The WHY of Your Story

by: A. Lee Martinez. DFWWW Member since 1995

A. Lee MartinezThe first thing you should ask yourself is why?

Writing isn’t as simple as putting down words on paper. If it was, everyone would be doing it, and at times, it feels like everyone thinks they can. If we’re talking about sitting in front of a keyboard and typing until you have a few pages, then, yes, everyone can do it. There’s a difference between doing it and doing it well.

Asking why is that difference.

Let’s stick with fiction for the moment. Much of this applies to non-fiction as well, but it’s easier to focus on one right now. Fiction is, generally, a series of scenes that string together to form an overarching story. All basic stuff, you might think, but you would be wrong.

The Why (capital W from this point on) is Why this scene must exist in the first place. Your initial answer will probably be wrong. You will no doubt think of story points and character motivations and getting the plot moving to its next stage. That’s important stuff, but it is NOT your Why.

Gil's All FrightThe Why is all about what we’ll call emotional intention. I should be feeling something in your scene, and that feeling should be what you want me to feel. New writers (and even experienced writers) can be so invested in moving the pieces on the board and pushing the plot forward that they forget that writing fiction isn’t about conveying mere facts.

“John woke up in the morning. He went to the store. He bought some eggs. He came home and had breakfast.”

That’s a boring story. Not just because it’s a boring story but because there’s no emotional weight to it. Even if we change it up by adding a zombie apocalypse or messy divorce, it still doesn’t have any intention.

“John dragged himself out of bed. He trudged to the store and bought some damned eggs. He cooked them alone, in his kitchen, thinking about her.”

The Why here is obvious. John is having a bad day. He’s tired. He’s barely motivated. And I, as the reader, know that this isn’t a happy scene or funny or exciting. It’s sad. I may not know the details, but the weight is there. The intention isn’t screaming, but it is palpable.Helen and Troys

“John jumped out of bed. He ran to the store, treated himself in some extra large eggs. Singing their song, he cooked the eggs in his kitchen, thinking about her.”

The Why is completely different here. It’s full of positivity and energy. John is still alone. We still don’t know anything about Her, but we don’t need to. We sense the emotional weight of this scene just by how we choose to tell it.

Nobody cares about the details. Characters are not playing pieces on a board, and stories are not a series of checklists. They are about emotional intention, and, yes, even ambiguity is a perfectly acceptable goal for a scene if done on purpose.

So don’t write what happened. Write Why it happened, and that Why should almost never be because John ran out of eggs.

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