The Importance of Asking Why

by Lisa Jordan, @lisajordan

Until last month, I’d spent the last nineteen years of my life working as an early childhood educator. While working with young children, one of the questions I’d heard most often in my career was, “Why?”

Children ask this question constantly because they are sponges, soaking up all kinds of information. If they’re given one answer, chances are they’ll continue asking why to find another. Sure, it can be annoying, but it’s how they learn. Many times I’d ask them why and they’d usually tell me “because.”

One of the best bits of writing advice came from a workshop I attended years ago at an ACFW conference taught by Susan May Warren and Rachel Hauck. Each attendant had been given an envelope with a cutout letter Y inside to remind us of the importance of asking “Why?”

Asking our characters “Why?” is one of the best ways to get to the core of their identities, dark moment stories, and motivations for their actions and behaviors. Learning their responses enables us to understand how to craft their stories.

Think about characters from your favorite books and movies. Why do they act in a certain way? Usually, their motivation stems from a specific event in their past, which is what Susie May Warren calls a “dark moment story.”

Recently, I rewatched Leap Year and The Proposal on Netflix. I’ve seen both movies half a dozen times. What can I say? I love Matthew Goode’s accent and Ryan Reynolds’ sense of humor.

In Leap Year, Anna, the heroine, likes to have a plan in place and know where she is going through life.

Why?

While she was growing up, her father was a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants kind of guy who was always on the lookout for the next big idea. His lack of structure and gainful employment had Anna working after school in order to keep their house, which ended up being repossessed on Christmas Eve. That trauma affected the decisions she made as an adult.

In The Proposal, the heroine Margaret works hard, demands much, and has very little fun.

Why?

She’d lost her parents when she was a teenager and had forgotten what it was like to have a family to love. Her work became her purpose in life, so she demanded the same from her staff.

As you continue to get to know your characters, keep asking ‘why’ to learn their story goals and figure out their motivations for wanting them. That will allow you to put believable obstacles in place to keep them from achieving their goals.

In Leap Year, why does Anna want to go to Ireland?

To propose to her boyfriend who seems to be dragging his feet. After all, it worked for her grandparents. But her trip wasn’t easy peasy. She dealt with all kinds of challenges, including meeting the insufferable (to her) Declan, who added another layer of obstacles.

In The Proposal, why does Margaret want to marry Andrew?

To keep from being deported and losing her job, which is everything to her. But then her feelings change and she risks hurting Andrew and his family.

So, before you begin your next book, take the time to ask your characters “why.” This exercise will enable you to get to know them, create strong goals and motivations, build in realistic obstacles, help maintain consistency with their character, and help them to change and grow in order to do something at the end they hadn’t been able to do at the beginning. And hopefully, you will have crafted a solid story that keeps your reader turning pages.

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One of the best ways to get to the core of our Character’s identity.~ Lisa Jordan (Click to Tweet)

Asking why will allow you to put believable obstacles in place.~ Lisa Jordan (Click to Tweet)

Heart, home, and faith have always been important to Lisa Jordan, so writing stories with those elements come naturally. Represented by Rachelle Gardner, Lisa is an award-winning author for Love Inspired, writing contemporary Christian romances that promise hope and happily ever after. She is the Operations Manager for Novel.Academy, powered by My Book Therapy. Happily married to her own real-life hero for almost thirty years, Lisa and her husband have two grown sons. When she isn’t writing, Lisa enjoys family time, kayaking, good books, and playing in her craft room with friends. Visit her at lisajordanbooks.com.