Monday, January 27, 2014

The Why IS the Heart of Your Story

So it's pretty basic. We've learned it since primary school...the 5 W's...the what, the when, the who, the where, the why (Okay, I wanted to ignore the how, because really, isn't that what we're doing now?) As authors, a few of these basics become a little more complex than a simple one word answer.
On by Stuart Miles

When you start a new story, usually the when and where are pretty quickly established. The what is a lengthy answer...but we're all trained to sum it up to a two page summary, a one page synopsis, a blurb, a promo sentence...a tagline. It's “what” it's about.

But the why? It's so much more than a simply-put answer. The why is something that I want to look at today, because it is essential to a story's believability, credibility, impression, expression... hmmm. It's answer(s), in my opinion, is the very essence of a good story.

Today, I will use the story that's near and dear to whose “whys” took many many tries to answer. It is my third novel, Her Cotton Heart:

The 5 W's 

When: The beginning of World War II on the home front.
Why? Ugh, already? We have to answer that one already? need to know why at ever step of the way! And I chose this era because my original inspiration is from my husband's grandmother...and this is the time period when she would have fallen in love (and I write historical romance, duh.) :)

Where: This is so fun for me...I love place. There are lots of places out there that I'd like to discover on a fiction level...but for this particular story, I chose rural Northeast Texas just bouncing back from the Great Depression. Why? I was inspired by my husband's family's century old cotton farm (different side than the above-mentioned grandmother).

What: Well this takes a little more thought... a little more planning...or shall we say, plotting? The plot is the what. Sometimes the what is what drives you to write the story in the first place. That's partly the case with this story of my heart. I wanted to write a sweet love story. I wanted to write a character- driven story. Really, the what becomes a second-level type I said before, this might be summed up in a pitch, or a promo sentence. And if you are anything like me, the what might take a while to form, perhaps it takes a whole draft or two to really know what your story is.

My What: A cotton farmer's daughter discovers her true identity when forbidden love unearths family secrets. 
 Why? Wait for it....

Who: Well, a cotton farmer's daughter...a farrier's son...and a whole slew of broken family members and distraught best friends. ;) And really, in my story, the why of the who is VERY important because it is character-driven. And perhaps, all my focus on the who (not the band), is what made me realize how important the why really is. Wait for it...
On by David Castillo Dominici

So we have the what, the when, the where, the who, with a sprinkle of why...but not the kind of why that's the Why—the big giant scalpel cutting through all the layers to really get to the core of every element of the story...the what, the when, the where, the character, the scene, the conflict, the name it, you've got to dig into each with this tool in's the WHY. And just like the what, the first broad sense of Why drove me to write my story...

Why write it? To show Grace vs. Legalism. Simple? Eh. How many stories out there can use this answer to my why? This is good to know, good to show, but why cuts so much deeper in so much more than a birds-eye view of the story.
The answers to why should run through your story like blood in the veins. Every part of your story should seep with the answers to why.

 Not just: Why is it when it is? Why is it where it is? Why is it what it is? Why'd you write it? Why is it storming at this moment in the story? Why is Gwyn the fifth child? Why is her sister mean? Why is her father hateful? Why does Will love her? Why does Lyddie take risks? Why did she hold her books just so? Why did she look to the horizon? Why, why, why?

Why did I WRITE THAT? Ever felt like you wrote a line because it sounded good, and then you realize it answers a major why? Sometimes you don't even realize the why is needed until an a-ha moment comes out of your character that had been a part of him in the first place. This next passage from my story kind of wrote itself but gave me the answer to a major why:

“I don't understand it all.” He nodded his head toward the dingy window, which no doubt hid Mr. Stanford in all his hatred, and then turned to Gwyn. “Do you?” Gwyn's lip trembled and her brows knitted together. 
Consideration shimmered in her ice blue eyes just before she squeezed them shut and slightly shook her head.
She doesn't understand it, either. She's not like a Stanford at all. 
Will swallowed back a smile and the pride that swelled from deep in his heart. Over eight years, he'd been right to think that Gwyn was different than her family. 

 Before I wrote this, I figured Will just saw Gwyn as a victim, a beautiful one, and wanted to rescue her. But when I started asking why, I discovered a whole layer of Will's backstory and perspective that would have remained hidden without the why. Why has he been attracted to Gwyn these years?Because he felt a connection with her. She didn't buy into the feud, either. She was the one way he could cross the forbidden line drawn between their families and find acceptance on the other side.

Why is essential in every aspect of your story. Why is a critical thinking element that gives depth, width, height to the “what” you are trying to accomplish. When you have your reason behind each element, then you have purposeful, meaningful, writing that might just pour the heart of your story into the heart of the reader.

And when they understand the answers to all the whys along the way, the what that you write, might change a life or two...on purpose.

What's your big why? Have you stumbled across another answer to why in your story lately?


Angie Dicken first began writing fiction as a creative outlet during the monotonous, mothering days of diapers and temper tantrums. She is passionate to impress God's love on women regardless of their background or belief. This desire serves as a catalyst for Angie's fiction, which weaves salvation and grace themes across historical cultures and social boundaries. Angie is an ACFW member and is represented by Tamela Hancock Murray of the Steve Laube Agency.


Krista Phillips said...

I think they need a band called "The WHy" now.

This reminds me when my kids are always harping on me... "Why? Why do I have to do my chore? Why can't I have a cookie at 10pm? Why can't we have poptarts for breakfast every morning? Why can't my friends come over even though you have a headache and our house is trashed and I haven't done my chore in two days??"

I used to HATE the answer, "BECAUSE I SAID SO"

And I think our readers hate that answer too. "Because I wanted that to happen" is not a good why for the story.

I'm realizing I do that a lot in my first draft... it's those edits for me where I slowly start to understand/clarify the why.

Sometimes the why is found at the end too. Which personally I think is kinda fun:-)

Pepper said...

Ooo, great thoughts, Ang.
I'm with Krista, it's so much easier to tell our kids 'because I said so" than to delve into the deeper answer :-)

But we all really NEED the why. It's good practice in critical thinking.

One of my favorite 'why' questions I want to answer for my characters is a spiritual one. "Why do you need to change to understand God's grace better?"
It's one I need to answer for myself every day.
Then the 'what' comes into play. "What" has to happen to you to help you understand the why of God's grace in your life?

Writing the story (for me) then becomes an active participation in my own understand of how God uses everything in our lives to work out his ultimate plan for us. His glory through us.
Why not with my characters :-)

Okay...sorry, got all theological there ;-)

Jeanne Takenaka said...

Angie, I loved this post, and I needed it. Today. I'm trying to get to know a character for a new story. This post and the Whys? are going to help me understand her, and him (when I get there) better. Thank you so much.


PS—I just noticed your Champion button at the top of The Writer's Alley blog. Congratulations!!

Angie Dicken said...

Great point! I used to think "because I said so" was the right of an author...but then, I realized, yeah, only those who don't get read! HA!

Angie Dicken said...

That is beautiful, and so true! It's like our fiction writing is really an exploration of non-fiction faith and God's unique design for the human condition. We have the wisdom of the Holy Spirit inside each of's bound to pour out in our stories!

Angie Dicken said...

Perfect timing! So glad this met you where you are at. It's a post that really just skims the surface of all that we can glean from asking Why! Thanks for the congrats too. I am super excited about it!
Have a great day!

Julia M. Reffner said...

Love this! So true!

The answers to why should run through your story like blood in the veins. Every part of your story should seep with the answers to why.

This line I love most, the thought of the why infiltrating absolutely every inch of the story.

Krista, your thoughts remind me of Made to Crave, a book I'm studying right now. Don't we all want to understand why we're motivated to do the things we do? So how much more compelling will our writing be if the reader understands our characters whys.

Ashley Clark said...

Angie, SUCH a great post! I love what you said about pinpointing the "why" because I think when we do that, we can be more strategic about all those other elements! And you know how I LOVE Her Cotton Heart! :)

Amy Leigh Simpson said...

Great thoughts today, Ang! Such perfect reminders for where I'm at in my newest WIP. Thanks :)

And PS... can't wait to pick up a copy of Her Cotton Heart someday!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Love this line: "Why is a critical thinking element that gives depth, width, height to the “what” you are trying to accomplish."

So very profound! Makes me think of "The Moral Premise" - it's all about the why, although Dr Williams uses different terminology for it. Williams would say that the plot (the what) is what the story is about, but the why is what the story is REALLY about. It's a pretty hollow story without that depth of meaning at the heart.

Casey said...

Oh man this post is SO good, Ang! And this line is pure gold: The answers to why should run through your story like blood in the veins. Every part of your story should seep with the answers to why.

There is depth and precision to that thought and this post. Taking notes!

I had never really thought about WHY with such a deep and thorough perspective, but it's 100% correct. Just goes to show you nothing should be thrown in for "just because" while writing a novel. :)