The Importance of Asking Why
Remember back in school when your English teacher would say “in literature as in life…” So true!
But here’s the thing your teacher might not have mentioned: literature doesn’t just hold up a mirror and show us what happens in life. Literature gives us insight into why it happens.
Because sheesh, on the surface, by itself life can seem like one big messy, chaotic bunch of things that happen – things that often don’t make sense at all. Literature, on the other hand, is about how we humans make sense of that chaos.
That’s why the goal of all literature – of all stories for that matter -- is to probe what goes on beneath the surface, and give us juicy inside intel on what makes people tick.
In other words, stories aren’t about what people do, stories are about why they do it.
Yep, the question is always “Why?”
So the first question for the writer becomes: how the heck do you find out what makes your protagonist tick in the first place? How do you find the “Why?”
I found a fabulous answer to this question last Sunday when an article in the New York Times Business Section caught my eye with the headline: Talk Less, But Ask “Why” More
It was advice given by Gracious Home New York CEO Dottie Mattison, who was interviewed for the weekly “Corner Office” column. Mattison was talking about how her leadership style has evolved over the years, and what instantly struck me is that she sounded exactly like a writer discussing how to drill down to what makes your protagonist tick.
The first step is recognizing that your protagonist is separate from you – that he or she has their own subjective, experience-driven worldview. Here’s Mattison explaining this phenomenon:
Early leadership lessons for you?
It’s a simple point, but it’s very difficult to subordinate your value system and really meet people where they are, to understand what motivates them and how that is sometimes drastically different than what motivates you.
And by the way, that’s the best part of the job now . . .
Yes! The question of what motivates your protagonist might be very different from what motivates you – their experience and their lives will have taught them very specific things. And the more that you, as a writer, can dig into the specifics of how and why your protagonist sees things the way she does, the better you’ll be at zeroing in on what she wants and what stands in her way when you thrust her onto page one – which is, of course, the very stuff of story.
So, how exactly do you figure that out? That brings us to the secret of leadership, of life, and of story. Here’s Mattison again:
How has your leadership style evolved?
I talk a lot less than I used to. I still talk too much, and I work on this every single day. A mentor of mine once told me, “You stop at the first question. Keep asking ‘why,’ and then ask again, and then ask again, because you’re not going to get remotely close to the truth unless you keep asking questions.” He would literally say, “Ask ‘why’ six times.”
Yes, yes, yes! I love how Mattison says that she talks too much. For writers that translates to writing forward without really understanding your protagonist, or why she would do, well, anything – let alone the thing she’s doing in the moment. Instead the goal is to ask why, over and over, until you can’t dig any deeper. Asking Why? is the writers most potent tool. Learning how to wield that tool is what transforms a writer into a Story Genius.
Want to Be a Story Genius?
Asking Why? is at the heart and soul of my forthcoming book, Story Genius: How To Use Brain Science To Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere), due out from Ten Speed Press in August.
It was thrilling to finally put the finished manuscript into the deft hands of Ten Speed’s spectacular production team. After that, I only had one minute of, Geez, now what? Because the very next day I teamed up with author and book coach Jennie Nash (whose novel is developed in the pages of Story Genius) to develop a 10-week Story Genius Writing Workshop.
We just ran a beta version of the course and it was truly breathtaking the way it cracked story open for people and let them write in a way that was deeper, richer, more logical and potent than they had ever written before. It was one of the best workshops I’ve ever been a part of.
We’ve made some improvements to the course to make it even better and will be offering it again on May 9. There are only 50 seats total, and we’ll be offering them first to my newsletter followers and Jennie’s followers. To get the alert about when doors will open to reserve your seat, click here. On that page, you’ll also learn details about the course – who it’s for and what exactly we’ll be doing.
Plus, I’ll be giving away new bonuses and doing some live events in the coming weeks, so stay tuned here for all of that. I’d love to have you join me.
Meanwhile, in case you’re curious, here are a few Story Genius Course Testimonials:
“This has been more helpful than my MFA program by a zillion percent & about a zillion percent less expensive (& I loved my MFA program.)” -- Laraine Herring
“I just recommended the STORY GENIUS workshop to all 30 women at my writers' group! I'm loving the experience, wise guidance, and individualized feedback. Lisa Cron and Jennie Nash you and your editing team are doing a fabulous job!” -- Carol Van Den Hende
“I've bought a bunch of courses and tools over the past couple of years and this is one of the very, very few that I have loved. I'm such a fan. I wasn't actually planning to do anything with the already-written old book I'm working on...was just hoping to learn and to apply the method to my next novel, but now I actually have renewed hope for this one! You are amazing teachers, and this online group is fabulous.” -- Maya Rushing Walker
“So I thought you knocked my socks off last week, but THIS WEEK!! Socks knocked off and totally destroyed. Thank you, thank you, thank you. “-- Vicky Bell
“I am blown away by the depth of your comments. They are so helpful and will give me a tremendous amount of food for thought. I really didn't have any idea of what it takes to write a book. I'll get out my shovel and start digging. Thank you so much.” -- Linda Livingston
“This is the most substantive process I've ever been part of. It's tough, but I'm loving it.” -- David Wilhelm
Talk soon. Till then, here’s to the power of story – yours.