Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Anticipating the "Why?"


It's one of the most dreaded questions in the world. Well, at least if you're a parent, at any rate. I mean, what business is it of your kid's to know "why?" she needs to do something, right? Or "why?" she needs to do it the way you're telling her to. Or "why?" she needs to go to bed RIGHT NOW! And, sometimes, all you're left with is "because I said so!"

Of course, teachers have the same problem. And it can be worse for them, because, often, they don't actually know the answer to "why?" All they know is that the book says so or the school board says so or whatever, but those amount to the same "I said so" to a kid, and, for a kid asking "why?", "I said so" is rarely enough.

I learned at a fairly young age to not ask "why?" No one ever had answers for me, so I learned to figure them out on my own. I didn't stop asking the question, though, which is what I think a lot of people do. When faced with inadequate answers, they just don't question, which is how I think most people like it.

And, actually, probably how most authors like it.

As an author, "why?" is the worst question ever!
"Why didn't the they just tell them what was going on?"
"Why is there only one city on the whole planet?" (Come on, Star Trek, really?)
"Why didn't he just kill him when he had the chance?" (Because he was killing everyone else, right?)

The problem with the answer is that it's usually an "out of story" answer. Like, "he didn't just kill him because, then, the story would have been over." Or "there was only one city on the whole planet because it would have been too complicated if there had been a whole planet of people to deal with." But out-of-story answers don't work for those questions within the story, which is why it's the author's job to anticipate the "why?"s and provide answers for them within the story. It's why you have so many super heroes with personal codes against killing. That provides the answer to that particular "why?"

The problem is that the "why?"s frequently have to do with a character's (or characters') motivation(s), and that, when dealing with science fiction, can often be at odds with the IDEA. So let's take Looper (you can read my review of it here) as an example:
In Looper, the premise is that the mob of the future has a time machine and they use it to dispose of pre-dead bodies.
Really? That's it. That's the best use they could come up with for a time machine? Which is the problem, because the IDEA is that a guy in the "present" is sent his future self to kill. Wouldn't that make a great story? And, as long as you don't ask "why?", it does make a great story. However, as soon as you say, "Why doesn't the mob in the future just use the time machine to take over the world?" or "Why doesn't the mob of the future use the time machine to invest in all of the right companies?" or "Why doesn't the mob of the future use the time machine to win every lottery ever?" As soon as you ask one of those questions, the story falls apart. And, sorry, the answer "they didn't think of it" just doesn't cut it.

And I'm not even going to start on the scene where the future guy loses his body parts in the present as his present self is tortured and then killed, because there's no way you can answer the "why was that guy there to begin with if he was already dead?" question. Sure, it's cool and freaky to watch as he loses his fingers and stuff, but "cool and freaky" doesn't answer "why?"

Then there's the great "why?" of the Star Trek reboot: "Why did Nero just hang around in space for a quarter of a century doing nothing?" And the obvious answer is that Abrams wanted Nero to kill Kirk's dad but had nothing else for him to do until Spock showed up, so he just had him sit and brood with his thumb up his ass for 25 or so years.

And I could go on but, really, why?

As authors, it's our job to anticipate the places where our readers (or viewers) will say "why?" and weave those answers into the story. Sure, a lot of people, maybe even most people, are not going to ever say "why?", but that "why?" will kill a good or fun idea for those of us that do ask. And, no, telling us not to ask or to "just go with it" doesn't work either. That's a cop out. And irresponsible. And, well, sloppy story telling. Be asking yourself that "why?" question all the way through while you're writing and, anytime you don't have an answer to the question, figure it out. Or take that part out. Something.

And just by the way, long ago I did tell my kids that they could always ask me "why?" I'm telling them something. Man, that's a hard thing to live up to. My daughter, most of all, really holds me to it and, when I try to wiggle out of it, she will say to me, "You said I could always ask you why." The best I can do is delay, too, by saying something like, "Right now, you just need to do what I'm telling you to do. Later, ask me again, and I'll explain it to you." And she does, too.


  1. FINALLY, someone who agrees with me about "Looper," which Sweetie loved and I can't even bear to watch for the EXACT problems you pointed out here.

    You touched on a lot of what I hate about a lot of scifi/spec fic these days: the fact that something is COOL doesn't make it WORK in the story. I remember stopping listening to a scifi audio story when the guy explained that the latest "fashion" was catching viruses. The future had cured all diseases, so people would deliberately infect themselves with viruses as a fashion trend. On the shuttle ride from moon to Earth, a woman sneezes (grossly) and the guy explains that. I turned the story off. I couldn't figure out how that would be a trend, at all, why people would make themselves physically ill and unable to do their work or go out, etc., for 'fashion,' and it wasn't adequately explained. Not even to the extent of "well, people do crazy things for fashion." Which, sure, they do, but the craziest (footbinding, e.g.) is done by one person to another. I might've been able to accept that, but not just "People get HIV the way they used to get earrings."

    The Mary Russell books did a good job of explaining "why." So does Larry Niven,

  2. For me, as a reader, my frequencies of 'why' have a lot to do with how seriously the story takes itself. In the "Sword and Chain" series I read way back when, I was always asking why (basically a group of kids fall through a D&D game into a world built around that game's campaign).... but in "Magic Kingdom for Sale" I didn't question it at all... I just rolled with the story.

    I do agree with you though. :)

  3. In Looper I think they use the time machine sparingly because of that whole butterfly effect and all that. Like "A Sound Like Thunder" where they let people go back in time but only if they stay on a certain path because of course when someone doesn't it pretty much screws everything over. Plus mobsters aren't the most imaginative people.

    But I would agree about Star Trek. Can't you just imagine Nero telling his guys, "I know where my mortal enemy Mr. Spock is but let's just sit around and do nothing for the next 25 years." Great idea boss! But I think most of Abrams's work doesn't pass the why test, which is why I wasn't happy about him getting the Star Wars gig.

  4. It is hard sometimes to ask "why" of a character's actions (or inaction) when you're writing a story, especially when you want to concentrate on the protagonist but need to figure out what the antagonist is doing. Coming up with good answers to "why" can enrich the story and make it less predictable, though.

    As a parent, sometimes it's not easy dealing with my son's "why" questions either, but I do my best to be patient and answer them as best as I can. I also admit when I can't answer them. I don't want to stop him from questioning things.

  5. I think "why" is the most powerful tool a critique partner has at their disposal. If an author can't or doesn't answer the why, there needs to be a reason, or they need to do a little more development.

  6. Briane: I've always agreed with you about Looper. My review proves it.

    People are weird and will do things like having ribs removed to have a smaller waist, so I can see the potential for people deliberately infecting themselves if they knew they could be cured of it anytime they wanted to.

    Alex: Comedy is a whole separate category, though, that you can't look at the same way as everything else. Like in Dead and Moaning in Las Vegas, I want to know "why?" about a lot of the things with the zombies, but that it is just happening is part of the comedy of the book, since it's spoofing the whole zombie thing.

    I wanted to like the Magic Kingdom books much more than I ever did.
    I loved the Sword and Chain books, though. In fact, I recently found out there were some written way after the originals, so I may go back and re-read them so that I can read the newer ones.

    Pat: Abrams is sometimes great but, mostly, I'm just kind of afraid of what he'll do with Star Wars. I mean, it could be great! But, then, it could be Cloverfield.

    Sandra: It can be hard to ask why, especially if you want your character to do some particular thing without regard to whether that character would do that thing or not (Game of Thrones is full of this stuff) but, if you establish that the character is a particular way and, then, constantly go against that, it will break the story.

    Crystal: I totally agree: "Why is this character doing this?" And you don't even have to have the answer explicitly in the story (most of the time), but, if you don't know that why, it will certainly show through.

  7. This post reminds me of the movie "A Room with a View" where the young suitor courts the young lady by sculpting his dinner into a question mark, and when they switch rooms, he has written a question mark on the back of a painting, then dramatically comes in to flip it around for her. He calls it "the eternal why". As parents, it's the toughest question, but I think also the most important. I've always tired to answer it age-appropriately and then we return and add more detail as is valid at that point.
    As writers, motivation is one of the key components in what drives our stories. I remember my then 16 year old watching Looper and telling me NOT to watch it because I'd be asking "why" too much and driving myself crazy. "Not worth the time, Mom." Nice to have a kid understand you.

    I'm a fan of JJ Abrams in many applications, though I admit I haven't seen all of his work. I had no problem with Nero hanging out for 25 years. He was insane, and insane people do stupid things. I did have a problem with what he let them do to Lost though...big, huge problems...but this isn't the forum.
    Tina @ Life is Good
    On the Open Road! @ Join us for the 4th Annual Post-Challenge Road Trip!

  8. Tina: The title sounds familiar, but I don't remember any of what you're talking about, so I suppose I haven't seen that.
    I just have to say: insane does not equal stupid.
    I didn't watch Lost, so I don't have anything to say about that. I did watch Alias, though, and Abrams is really good at coming up with ideas then abandoning them. He ditched Alias after a couple of seasons to go Lost then ditched that to go do Fringe then ditched to do a bunch of movies, which were hit or miss. He's too erratic for me to trust.

  9. I love that your daughter calls you out. My FIL was the most patient man in the world. He answered my kids every time. Why is the sky blue? He'd answer. Why is the grass green? He'd answer. The answer may have been wrong, but by golly, that man never stopped answering the whys.

    I find myself asking why a lot. Mostly while watching a movie, not while reading. I think a good author will anticipate the reader's questions and answer them ahead of time without overkill. I feel like the movies tend to leave to much out because they rely on the actor's to convey the "feel" of it. And, that just doesn't cut it.

  10. Alright, Andrew. You're partially right: insane = stupid, but insane people aren't always capable of making wise choices and therefore make stupid ones. Like Neros. What I need is the mathematical symbol for "correlated" but my keyboard won't make it. Math in real life!
    Forgot to subscribe, too. Got out of the habit when one more email would have exploded my inbox...
    Tina @ Life is Good
    On the Open Road! @ Join us for the 4th Annual Post-Challenge Road Trip!

  11. Elsie: Oh, there's never a problem with those kinds of "why?"s. I've never gotten one of those from a kid that I couldn't answer. It's the "why?"s about things I'm telling her to do (or not do) that are the problem.

    Tina: I just don't think there's any good reason, from any standpoint, as to why Nero sat around out in space for so long doing nothing. Or why his men didn't kill him out of boredom because of it. Insane just doesn't cover it, especially when he's not portrayed as insane at all.

  12. Actually the "why" of Nero was scripted and mostly filmed before being cut from the movie for some inexplicable reason. With those scenes, the movie makes more sense.

    Another why from the same movie: On the frozen planet, Kirk is being chased by a large animal. A larger animal jumps up and grabs it and throws it away to chase Kirk. Why would it get rid of a large meal it had already captured to chase after a smaller one?

  13. Robbie: There are a lot of "why?"s in Star Trek, I just chose that one about Nero because it's at the beginning of the film. I hadn't heard about the cut scenes you're mentioning.

  14. Love these: "Why doesn't the mob of the future use the time machine to invest in all of the right companies?" or "Why doesn't the mob of the future use the time machine to win every lottery ever?" I remember your review of Looper~ poor movie had some problems. I'm trying to take the same "you can always ask me why" approach with my little one. Gets a little annoying at times and sometimes I delegate answers to my husband, but you know what? I've learned a few things here and there simply from saying, "You know what? I don't know why. Let's find out."

  15. Jessica: It can certainly be a good opportunity to learn things when you don't know the answer.

    (And that movie had a lot of problems.)