Hands down the most useful question you can ask of your writing…
But why though?
As lofty word-filled writers we sometimes like to fool ourselves into thinking we have all the answers…
Perhaps we over-plan or try to stick too rigidly to our carefully plotted outline when something glorious might happen if we take a step back and let the story meander a little bit.
Perhaps we have very clear ideas for what our characters should think and say and do when actually their fictional personalities might choose to think or say or do something completely leftfield.
Perhaps we’ve decided that our story is about one thing when actually it’s about something entirely different.
The antidote to this kind of self-imposed literary hamstringing is to simply ask WHY.
Often we get stuck or hit a plot hole or lose interest in a story because we’re trying to force it into the shape or style or subject we’ve decided it should be. But when we take a step back and question those choices, we open our stories up to far more interesting things…
Why does this scene have to happen?
Why can’t your character go a different way?
Why shouldn’t it be about radioactive dinosaurs instead?
The more you ask why, the deeper you get into your story, why you’re writing it, and what it’s really about. And you might not always have the answer but asking ‘why?’ prompts you to explore the unknown, cause and effect, the messy complexities of being human, and encourages you to trust your writerly guts instead of following the organised, sensible part of your brain.
Maybe asking WHY is a skill we lose as we get older. Kids certainly don’t have this problem. Children ask why, why, why all freakin’ day long. They question EVERYTHING.
- Why do I have to eat my peas?
- Why is the sky blue?
- Why do spiders have eight legs?
- Why don’t human have tails?
- Why can’t I go to bed at midnight?
- Why do farts smell?
- Why do I have to say sorry?
It doesn’t always matter if you give them the correct, scientifically accurate, logical answer. They’ll ask the same question again, or ask for the reason behind the answer, or just “but whyyyyyy?” ad infinitum.
At times, extremely annoying, often very entertaining, but also a great lesson for our writing.
So here’s your writing exercise for today:
Take a childlike question and answer it in as many ways as you can.
By all means start with the actual answer — go and deep dive into research to answer it comprehensively, even — but then let your imagination roam free, just like a kid.
Let your answers veer into absurdity. Wrong answers only. Make yourself laugh with how stupid they are.
See if the question or answers spark off a memory or a brand new question or some tangential thread of a story and follow it.
Be entirely free of plans or logic or ‘rightness’ and just let the writing take you where it wants to go…
Pick one of the questions above, come up with your own, or ask your friendly neighbourhood small child for inspiration.
It doesn’t have to be a WHY question, either.
Here are a few other genuine enquiries from the brilliant brains of kids, courtesy of @LiveFromSnackTime:
Or these letters from kids to God…
Take 20 minutes and answer the unanswerable! Write a hundred different ‘becauses’! Keep asking why, why, why…
And question EVERYTHING.