Still on the subject of Who what when where and why, the journalistic questions that can prompt our writing, today’s biggie is Why?
And it is a biggie. Why does your story happen at all? ’Why’ speaks of back story and of motivation.
The Back story, the history of your characters. And we have to know it all. I don’t mean at what age the hero first ate solid food or learned to walk – unless because of some accident that was only last week – but every detail that goes to make up his character must be inside your head, even if it never hits the page. Maybe not at what age he walked, but perhaps at what age did he learn to control his temper and what would make him snap now? We must understand what made this person the way he is, what makes him tick, and if you turn your nose up at psychology, then I’m sorry because there is an element of that here.
Get to know the guys inside out. Ask questions. We have to know what drives them to make the choices they do throughout the plot. What do they regret? What scares them so much they want to curl up into a ball and gibber? What makes them shout and lose their temper? What makes them cry? Are they bullies? Have they been bullied? How do they relate to others in your story?
Sometimes the devil is in the details. It isn’t always the big things that make John murder Jane. Sometimes it is the culmination of lots and lots of little things that have driven him mad over years. Maybe this morning she squeezed the toothpaste tube in the middle just one more time when he’d asked her not to do that, and he snapped. Perhaps Jane doesn’t go into work this morning because she’s met her first love and run away with him. Both of these involve that back story.
That might mean we have to use flash back. Very dangerous is flash back. If we don’t start from the ‘before’ state – and we probably don’t because we are told to begin as late as possible in our tale, with the drama that will form the basis of the story – then we have to pause the action with flash back. Stopping the tale in mid-flow to get relevant details in is a slippery business. Like research information, it’s easy to go info-dumping here. And not a good idea.
Drip feeding information is the way to go. Or choosing some sleight of hand to get the ideas in. He’s been married before and you don’t want to say so? How about wife number one is at the next table in the restaurant when hubby takes wife number two out and they have a spat over money or the children? Easier to get the details into the current dialogue and action, rather than go back over their venomous divorce. We’ll get all that from what you choose to tell us in their argument. Want to let us know he has a vicious temper and beat his previous wife? She tells us ‘you always were a bxxxxxd and I’ve got the hospital photographs to prove it’. Sliding those old stories in is never easy, but we can find ways to do it without stopping all the action.
What if we really can’t drip feed what went before? Then you have a couple of options: summarise quickly and get on with the story, let some other character explain why Jane is so terrified of snakes, or grab it by the scruff and do it justice, not as reported speech, not as a dream, but take us there and show us the vivid reality of Jane falling into a pit of vipers when she was twelve years old. (No, I’ve no idea how she got out unscathed either ….)
Be consistent. Even the most off the top of the head pantser probably needs to keep notes – unless they have a much better memory than me. If Jane’s phobia stems from age twelve in chapter two, it can’t change into age four on page 300.
What makes your hero happy? What is the end goal? Is Jane after love or just someone to protect her from vipers? Motivation is tied up with the goals the character have through the story. What drives them toward the goal? Why choose that particular endgame? Is John searching for the guy that killed his mother? So we might need to know why he is so qualified to go on this search. If he’s an ex-cop with a drink problem (I hope not, I’ve read that one…..) or he thinks his best friend is the culprit and he knows where to find him, then we need to know – this is the why behind his goal.
Identifying with the character. It can be a good idea to give us something with which to identify. The ordinary guy out for revenge over something that would upset us too. The woman wanting work after being a housewife for twenty years. Other people’s lives fascinate us and we long to know more. Of course, we may appear to have nothing in common with them if they’re a rich footballer or the footballer’s wife living in a mansion. But maybe they have a fear we recognise, maybe they’re desperately lonely, just lost their dog, want to leave home and can’t work out how. We need to find a way to connect with the characters, especially if they don’t seem to be very nice people.
I said you might not be able to avoid psychology here. Motives are the urges, which may be conscious or unconscious. that drive us to action. And they come from everything about us – physical, mental and emotional. We must know all the physical, mental and emotional traits of our characters so that we understand where they’re coming from.
Let me know how you set up the ‘why’ of your story? I’d love to know…..