Kath here. We must bid a fond farewell to WU contributor J.C. Hutchins. J.C. came to our attention with his viral marketing skills and social media acuity. These skills have launched a successful publishing career, so successful that he’s become a very busy guy! We wish him all the best in his endeavors. Please enjoy his last column for us. Don’t be a stranger, J.C.!
For my final WU column, I’d like to share perhaps the most important technique I’ve learned so far as a fiction writer. If savvily applied, this approach can add depth and to your story and characters. It will likely conjure deeper questions about your work — stuff that goes beyond nuts-and-bolts necessities such as getting your tale, and its players, from Point A to Point Z. It might make you a smarter storyteller. Your work will certainly benefit from it.
Fiction lives and dies by two things: plot and characters. I’ve read smartly-plotted stories that had pancake-flat characters. I’ve read stories that starred memorable characters, but sported sloppy plots. Hell, I’ve built a moderately-successful career writing stellar examples of both. These days, I’m making a conscious effort to up my game. I want the same for you.
Still-growing writers like us are most-often concerned with the question Why?. Why? fuels plots. Why can’t the hero see the villain for what he really is? Why is the fictional world you’ve created named Gla’Dur’Uk-Uk? Why is a supporting character sticking around in this scene? Why must we mention the gun in Act I?
Why helps us answer pressing questions — most often, the questions we need to answer for our plots to work, and for our characters to appropriately react to those plot points. Why is practical, economical; it provides the gears that make our stories go. I call Why? “desk work” — it’s the stuff you gotta deal with right fricking now. You can’t go wrong with Why?.
But I challenge you to answer a deeper question in your fiction: Why now?
For a few minutes, I want you to ditch such shiny chocolate-sprinkle concepts as genre, tropes, The Hero’s Journey, target audience, mood, voice, pacing and all that other stuff that windbag writers, literary agents and publishers drone on and on about. In your writerly mind, burn that ridiculous Moleskine and pull out a banged-to-shit spiral notebook. Trade your Cross for an 89-cent PaperMate. Put away that meticulously-polished writer’s toolbox and pull out the sledgehammer.
You’re not a Writer anymore. You’re a Storyteller. You’ve got the heart of a blue-collar. You’re a a blacksmith, a butcher, a mechanic, a farmer. Your fingernails are filthy, because you build stuff. The mindspace I want you to consider isn’t a world of words. It’s a world of story.
Are you with me, down here in my soot-covered workspace? Good. Let’s talk story. As you know, stories represent a convergence of events that lead to remarkable circumstances — the very circumstances that your story is about. What you might not consciously know is that stories are perfect storms. There are far-flung reasons why your characters and events are smashing into each other, in your story. A story’s circumstances should be perfectly-tuned for maximum narrative carnage and conflict. Things must unfold in terrible physical or emotional ways. People get hurt. Hearts shatter.
That’s the point. A story without conflict is masturbation put to paper.
But … why now? What events brought your characters (and reader) to this incredible crossroads of narrative potential? What secret past trauma — which may never be overtly revealed in your story — influenced your characters in such a way to place them on this narrative collision course? What twists and turns brought them here, to this soon-to-be-terrible place in which they’ll compete and connive? Why is all this happening now? Why is this the perfect time in your characters’ lives — perhaps the only time — for these events and experiences to truly define them?
If the answer is a highfalutin version of “Because the plot demands it,” that might get you a book deal, but it won’t make a lasting impact on a reader. Focusing on the Why? is like tending a garden: plant the seeds, water it, watch it grow. Exploring Why now? requires a sincere understanding of those strains of seeds — their legacies, their roots. How they came to be.
You must truly know your characters in order for Why now? to work. You must actually understand why the narrative plate tectonics that shoved such unlikely events together were moving in the first place, and for how long. You must be intimate with what these events emotionally represent for the characters they impact. This isn’t the home for your dainty writerly mind. This is the subterranean realm, the home of coal miners. It ain’t art yet. It’s craft.
I’m currently working on two screenplays, and both have greatly benefitted from Why now?. Some examples:
Example 1: Two businessmen who were originally snarky, barky adversaries because The Plot Demanded It are now longtime friends whose relationship is imploding because one is committed to the status quo, and the other sees the wisdom of an emerging business opportunity … and is willing to bet his entire fortune on it. What was once a serviceable antagonistic relationship is now a nuanced, history-packed — and far more emotionally-charged — conflict. See how that revision affects their interactions? Can you anticipate how that nuanced relationship might affect other characters around them?
Example 2: In my outline for the same story, a duplicitous heroine, who ultimately cons my hero, was a doe-eyed manipulator with no discernible motivation other than greed and a lust for power. This is perfectly acceptable character-fuel, especially within the story’s corporate environment. But now, I know that her father literally worked himself to death to support her — he did honest work, never cheated the system, and died a truly thankless death. Her seemingly irrational obsession for control and power now has meatier meaning. She’s directly haunted by his death and lack of achievement (in her eyes), and indirectly fueled by a vengeful vow for history to never repeat itself. This primes her for even deeper duplicitous behavior in my story. All because I went beyond Why? and explored the Why now?.
Example 3: In the outline for my other screenplay, a stone-faced assassin accepts a hit job because he wants the brainbendingly terrific payout. Again, adequate explanation — he’s a hired killer. But now, he takes the job because if he’s successful, he’ll get out of this miserable business — something he desperately craves, because it’s all he can ever remember doing. His entire adult life has been one assignment after another. That stony face now represents a meaningless husk of a man, someone who kills because he can’t not kill. Why now? provided me with the necessary context to make him far more “real” than he would’ve been otherwise.
Why now? brings depth to your characters. It brings resonance, meaning — and themes — to your plots. You’re no longer engaging in a narrative game of Connect The Dots. You’re seeing the design and creating the dots before the lines are ever drawn.
The best part? The benefits of Why now?, which often impact your characters, will positively impact your story. Your characters now have more nuanced histories and motivations, which will define how they behave within your narrative. Their dialogue will be sharper, more personalized. Their actions will indeed be more action than reaction.
This doesn’t mean your characters will do or say something you don’t expect them to do. (This is a writerly phenomenon I don’t much believe in anymore.) But it does mean they’ll behave in deeper, more appropriate ways to your perfect storm circumstances. Understand why these people and events are converging right now, and you’ll probably be armed with the raw materials to craft a smarter story with smarter characters.
Once you do that, you can wipe the soot from your face, clean your fingernails, and put away the sledgehammer. You can be a Writer again, and tell that story you were born to tell. That story the world needs to read.
Write hard, my friends. Fly high.