Happy Friday everyone!
Today I wanted to talk about answering the question “Why?” in your book.
Have you ever noticed how in books (and movies) villains almost always divulge their nefarious plans? This is because readers want an explanation for why people do bad things. In fact, readers want an explanation for everything, even down to the minutiae of why the main character skipped school that day. The world of fiction is hyper-logical, and in a book, every action and decision must have a logical reason.
While this is an easy concept to grasp, it is much harder to apply throughout an entire manuscript. The truth is that when many of us write scenes, we have not fully fleshed out why something happens. It just needs to happen in order to move from one scene to the next. However, this can be a major problem for readers who must know, or at least expect to know at some point, why a character did what he or she did.
For example, if Jane runs out of the house and begins screaming, you must include some reason why she did so. Maybe Jane hears a loud noise, so she runs outside. Then maybe Jane sees that her teenage son has driven his car through the garage door, and thus she screams. Perhaps originally it was only important to get Jane out of the house; now this explanation gives the reader a convincing reason why Jane would exit the house.
My following discussion is centered heavily around characters. However, most aspects of a book could be improved by answering “Why?”, even if you deliberately withhold that explanation.
Why do I Need to Answer “Why?”
Frankly, as a writer, your job is to entertain. And part of what is entertaining about books is understanding why these scenarios are plausible. In fact, I’d go so far to say that some of the most satisfying books are those that go even further than just giving logical explanations; they answer the why’s the reader never even thought to ask.
But There is no Explanation
Surprisingly even where there appears to be no explanation for a character’s actions, there actually is. A good illustration of this actually comes from the movie, The Dark Knight. There is a scene in the movie where Bruce Wayne and Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s butler, discuss why the Joker is committing horrific acts of violence. As an explanation, Alfred says, “. . . perhaps this is a man you do not fully understand . . . Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Technically, all that Alfred is saying is that sometimes there is no reason why people commit acts of violence, yet let’s be clear: this is still an explanation of the Joker’s actions.
If you cannot answer why something happens or why a piece of information is important, there’s a good chance it’s because it is unimportant. This is what I call needless content. If Jane calls a friend to chat for the sake of chatting—rather than placing the call because it is intimately tied to the plot—it’s going to slow down the momentum of the book.
What Happens If I Do Not Answer “Why?”
Not answering why can potentially reflect poorly on you the writer. Say you are writing a thriller, and you forget to explain why the father is trying to kill his daughter. Readers will quickly get frustrated with the novel. Worse, they may think you are a novice for forgetting to include that vital piece of information. As a writer, you and I both know how easy it is to forget to explain these actions. To us, they may seem so fundamental that they either go without saying, or we assume we’ve already inserted these explanations into the text.
How Do I Go About Fixing This?
The easiest way to fix this problem is to let friends, family, beta readers and/or editors read your manuscript and give feedback. As difficult or embarrassing as this prospect may seem, it is a much better alternative to disappointing agents or—for those who self-publish—your paying customers.
Aren’t You Talking About Motives?
I’ve heard many labels (depending on who is giving the explanation) for this concept. Motive is an internalized explanation that gives a character a reason to pursue a course of action. Another set of terms is stimulus and reaction. A stimulus is an external force that immediately provokes the character into action. “Why” is an umbrella term that encompasses both internal and external explanations.
I’ll be the first to point out that my scope is too general in many ways. An entire book can be dedicated to discussing “Why?”. It could be dissected from an extremely narrow perspective (looking at why a single sentence is important) to an extremely broad perspective (looking at why a chapter or even the book’s topic is important). In addition, the messy truth is that general content rules overlap each other. Even worse, because writing is so immensely creative, it is an impossible effort to nicely box these rules.
In conclusion, the hyper-logical world of fiction demands that writers give meaning to characters’ actions, even the mundane ones. Doing so will increase the believability of the story, and failure to do so will detract from reader interest and can potentially reflect badly on the writer’s skill. There is almost always needs to be an explanation for why a story unfolds the way it does. If there is not an explanation, it could be because the scene itself is unimportant. Lastly, a great way to fix these edits is to receive feedback from friends, family, beta readers, and/or editors.
Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services