In truth, though, the simplicity of this question is deceptive. Asking why is liable to lead you down the rabbit hole. The more you ask why, the more often you will need to ask it.
THE WHY OF STORY CONCEPT
Getting a story sold often comes down to a great concept. To ensure that your concept is compelling and novel-worthy, you must know the whys to three important questions.
1. Why is the conflict in this story large enough and dramatic enough to instantly grab a reader's attention?
2. Why would the concept interest a large potential audience?
3. Why is this different from anything that's been done before or why does your twist make it unique?
At a basic level, every story has been done before. For example, there have been stories about children forced to fight for their lives. There have been stories about children competing in games. But before THE HUNGER GAMES, there was nothing that made forcing children to fight for their lives a game that entertained the masses.
Hold on, though. Was entertainment the real reason for THE HUNGER GAMES? Of course not.
With simple entertainment as the motive, there might have been a story about the some games featuring children fighting each other, but it would have been a much smaller story, and it certainly wouldn't have been the one that Suzanne Collins turned into a brilliant trilogy.
Collins has famously said that she got the idea behind the book when she was flipping TV channels between a reality show and something that featured Roman gladiators. What came next came from asking WHY.
- Why would children be fighting for the entertainment of others?
- Why would this entertainment be more than entertainment?
- Why would it be a punishment and why would it need to be repeated every year?
- Why are there a specific number of children?
- Why were the specific children in this particular story be important? (Why these kids, this year?)
- Why would one specific child be able to not just win the games, but win in such a way that it changed the status quo?
THE WHY OF COMPELLING CHARACTER
At the most basic level, a protagonist is the leading character of your story, but often it's helpful to think of your leading character as one of the additional definitions: a proponent, champion, or supporter of a cause.
To establish the specifics of your concept, you must create a compelling character.
To create a compelling character, you must know what cause your idea your protagonist is going to champion. But you must go beyond even that.
To build an active, engaging story concept, it's helpful to know the why for three more questions.
4. Why is the status quo in your story in need of change?
5. Why is your character a champion for change within your story?
6. Why do your character's actions threaten the status quo?
Obviously, why is only one of the famous questions of writing. The others are: who, what, where, when, and how.
For fiction, why is the key to all of them. Writing COMPULSION, for example, I had an idea of a location and some characters. I knew some of the local history of the Charleston, SC area that I wanted to weave into the book. I'd even had a dream that became the anchoring visual of the book, that of the Fire Carrier setting the river around my low country island on fire at midnight every night. What I didn't know was why that happened, why it had been going on for as long as anyone could remember, or why it was important that it continued to be able to happen. Once I figured all that out, I still needed to know why my protagonist would be the one person who could find out these reasons, why she would care enough to want to change the status quo, or why she would be the one person able to do so.
Barrie, my protagonist, is deeply flawed. Her flaws lead her to make mistakes, and those mistakes create a specific set of circumstances that she must fix. Ultimately, she becomes the agent of change that Watson Island has needed for over three hundred years.
The moment I understood how my protagonist's character traits and upbringing both drive her to change the status quo and make her able to do so, I had not only the idea for one book, but a concept for a story big enough to span several books.
I'm in the process of plotting out book three now, and it's eerie and exhilerating seeing how all those things come together, and how they all stem from asking why.
Are your favorite characters champions for some sort of a cause? What do you think makes a character compelling?
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