How, what and why.

I am a bit stuck with the various WIP. When I get to this point – and yep 24 books and dunno how many shorter pieces later, I still get stuck. I have various get out of jail cards – jumping ahead, adding another point of view, re-reading… and then questioning and re-assessing. The first question is always ‘why?’ Why the situation exists, why the character does what he does, why he chooses that way to do it. What is the motive? Sometimes that is quite simple, and sometimes it means re-assessing the characters and the story, shifting them around.

The second – for me, is ‘how’?

‘Why’ is always crucial for me. I don’t care who you are and what the story is, if you don’t have a clue why the characters act as they they do, and filter that into the story, it will probably be a pretty chaotic, and likely very dull and confusing. So ‘why’ shapes ‘how’. None-the-less, ‘how’ as a logical progression from ‘why’ is a difficult question. Many of the people who have told me they have a story to tell, have a story of ‘how’ the character (became supreme overlord / saved the heroine/ found the ancient treasure).

Now, there is no ‘right way’ to write a story. Plenty of ‘wrong ways’ but no one ‘right way’ – and in the hands of a great story teller even wrong ways become pretty good. So of course, it is perfectly possible to start with ‘how’ (It is how I started with the plot for ‘JOY COMETH WITH THE MOURNING’ and ‘RATS, BATS AND VATS’. In both cases someone suggested a problem which they saw as insoluble, and because I have a terrier-like mind I then HAD to find ways in which it was possible. In the latter it was an editor telling Eric that the cranial capacity of a rat (or a bat) was simply too small for uplift to intelligence. Eric asked me if this was right. I promptly thought of three ways of how such limitations could be circumvented… then we just had to work out why they would need to do that, and what kind of people would do that – which then again re-shaped HOW they would do it.

Along the way some rather lineal thinking neural expert told me that mapping what synapses did what was still in its infancy, and very complex and that a neural-computer direct interface was thus implausible if not impossible. You’d have to know exactly which bit of brain to target to get the right signal. Ah. How? Well, fiberoptic cable bundles have much the same problem in a way. Back in the day when all the little telephone wires were different colors you knew that the red wire this end connected to red wire that end, and so on. So along came a bunch of fiber-optic threads and knew which one was ‘red’ or ‘blue’ or even taupe. So some bright-spark solved that how by putting a signal through one thread – and designating the receiving one as ‘red’ (or whatever. Number 23007). I thought if you put enough interface receivers through the brain – and then worked out what the signal was coming out of that -you’d map the brain, rather than needing a map to know where you were going. Curiously, that’s exactly what brain-research has now been doing. No, I don’t think they read my book. And what could you do with that? well you’d have to read the book to find out.

The point I am making, I suppose, is that it is possible to work the story from the problem (what) that needs solving (crossing a post-nuclear wasteland, or solving a murder-mystery) starting from ‘how do my characters do this’ which then leas to ‘why would they do it that way – which then leads to shaping your characters.

Of course, shaping your characters then as often as not leads back to changing the ‘how’ because that’s not how that character would do it.

The essentials remain however. Whatever needs to be done needs both a how, and a why. I realized -while wrestling with the current book that I’d sorted out ‘why’ very well – one core character is in love with another, who is disinterested, so, because of the nature of that character, they commit various deceptions and betrayals, to gain a position of power over the disinterested, or at least to kill the person that the object of their desire is interested in. That why drives each of the other whys of all of the other characters… and each of the characters has motives, and acts according to those motives. I have a broad idea of what they’re doing, what the problem is, and what the end point – where all the motives are revealed, is. But really I haven’t sorted out quite the HOW. Now that I know that’s what is wrong, I am working on it.

So: if you’re stuck… it’s worth actually codifying it for yourself: What is the problem? How are they going to solve it? And why would they solve it that way?

Image Pixabay, Geralt, free for commercial use.

6 comments

  1. This just made me realize something. The current WIP got going so quickly because the WHY was sitting right there in front of me. That made the HOW impossible to ignore.

    Up until last night I was stuck on where to go past Act II. I know where the problems of Act I lead to the rising action of Act II. But I was stuck on an initial premise that, while it was good enough for the first bit, absolutely fell apart in the second. The goal was not what I thought it was, that goal was sort of a necessary prerequisite for the actual goal. Which is a lot bigger. And I can’t get away from it without breaking the story.

    Things are going to get messy in the next forty chapters. Uhff. Heavy writing cap on. Back to the word mines. Hopefully another 3-5k today.

  2. How can be very revealing of why. When I first started to write, once I finished a story I knew why the characters had done what they did, and not until.

  3. amuses me when some bright sole(sic) comes out with a “We don’t know how to do that. So this story set in the far far future is totally impossible and implausible!” Fully in the spirit of the General who once said “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist-“

  4. I was going to say I’ve been fortunate that my characters all came with strong ‘whys’ but I just realized that hasn’t been the case. What really happens is I’ll have these cool scene ideas (i.e. character has a recurring nightmare about being ambushed and killed by someone using their own sword) and I have to ask why is this a thing before I can write the actual story.

    I’m not sure I can even write a story without having a handle on the why’s.

    1. Cool scenes are a great way to start stories.

      My really fun story to write was Through A Mirror, Darkly, where I knew which superhero setting trope I would use, or rather take an axe to, and nothing else.

  5. My usual method is my nonhumans do something I don’t understand, then I have to figure out why they do that, then that colors everything thereafter (and sometimes requires a bit of retrofitting where I got it wrong before). Rinse and repeat until I’ve learned to more or less think like they do.

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