Sunday, February 15, 2009


Why? I've got a running theory that this is the single most important word a writer has in their vocabulary.

I've been told that I'm a pretty tight plotter. I think it's because I'm like a five-year-old pestering Daddy with questions. Why does an octopus have eight arms? Why do sparrows have two three toes in front while a parrot only has two? Why, why, why? I've always had an insatiable curiosity about things so I've never been afraid of the word why.

I also had parents who weren't afraid to attempt an answer, no matter what. They never threw a "Just because, so stop asking," at me. I'm very grateful for that.

Now when I look at my stories, I've got an endless stream of why running through my head, punctuated by the occasional what.

And I have to have answers to these questions. I can't leave it alone until I do. Maybe that's why I'm so attracted to stories with intricate world building. Good world building shows off the power of why. But why can be a very useful tool when plotting.

Take Hitchcock's The Birds. This movie drove me nuts. It didn't give me nearly enough answers to the whys. Why did the birds attack? Why that town? Why all the birds? Why in the heck did she open the door at the top of the stairs when she heard a noise in there and she was safe with the door shut? Please, someone help me with that one.

Now the horror genre likes to leave out the whys. It gives us a sense of unease when we don't have answers, so I can defer to Hitchcock on that one. However, in Romance, I've got to have those whys. Why is she trying to escape her former life? Why is the hero so attractive to her? Why does he drive her nuts? Why did she open the door at the top of the stairs when she heard a noise and she was safe with the door shut?

This is where why becomes such a powerful tool. If you use why correctly, you avoid the notorious TSTL (Too Stupid to Live) Heroine. You avoid the dastardly for dastardliness's sake villain, and you can avoid a lot of plot holes.

And so I embrace the power of why, and don't ever let myself get away with "Because. That's why." It makes world building and plotting more fun.



Ann Aguirre said...

I think there's a balance. You can give too much information, spoon feeding to readers, which I think is insulting, but you can also give too little, so they're not able to put the pieces together.

When you manage to seed the clues just right, they should figure the why for themselves and feel totally satisfied with the book.

Jess Granger said...

Yeah, I agree. That's a matter of what you put in, and what you leave out. For me, I still need to know the things I leave out. It's compulsive.=,

For example, I had to answer the question, "Why are traditional Azralen blades curved?"

Well, since Azra's inhabited land masses are islands, they don't have enough land mass for much metal working. Also, they are an arboreal culture, so in the early years of cultural formation, they didn't spend much time on the ground to develop metal works. Consequently, they wouldn't have forged weapons. So where do the weapons come from? I've established the presence of felam beasts, which are an alien form of an aquatic dinosaur. They hunt along the sea-cliffs of the islands. Killing one was a great feat of valor, as well as a boon in resources. Initially weapons that showed skill in battle demonstrated mastery of this beast, so they were made from hardened and sharpened rib bones, which are curved. As Azra advanced, they developed advanced technology, but the shape of blades has carried over from the ribs of the felam beasts. Hence, they are curved.

Is any of that in the book? No. But if anyone asked, I could tell them why Azra has curved weapons.



Angie Fox said...

As a reader, I'm comfortable not knowing all of the why's, and I actually like it when a book lets me fill in some of the pieces. Then, it becomes mine in a way.

At the same time, I like to think that the author knows much more than she is revealing. That's why I like series books so much because the worlds are constantly evolving.

Lori Devoti said...

Ah, yes the birds inner motivation. I have wondered about that too...
And that was before I was writing and knew the whole GMC thing.
If I don't know my antagonist's GMC the whole thing is pigeon poo. (since we were talking birds...)

Jess Granger said...

Honestly, I can't tell you how long that scene has driven me nuts. What person in their right mind would open that door.

Maybe she was thinking it was a cat on the other side?


Casey said...

Jess, I am amazed at the extent of your world building!

As for The Birds . . . as much of a chicken (there's that bird reference again!)as I am, I never found that movie scary, just stupid, for all the reasons you mentioned. So why is it a classic?