Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Ask Yourself Why

Once again, Terry Odell is here to share some tips on writing. We like her so much we are going to let her keep coming back. Thanks, Terry.

Even though we write fiction, it has to come across as reality. One technique I use to make sure things seem “real” is to ask myself WHY a character would do or say something.

If the answer is "Because I need it for tension/conflict/humor/plot advancement," it's probably wrong. When I was writing DANGER IN DEER RIDGE, the first major error I spotted in my opening draft was having the hero appear while the heroine was looking in her car's trunk for her tool kit. WHY didn't she hear him drive up? Well, he left his truck at the top of the drive, and she was busy looking for the toolkit. But WHY did he park the truck there? WHY did he come down without a toolkit of his own? So she could be surprised and scared is contrived and cheating.

All these WHY questions require answers. Answering all the WHY questions drives the story forward for me. My thought processes might not end up on the page, but (and this is most prevalent in the early chapters, while things are taking shape) the results do.

So, where it ended up: The hero’s son is asleep in the truck. It's a quiet rural area, one he knows well, and he's not concerned that someone will come by and Do a Bad Thing. But that's a bit weak, so I added a dog who would take the head off of anyone who tried anything. (Note to self: don't forget you've now saddled yourself with yet another 'character' to keep track of).

More WHY questions. WHY not go all the way down the drive? It's steep, curves, and riddled with potholes, and he doesn't want to wake the kid. Weak. What if he's not an experienced father? WHY not? Because his wife left him, took the kid and remarried, and he hasn’t seen the kid since he was an infant. WHY does he have the kid now? Because the ex-wife and the boy's stepfather were killed in a Tragic Accident? Works for now. (Note to self: revisit this before Grinch has to tell anyone about it.) Also, having him a new and inexperienced father allows for more conflict between hero and the Very Caring Mother who is our heroine.

More notes: WHY doesn't the hero work for Blackthorne, Inc. when the book opens, since the other books in the series open with a scene of a Blackthorne op. WHY does he live conveniently near the heroine's new digs?

By the time I'd written the scene, answers to my why questions gave me more insight into my characters. I realized that the hero’s friendly demeanor and magnetic grin weren't consistent with a man who's worried about leaving a young child asleep in his truck. I ended up tweaking that scene, which in the end added to the tension, because the heroine sees someone who's in a rush, who keeps looking over his shoulder. She extrapolates from her own secret-keeping life, and it seems logical for her to worry that this guy might be out to get her after all.

If you don’t want your story to seem contrived, try asking yourself “why.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Terry Odell is the author of numerous romantic suspense novels, as well as contemporary romance short stories. Most of her books are available in both print and digital formats. She’s the author of the Blackthorne, Inc. series, steamy romantic suspense novels featuring a team of covert ops specialists. To see all her books, visit her Web site. You can also find her at her blog, Terry's Place, as well as follow her on Twitter, or visit her Facebook page.


Posted by Maryann Miller who is asking herself why she got into this wacky business in the first place.

19 comments :

  1. Gosh this was a great post. I can't gush enough about this awesome blog. A great writing tool for any writer. Thanks for your awesomeness!!!

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  2. Dawn -- well, thanks! And I know the rest of the BRP gang thank you as well.

    Terry
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  3. Seems like a simple concept but something we forget to do or don't think about doing. I'm noting this idea (literally in a notebook of writing ideas I keep). Thank you.

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  4. One word, and a story grows. Love this. Now I'm going to keep muttering to myself as I write...Why? Why? Why?

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  5. It's rather like writing with my toddler looking over my shoulder. "Why, mommy? Why? Why! WHY?"

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  6. Very good advice. "Why" is often a question we forget to ask.

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  7. Barbara - a notebook of writing ideas. That's a good idea.

    Liza -- hope it helps (and doesn't drive you nuts)

    Scooter - ah, I remember those days. And if you're writing, "Because Mommy Says So" won't work.

    Helen - asking and answering questions is an important part of the writing process.

    Terry
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  8. 'Why' questions don't ALWAYS get the results you want ... when Simon Wagstaff asked the Grand Poo Bah, "Why were we born only to suffer and die?" the answer was, "Why not?"

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  9. Christopher: Not getting the answer you WANT sometimes makes for a better story

    Terry
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  10. Terry: Thanks you for role-modeling this behavior from your perch as an experienced, published author. I think too many rookie writers assume they "should" know such things before writing, when in effect, these are the things one often learns from the writing (and failing and re-writing then running it past others then tweaking etc. etc.). Don't let the "not knowing" stop you, writers! The writing process itself is one of discovery.

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  11. This is a wonderful post, Terry. I've often told people that I don't write 'whodunnits', I write 'whydunnits'.

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  12. Sometimes the reasons given for why a character does something make no sense at all. Hate when that happens.

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  13. Thanks for this, Terry. Sometimes I focus on the "what if" questions and forget that the "why" questions are just as important. Maybe even more important because if the motivation isn't there, the reader is not going to believe some of the outrageous things our characters do.

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  14. This is EXCELLENT!! I need to tape up a big sign on my computer: WHY?

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  15. Kathryn - I think my approach comes from not having had any deep seated dreams or desires to become a writer before I started writing, so everything was trial and error (lots of errors). I'll be talking about my feelings about rules at my own blog tomorrow.

    Elspeth - I much prefer the 'why' to the 'what' or the 'who'

    Morgan - hate when that happens, too! Usually entails some rewinding.

    Maryann - maybe romance writers have one step up because their mantra is GMC - Goal, Motivation, Conflict.

    Heidi - Reminders are always helpful

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  16. Good post, Terry. Don't you think a writer could answer a lot of the Why questions simply by trying to understand the character ahead of time? That's why I think it helps to write character sketches that delve into background the author might not necessarily intend to use in the story. Then we have some idea of what a character is likely to do--and when they do something different, you REALLY need to ask why.

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  17. Bob, an interesting and legitimate question. I know authors who spend a lot of time filling out character sheets, dealing with all sorts of back story so they'll know their characters. However, I haven't been able to work that way. And sometimes, it's easier to work backward. Character does X because of Y, and the "Y" would never have occurred to me until I put the character in that situation. (Does that make any sense at all?) I'm more of a 'discovery' writer than anything else. If I worked the way you suggest, I'd probably go back and change my character's history rather than worry about why he was doing something against the grain.

    In the 'behind the scenes' section of my website, I shared my initial plotting/characterizations for Where Danger Hides. A lot of Dalton was already fixed because he appeared in a previous book, but I like the surprises.

    There's no wrong or right. It's what works for you.

    Terry
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  18. I'm with you, Terry, on the character sketches. I know it works well for some writers to do a detailed bio of characters, but I like the discovery method. I do, however, have the series bible with the basic info on characters so I keep that consistent from book to book.

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  19. Maryann, once I learn something about my characters, I do keep track. Saves a lot of time if you're going to have another book set in that same world.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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