Workshop: Why


Vision 76





Lazette Gifford

Copyright © 2014, Lazette Gifford, All Rights Reserved


Setting up the background for a story is time-consuming and delicate.  You build one step on top of another, carefully layering in all the subtleties of your imagination.  However, the closer you get to the actual start of the story, you may start making assumptions that are not apparent to your readers.

Then there is character creation.  You know what you want for a character and you create him or her to meet the needs of what you want out of the story.  The character has both flaws and strengths and is ready to take on the trouble.

You start the story with the inciting action --

And this is when you have to start asking 'why.'

This probably sounds like a simple exercise, but for some of you, it's going to be an eye-opening look at not only what you create, but also how you can expand the possibilities and create even more depth to make your story unique.

Why does the story start here? Why is everyone in this place in the roles they have assigned, and why haven't they chosen something easier to do that day?  Why does this have to happen now?

Why: Actions

Why are your characters doing what they do?  Yes, it's the story you imagined, but sometimes we drive our characters along too narrow a path and forget that others are going to be looking in from the outside and see the possibilities we didn't explore.  One of the most important things you have to do as a writer is see the points where your character could have gone down path b rather than path a.  When you find that point, you must also find a compelling reason why the character didn't go there.  Why not?  What can be on path b that is worse than following path a?

Let's start with a typical horror story concept that is so over-used that I doubt many horror authors even consider it any longer, but it will serve to make the point.  A group of teens dare each other to go stay a night in the town's haunted house.  Same old, same old.  And if they've watched any movies, they're going to be one step ahead of the author in the plot.

So ask yourself why else they might go there.

How about a school trip, a broken down bus and bad weather?  Might also be a cliché, but moves a step away from the usual story, and can also move them into an area where there is no other place to go.    

What if the house doesn't look old, run down and haunted?  We're too used to the Victorian model of haunted houses, so here is a way to change it up.

What if they are in a place that isn't haunted or filled with dark creatures -- but the evil senses them there and invades?  Of course then you have to ask why this evil is out hunting, and in this particular area at the right time.  Despite coincidence in real life, you have to destroy it in your story.  There has to be a good reason why for everything.

In other words, find a different reason for their initial encounter.  After that finding that reason ask why they don't leave.  They can be stopped from getting away, but make certain you have every exit covered.

I'm going to mention one of the stupidest science fiction gimmicks I ever saw for upping the tension in a story.  It was in the original Alien movie.  Here is a huge ship with a small crew.  Here is the single escape craft and it doesn't have enough room for everyone, despite the crew being so small and the ship being so huge.  Oh, come on.  A ship that size, not even a large crew, and there isn't adequate resources to make certain they can escape in case of a problem?

People were going to die anyway, so the size of the escape craft hardly mattered.  If you are going to use something so totally illogical, having a crewman volunteer to stay behind -- and be the first to be killed -- would at least give it some reason.

Don't let something like this sort of illogic in the story cause your reader to toss aside the story.  You might get away with it in a fast-paced movie where there isn't much time to think, but books are for thinking people, and at some point they're going to start wondering . . . why?

Do you have a fantasy story, with a country facing invasion?  You may think you know the answer why, but if it's an easy answer like one country deciding to expand borders, you might want to look at something more complex, because nothing is ever that simple.  Maybe the king or queen doesn't want the war, but the border lords have started pushing anyway.  And why would they?  Maybe they're trying to gain enough power to take on the king, whom they consider weak and ineffectual.  So what does that change?  That makes the king of the invading country the ally to the people who are being invaded.  The situation just got more complex.


Look at your opening scene in a story and ask yourself why everything is there at that moment.    Then do a random check of other scenes and see if there is a logical reason for everyone to be where they are.  Ask why they are there and why they do what they do.  Look for anything that has no reasons leading up to it.  Build those reasons into the story.  Create complexity wherever you find answers that might be too simple.

Why:  Character

How about dealing with a local teen drama queen who is so spoiled that she pretty much runs the show or else there is hell to pay.  The over-the-top character of Cordelia in the Buffy series comes to mind.  But why is she that way?  Rich and pampered and used to getting her way is the most obvious answer.  What if there's another?  What if rich just translates to 'throw money at her' by her parents and the only true attention she gets is by being the drama queen around others?  In the second case, it isn't that she expects the attention, it's that she craves it.  There's a shift in personality from spoiled to needy.  And how can you show this?  What if the parents start missing important moments in the teen's life?

What happens when she realizes the next step in life is going to be without the people she can bully into making her queen?

What if she is a he instead?

And now the big 'why' in all of this:  why do her parents act the way they do?  The easy answer is self-absorbed, which we've all seen in parents, no matter what they're economic standing.  What other reasons are there?  One reason might be that she is not the only child.  Is there one older, on which they give all their attention because she or he is the heir, so to speak?  Is she not a boy, which could make this cultural? 

Are the parents divorced?  Or is the one parent who had been loving and interested dead, and the other never had to take up that role?

If you start asking why not only of your character, but also of the characters that made him or her what she is, you start opening up the story for more depth.  These background characters need not appear in the story, so you don't need to go into depth on their personalities in those cases.  Don't get too carried away or you'll end up losing track of the main story.


Find two characters in your work and ask the basic question of why they act the way they do.   What triggered their behavior for good or bad?  Who influenced them to act this way and why did those people act the way they did?

Why: Place

Here is one that most of you likely cover, but it won't hurt to think about.  Why does a location exist where it does?  Cities do not simply sprout out of nowhere.  They have basic needs and they must have a way to prosper through income. 

If you have it on a riverside, make certain there is something they have to transport out in trade for things that come in.  Here is a reason that not many people use for a town on a river's bank:  The river narrows here and the larger craft can no longer travel up or down stream from this point.  It's here that goods are off-loaded and sent on by land, which means anything from rail in modern day world to caravans in older times. 

A town will grow up around such a spot because there are going to be people waiting who need food, lodging and entertainment.  There might even be a sort of market where items off-loaded from boats are sold to people who will take them onward.  Grain, cloth, herbs, medical supplies, weapons: all sorts of things might be found in such a spot on any day a shipment comes in.  Furs, wood, gems and more might come from the opposite direction to be bought by boat captains.  (You can see how asking 'why' can lead to all sorts of world building addtions.)

In such a town, many things can happen.  There is a reason whymany different people can be there.

Little villages might grow up around a set of houses that belong to the same family as they spread out and build more homes for the next generation.  Or towns of various sizes might grow up along crossroads between other places.  If the paths lead to big cities, the village might grow, especially if it is a convenient place to stop partway on the journey.

The same is true for science fiction. Why is there a station or settlement on this new world?  Whyhave people come to this place?  A better life?  Wealth?  Ordered to do so?  Each one of those answers will give you a different society.  The society will affect both the people who were born there and how strangers interact with it.  If you want a closed society, start asking why and don't stop at the first easy answer.  Remember that there will be people who do not have the same feelings as the others, but there might be a vast majority -- especially early in a settlement before too many others arrive -- who have come here for one reason, good or bad.


Do the very basics of a settlement of your choice.  Where is it and why?  Why have the people come there?  How does this affect their attitude towards their location and towards others?  If you only write in the 'real world' take a look around your own neighborhood and consider what has brought the people there.

Whatever you write, don't forget to stop and ask yourself 'why' something is the way you imagine it. You will find your answer, and the answer can lead to even more interesting paths.