As regular readers know, I write mystery novels. “Whodunnit” is important, but “whydunnit” is as important. The why has to hold up to reader scrutiny. We’ve all read books where the “why” makes you throw it across the room.
As a writer, the “why” is a real challenge, and takes a lot of background work, very little of which will end up in the story. It involves asking some hard questions, some of which will make you uncomfortable. Of course, that discomfort is the signal that you need to keep drilling down, and asking more questions.
There are two areas where you need to ask the hard questions while writing.
Character Development: Characters are motivated to do an action, which is one why. But characters also have quirks that could create interesting backstory, or are good for you as a writer to know about as you build your narrative arc. Sam hates cigarette smoke. Why? The reader may not need to know right away if ever, but as the writer, you need to know if it is because he is allergic, because he is an ex-smoker who misses it, or because he lost someone he loved to a smoking related disease. Each of those paths brings you to a different why, and gives you a different sense of Sam.
Plotting: Stuck on your story? I have two questions I ask when I am stuck. The first is “and then what?”. The second is “why”. Back to Sam and his cigarette smoke issue. Sam goes to a party, and someone is smoking. And then what? Sam punches him out. And then what? The smoker hits his head, and dies. And then what? Sam buries the body in the next door neighbor’s garden. Interesting story. But asking why–why does he hate smoke? Why does he hit the smoker? Why does he bury the body?–adds so much more to the story itself. And then what helps get you out of a plot rut. Asking why makes it interesting.
Writing has a flow, and writing that first draft is about building the bones of the story. Asking “why” adds meat to the bones, and is how you will differentiate yourself as a writer. Don’t let your characters or your story get away with “because”. Keep asking the hard questions.
Julie Hennrikus is an arts administrator, J.A. Hennrikus is a short story writer, and Julianne Holmes writes the Clock Shop Mystery series for Berkley. They all look alike, and also blog with the Wicked Cozy Authors.