Rey's always asking the tough questions.
Whether it's your first time writing something or it's your fiftieth project or you've completely lost track, there is always one question to ask yourself when you're jumping into a project: Why am I writing this?
It's not an easy question to answer, and it isn't something that comes immediately. The reasons why we're writing what we we're writing may transform and evolve as we progress through the project. The reason you came up with early on might be totally different from where you end up. Nonetheless, one thing is always true: a good story has a reason why.
(For the sake of argument, let's not worry so much about the didactic story vs. l'art pour l'art debate and just focus on 'why' as it deals with our personal artistic endeavor...)
When I started writing my current WIP, I went into it wanting to talk about the immense potential and the drastic problems that face Generation Z, and how they will shape the world. Sounds cool enough. What it evolved into was a story about the limitless potential of imagination coming to interactive life (and the consequences therein), the critical pain of loneliness, the affects of survivor's guilt felt by Millennials (I still hate that word) passed on to their children, and the battle of oppression and depression, and fighting suicide. All that wrapped up in a sci-fi teen drama. I had no idea it would take the turns it did, and I didn't know that at the heart of what I was trying to say was a myriad of deeply rooted emotions that I was trying to cope with through my writing.
Now, does your manuscript have to go into such dark themes? Nope! But if you aren't asking yourself why enough, and at multiple intervals of your work, then you may be in danger of getting lost. And a story that doesn't answer why will show its lack of self-understanding in the prose.
Here are a few ways to dig deeper into the why of your work in progress:
What does your main character want? Why does she want it?
It's a simple and common question, and it's often difficult to answer. Motivation reveals a lot about what we want--or even better, what we need. If your main character does not achieve this goal, what are they left with?
What does your antagonist want?
You should give as much time considering what your antagonist wants and fleshing out their motivations as you do for your main protagonist. Your antagonist doesn't have to have the opposite goals, either. In fact, she could have the same wants and needs as the her protagonist counterpart. However, she achieving the goal might put the protagonist at odds, hence driving the story to an intense, powerful conclusion. Often, why we want something clashes with why others want something, too.
What do you want from this book?
To make millions of dollars? I'd hope not. To help others cope with a feeling you're trying to understand, too? Perfect! Write away.
What book or movie or etc. inspired you to write?
Ready Player One inspired me to write Project Anjou because Ready Player One is absolutely terrible and was an awful representation of nerd culture (personal opinion, of course). Instead, I wanted to write a story that showed how nerd culture served as therapy and as community, especially for underprivileged and/or marginalized people. It's important to me that that gets reciprocated and articulated in literature, and not the way Ready Player One did it (yes, art has responsibility, but we'll get into that in a later post). Simply put, if a piece of art pushes you to do something, think about why that was.
Who are you writing for?
A friend? A family member? A stranger you met years ago? A group of people? It could be more than one person, or just one. It can even be an ideal person. It's helpful to keep someone in mind when you're writing to keep you centered. Writing so many words over a long period of time, it's easy to get lost. Consider your dedication as your beacon.
If not someone else, then write for the sake of you.
What do you want your reader(s) to feel when they get to that last page?
How your readers or viewers feel at the end is based on how you've set up your story all along. Your ending wraps up the why in a succinct (usually) matter of actions and words. It often relates back to where the story started. An ending is a mirror, the one we've been talking to all this time trying to figure out what the heck we're doing and what we want/need to do it.
What are you trying to say with your project?
Write out what you think your themes are. I write copious notes on my thoughts. I never let a thought pass by without writing it down. I could write a whole book of essays on my books trying to explain why I wrote the story I wrote. How much or what would you write about your book?
Do you have any exercises to get you asking yourself why? If so, let us know in the comments!