When writing a story – for the first time or the tenth – writers often have to tackle the dreaded question of Why? Why are you writing, why are you writing this story, why does the story you’re telling matter, why should the reader care? This isn’t a trivial step. Rather, the answer to Why? is crucial to establishing a compelling plot.
The Difference Between Story and Plot
Part of your job as a writer is to answer at least some of these questions. Readers want to experience tales that provide deeper meaning, or context, or at least excitement. So it’s important to have a good grounding in the basic difference between story and plot – what something is versus what moves that something forward. Story, at its simplest, is what happened, and what happened next based on the consequences of an action, repeated to some extent until there is no next event and all the various threads tie themselves up into neat knots. Story’s primary focus is progression: Having a beginning, a middle, and an end, for example.
Plot is a bit more complex. Plot focuses on the aforementioned Why? This is where your job as a writer becomes more complex.
The Many Challenges of “Why?”
If you’ve written a story to the point where you’ve shared it – with a friend, in formal critique, or in a group workshop setting, you’re probably familiar with the dreaded Why? It sounds something like this:
“I really liked the story, the character, but I wanted to have a clearer sense of why they did what they did, said what they said, and finally drove that burning car off a cliff.”
While you hear what they’re saying, and appreciate the feedback, you’re frustrated they didn’t go deeper to pick out the subtext. Or, was it that you didn’t go deep enough yourself?
Perhaps you’ve been on the other side. You’ve never written a word, but have been the party uttering those double-edged words to a writer friend or classmate.
The thing is, answering the Why? question, on the surface, isn’t complicated:
“Well, isn’t it obvious, he drove the car off a cliff because he was depressed. The world was too much and he just couldn’t take it anymore!”
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The problem is, this answer is easy to the point of dull. It relies on causality – clear as day connections from A to B to C that lead to predictable, and often unsatisfying, stories. If the plot – the reason – doesn’t capture the reader, all you have is a progression of moments.
Getting below the initial surface of Why? isn’t easy. As the author, you might not quite know the answers to all the Whys yourself. But if you want to get to deeper stuff, to fiction that resonates and storytelling that mirrors heady tales, you have to figure out a method for reaching the seemingly imperceptible subtext at the heart of your tale.
To start, you might consider trying out a method not often included in the creative writing cannon. It was in fact developed as a management method by the Toyota Motor Company nearly 70 years ago.
The Toyota 5 Whys
Developed by Toyota founder Sakichi Toyoda in the 1930s, the Toyota 5 Whys involves a single question, Why, repeated five times. Its power is in its use of countermeasures rather than solutions – it roots out the deeper causes of a larger problem and ensures they don’t occur again, rather than identifying a quick fix to what might be a deeper, more complex, issue.
And by asking why repeatedly, to any question, about any issue, you abate the potential pitfalls of deductive reasoning, which could cause you to follow Alice down myriad wonderland-bound rabbit holes.
It’s not enough to explain it – you have to actually use it. So I built a quick Typeform, below, that allows you to test the theory live.
One caveat – like any tool, you have to learn to use it effectively. For instance, if you ask a vague question, you’ll likely find it difficult to iterate new and deeper answers. So look for answers grounded in the facts of your story, character and world.
And, as you complete the final answer – feel free to start again with that as your first question. The deeper you go, the closer you will come to the essence of your plot – and the deeper, more meaningful answers to Why? that power your story.