Writer Pro Tip #1: Why Ask, “Why?”

I have a 21 month old son. As I’m sure every parent brags, he’s a total genius. He speaks two languages, can count, and has a huge vocabulary. For all his intellectual prowess, however, he hasn’t yet learned the meaning of the word, ‘why.’ My understanding from other harried parents is that this stage usually kicks in about three years old, and that it’s tedious to endure. But I can’t wait until my kid starts asking ‘why’ questions because I love answering them and I’ve already started getting my answers locked and loaded for the future. For now, though, when I confront him with a ‘why’ question of my own, such as, “Why are you throwing all of your toys over the balcony?” or “Why do you insist on pouring your milk on the dog?” the only response I receive is a blank, doe-eyed stare.

Interestingly enough, I occasionally also seem to get this response from writers.

First, let me say that I’ve had the distinctive honor of working with several writers, all more talented and accomplished than myself. My own role has been to provide creative guidance in story development.  I’m the coach, the writer is the quarterback. I can’t throw the ball, but I can tell when someone’s form is incorrect. (For a guy who doesn’t know jack shit about sports, I sure use a lot of sports analogies.) So this isn’t a critique on any writer that I’ve worked with (in case any of you are actually reading this) but rather, an observation about writers in general, and I’ll humbly include myself among them as it’s through my own mistakes that I’ve come to learn the importance of the word, ‘why’.

For the past several months, a great deal of my time and a great deal of my sacrificed sleep has gone into story development for some really amazing fiction projects, both inside and outside of Privateer Press. Most recently, I’ve had the opportunity to delve into the past of WARMACHINE’s famously infamous, Allister Caine, gunmage-warcaster extraordinaire. Working on this project has been a considerable team effort. My good friend, the talented Miles Holmes, has run point as the author of this tale that will feature in next year’s product lineup from Privateer Press. Helming our operation is the ever patient, always calculating Director of Publications, Scott Taylor. My own role has been that of creative director, which in this case has included story-plotting, character development and general guidance for handling the setting, as well as frequently acting as a liaison to our continuity and in-house writing staff of Jason Soles and Doug Seacat to make sure we’re keeping our facts straight. Five people have been involved in this project for weeks and not a single word of the actual story has even been written yet. Oh, words have been written. We’ve generated pages of them. Dozens and dozens of multi-page emails in multiple threads, an 18 page story outline that Miles has revised daily, and we’ve thrown in a few conference calls on top of it all. But it’s all just been preparation for Miles to go weapons-free and start blasting away at this fantastic tale. So much work for one story! “Why”, you ask? Well that’s the operative question, isn’t it.

The definitive Caine, by the world famous Andrea Uderzo.

Allister Caine is a central character to the WARMACHINE mythos. Despite his frequent appearances in the ongoing saga of the setting, and despite being the most popular two-gun slinging rogue in the Iron Kingdoms, the public knows very little about him. His history has been alluded to in vague references, deliberately left mysterious until the day we had the time to tell his harrowing tale of dark dealings and intrigue. At the point we decided that time had come, those involved (myself included) thought it would be a relatively simple matter. The beats of Caine’s background were well established; he was a street criminal, turned military man who relapsed to his old ways before mysteriously being restored to his military career. Internally, as the creators of this setting, we thought we knew Caine intimately, that this work of fiction would be a matter of merely connecting the dots…until we started asking, “Why?” Why did Caine join the military? Why did Caine murder a man in cold blood? Why did Caine return to lives he abandoned, twice? And that’s when the real work began.

‘Why’ is the great dismantler. It unravels the fabric of a story as quickly as the word can be spoken. Sufficiently answering the question of ‘why’ necessitates carefully orchestrated logic during the creation process, and failure to ask ‘why’ is the tungsten carbide drill that produces plot holes in any piece of writing, no matter how cleverly the words may be strung together. ‘Why’ is the the concrete foundation of a character’s motivations. And ‘why’ is the gossamer thread that suspends our disbelief.

Who hasn’t yelled aloud at the film screen, “Why is she going back in there?!!” This and every unbelievable story moment from, “Why did the the stupid space biologist touch that slimy space cobra?” to “Why would you build a flying aircraft carrier with only four lift turbines?” is the result of a writer (or someone in a creative position guiding the story) not asking, “Why?” or mistakenly believing that we the audience, wouldn’t.

Human beings have an instinctive desire to consume stories. But we also crave knowledge, and knowledge wants understanding, and understanding requires explanation. And if there’s one other thing human beings love to do, it’s criticize. We love calling bullshit on something. So when that explanation doesn’t measure up to everyday common sense and the way we all intuitively understand the world and the people in it, we all want to be the first to appear brilliant and clever by exposing the flaw in the design. The lesson here for writers is that as much as people crave a good story, they seem to be much more interested in pointing out its mistakes and tearing it down, and the only universal defense for this is to constantly, continually, and without fail, ask yourself as you’re writing, “Why?”

Sometimes it can feel like you’re chasing your tail. Each ‘why’ answered reveals a new question, sometimes forking the path and multiplying the number of questions that must be answered. Uncommitted or inexperienced writers forget to ask in the first place, or believe that the reader or viewer won’t notice the unanswered question or won’t be interested in following a string of logic down that rabbit hole only to find the unanswered dead end. But the clever writer, the experienced writer, and the writer who has an ounce of pride in the project he puts his name on, will embrace the ‘why’ and chase it through every layer it reveals, diving deeper and deeper into the plot and characters until every branch of every thread has reached its terminus and no more ‘whys’ remain.

If someone is going to do something other people would find irrational, you’ve got to seed the reason why ahead of time or we’re jarred right out of the story. If a plot twists and turns, you have to properly connect those dots and explain why, or the tale will leave us behind in disbelief.

The rule, then: always ask “Why?”, and then ask it again. Because even if you don’t, your audience will, and we are unforgiving bastards.

The origin story of Allister Caine has been a monumental exercise in asking, “Why?” There’s a decade of history to this setting and a decade’s worth of people who are intimately familiar with its every detail. Caine has been a cornerstone of the setting since almost the beginning, and his existence is embedded in the building blocks of the world itself. We’re threading the needle, weaving a story through not only an established history but a well known set of ‘rules’ that must be adhered to faithfully, lest the story ring untrue. In discovering WHO Caine is and HOW he came to be, we have endeavored to leave no WHY unturned. Fortunately, I’m working with a crack team of professionals who understand the value of ‘why’ and are committed to making sure we’ve anticipated them all so that this character and his thrilling story can be brought to life as authentically as possible.

And if we’ve done our job well, we can all avoid that blank, doe-eyed stare that my toddler gives me when I ask him, “Why do you keep hitting me with your plastic toy rake?” (Don’t worry, I’m sure there’s a good reason. He’s a genius.)

 

 

3 thoughts on “Writer Pro Tip #1: Why Ask, “Why?”

  1. I believe that this is a good lesson for many fiction writers out there who think they have a good idea for a story (and many of them do) but don’t know how to elaborate it enough with “why.” They have great character concepts, and a neat story, but can’t seem to tie it up together. Too often, these writers try to conquer an entire setting in one book, which is folly at best. While giving a huge background can be a great read, it also generally tends to leave out purpose, or “why.”

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