’d have to clean the toilets.
      But if I’m not writing, nobody wants to live with me, myself included.

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  5. Excellent post, Terry.

    I finished a series a few months ago, then sat there staring at the ending wondering: why? The climax of the third book just rendered all the worldbuilding, and hence the reason for the story, completely ridiculous. And then there were other books where I wondered why the hero and heroine, both really unlikable characters by the end, still took it for granted that they wouere staying together.

    As for my reason, I would tell people that I can’t not write. But I think the real answer is, if I don’t make my characters mean, manipulative, tortured, etc, then I would become that.

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    • Writing is a great way to deal with ourselves. How many “real” people have we put in our books so we could do to them what we can’t do in real life? Writing is power!

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  6. “Why”–such a great question to ask when writing. I started out a pantser, went over to the outlining side, but now realize I’m also more of a plantser. Weeks, even months spent outlining before beginning a novel don’t change the fact that a lot of what I write is by discovery, and asking myself questions is key.

    Asking “what” is also important for me. Especially, “what does the hero want? “What does the villain want, and what stands in their way? Why comes close on the heels of that question. Why do they want it, why would they do this, etc.

    “How?” is another handy question to ask myself.

    Thanks for a really-thought provoking post!

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    • Dale – I deal with those What? questions when I’m establishing my characters’ motivations, usually early on, but every time the character steps on the page to try to get (or avoid getting) something I need to know why he’s doing it. Otherwise, it’s too easy to fall into the “because I need him to do this if he’s going to do that later on” which usually comes across as author intrusion.
      And the how? — That’s when I hit up my resources, because half the time I’m writing characters doing things I have no experience with.

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    • I’ve found the “How” helps me develop backstory and sometimes springs the surprise twist or opportunity that’s needed when things start to slog a bit~ one of the Boys in the Basement will ask “How’d THAT happen?” and another’ll start answering almost immediately, sometimes with “Well, what if…”

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  7. Interesting thread. Every decent journalist should cover the w’s and the how. Who, what, where, when, why, and how. Whether I’m writing a mystery or not, I like to keep that in mind.

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  8. You’ve burdened a major character and yourself with a huge amount of backstory for a simple opening scene. For a romance plot or subplot, my own preference is to create both characters to fit the plot and each other. What is the big emotional weakness that needs to be faced before they can create a happily-ever-after with each other? How does that play in to each character’s background and the plot? Etc.

    I do the same thing when I create a good guy/opponet dynamic as well as my worldbuilding. It’s a lot of upfront work that will drive a pantster crazy, but it’s a solid framework for a stronger novel.

    I picked up this method from a Ben Bova book on writing, and it worked for me for over thirty years. I explain the method here:

    http://mbyerly.blogspot.com/2016/09/using-index-cards-to-plot-your-novel.html

    Oh, and a noisy background or the heroine listening to music with ear buds would work just as well for him to seemingly sneak up on her.

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  9. Thanks, Marilyn — and for the record, all the answers to my questions in this scene were for me. The characters aren’t going to have to deal with them yet.

    And thanks for the link. I’ve used index cards before. Some people like Scrivener for the index cards. I could never stick with it. Now I use sticky notes on a foamcore board and let things evolve. Your system seems far too “Plotter” for my brain to handle. 🙂

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  10. “Why?” Great question, Terry. It’s a prime element in crime writing – as in motive and why they did it. No published story would complete without answering the central question and that’s often “Why?”. Reality in criminal prosecution, though, is that motive isn’t a necessary ingredient to prove an offense like murder – even premeditated 1st-degree murder. But, for a good book, and convincing a jury, I think showing and telling “Why” is a good thing. 🙂

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    • Thanks, Garry – There are so many questions at so many levels. Often, when I’m writing a scene where I’m not sure of the “why” (not a plotter disclaimer) I stick my characters together and let them do the brainstorming. As they suggest and reject scenarios, I often find they’ve led me to the answers I need. And then I yell at the gang in the basement for not telling me sooner.

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