Answering the Why

As a writer starts a story, objective facts tend to emerge first. A passage can describe how a teenager gets from here to there: say, hurrying from the front door to the family car and out the driveway. While the details may be precise, such as the slate front steps, the facts don’t evoke how the character experiences what he is doing. Instead, you need to focus on the why.

Start by examining what facts are being told. Rather than describing how the teenager walks, opens the car door, etc., focus on the situation. A teenager hurrying to a car is not operating in a void, but within a context of his relationships with other characters. Why is he hurrying—in personal terms? Is he afraid that his mother will appear at the front door and countermand her permission to let him use the car? If so, what does that say about the mother? Is she overly strict? Do his friends always laugh at him because she is so strict? And what about the dad? Why does he allow the mother to browbeat her son? You could, of course, turn the question on its head. What has the teenager done in the past with the car that makes her afraid of his driving it that night?

All of this information can be imparted by using this seemingly trivial scene as a way to show what the character is like. The walking, opening the car door, etc., is flat. The need to get the hell out of the house is involving. 

If the boy is afraid of his mother’s changing moods, you can anchor what type of relationship they have by describing her. Is she wearing a business suit or a housecoat? Is she drinking gin or herbal tea? What about a sentence to describe the father, standing in the background of the mother-son interchange? You can move on, once the young man is settled in the car, to describe his get-up for his night out. Is he wearing an alligator shirt or a badge of Megadeath? What, since appearances are so important to teenagers, does he feel about his clothes? How much has his mother allowed him to get away with?

You are taking objective facts and imbuing them with subjective value. Clothes do make the man, so you can take advantage of that. Transform a pedestrian description of getting from here to there to charge the narrative with interpersonal dynamics. And, by the way, skip all the words describing the here-to-there. You’ve entered a new realm entirely, the one where novelists live.

Exercise: Begin by finding long paragraphs in your manuscript. Those are the ones ripe for converting from outward to inner. Do you see a lot of physical descriptions? Pick out one or two and ask: why is the character doing this? What meaning can I derive from the way the two major characters react to each other in the passage? Can I draw out meaning that has lasted for a long time? Stop for a short paragraph to tell us why they have never gotten along.

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