What is Your Why?

Bear with me here, this might get lengthy. I’ll try my best not to keep you here all day. But this is a subject near and dear to my own heart, and one that has greatly changed my writing (for the better, it seems).

You may have heard of the Ted Talk “Start with Why” by Simon Sinek. If you haven’t, go ahead and click the link to watch it now. (There’s also a book!) Funny enough, Simon’s talk isn’t the first time I’d heard of the idea to start with a why rather than a who, what, when or where. (By the way, this doesn’t just apply to storytelling, but that’s where I’ll focus this post for today, because, well … we’re writers here!)

This idea was first proposed to me in a book I bought in 2012: “No More Rejections” by Alice Orr, literary agent and author herself. Ironically, when I bought this book, I’d never received a rejection at all. I bought it as a part of a group of other books mostly written by people associated with Writer’s Digest. I purchased these books in my renewed effort to start working again on my own original fiction. I had hoped that reading all of these industry books would light a fire under my a$$ again and then maybe, when I finally did have a complete original novel, the “No More Rejections” advice would help it not be rejected when I sent it out on submission.

But you know, I only read one chapter of that book.

In the very first chapter, Mrs. Orr instructs you as an author to make a list of everything that is important to you, and all the values you hold dear. Everything that thrills you and terrifies you. She then suggests that you write some of those things into your novels. Because, as she reasons, if you are writing about things that resonate with you on the deepest level, that genuine feeling will come through in your writing. Your readers will feel it, and connect with it, and it will make your story so much more than just a story.

And despite the fact I’d been writing some kind of stories non-stop for 16+ years at that point, that idea flattened me like a steamroller. I had never in all those years thought about my stories in such a way. I immediately made a list … and I came up with 50 – 50! – issues or subjects or values that were dearly important to me. And I’ve been using items from that list in every story I’ve started since!

Have you heard of authors and writing teachers talking about “theme” before? “What is your novel’s theme?” they ask. Is this dredging up memories of your high school English class now? Yeah, me too. Not sure about you, but I hated that question. I hated it then, and I still dislike it now. But the idea of “theme” is so much easier to digest if you think of it in terms of that list you made. Your novel doesn’t have to have a theme, it really doesn’t … but it will resonate far more strongly with readers if it does. If you can get to something people really care about, and identify with, your story is that much stronger.

What is the why in your story? 

Why in the world do your characters feel the need to do everything they do in that novel? Is it realistic? Is it something visceral? Something real? Something you feel yourself as you’re writing?
I’ve been meaning to write a post like this for a while now, but it’s such a big subject I’ve been procrastinating about taking the time to sit down and write it all out. This week, a writer I follow, Jeff Goins, posted a blogging challenge on his website, and his first challenge was this:


“What’s your worldview? What gets under your skin? What wrecks you?

These are the questions great writers, and incidentally great bloggers, must ask themselves. The answer can something big and bold like women’s rights issues or something fun like dog sweaters. It doesn’t have to be serious to be important. And once you’ve identified it, that thing you’re writing about, you’ve created something powerful for your readers to connect with.

By the way, this is not a subject I’m talking about. It’s bigger than that. An overarching theme to every word you write, everything you have to say. In writing, the why should always be bigger than the what.”

And I thought, “Well, that’s my cue to just sit down and do this thing!” So here I am. Notice how Jeff also uses that terrible word … “theme”! He’s asking about your why.

Not as it relates to your novels or books this time, but how it relates to you and why you are writing.

Why are you writing?

I also hate that question. I’ve struggled to answer it for years. Often I feel like the profession I’m passionate about (a fiction author) is extremely useless in the grand scheme of things. I’m not building bridges or curing diseases or growing food or taking care of sick people or animals. So many times I feel like this profession is so self-indulgent and selfish and I’d be much better off doing something else for a living.

I mean, I sit around and make shit up. Literally, that’s all I do. (Well, not really, because I have a full time day job and a kid and a house and pets and creating a readable and functional story is a nightmare in and of itself and there’s laundry too, always laundry, but you get what I’m trying to say here!)

Seriously. What kind of a job is that? What is the inherent worth in that?

I get discouraged. Then, I listen to other authors talk about the value in stories and words, like Jeff Goins in his recent post:

  • The Declaration of Independence, which initiated America’s fight for independence, is a manifesto. It’s incredibly short (a single-paged, handwritten letter). But there’s a lot of power packed in that brevity.
  • Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, which sparked the Protestant Reformation and changed the face of one of the world’s largest religions forever, was also a manifesto. It was a list of grievances Luther had with the Catholic Church. Sometimes, complaining can be the way that leads to change.
  • The Communist Manifesto written by Karl Marx was nothing more than a pamphlet about inequality amongst the world’s workers, and yet it sparked a global revolution. When you use words to tap into what people are feeling deep down inside, you have unmatched power to lead and motivate others to action.

As you can see, words move people. That part is hard to contest.

I listen to Ted Talks about how human beings are hardwired to learn through stories. I realize that stories themselves are the foundation of every kind of communication we have, and that communication is vital to us as a species.

I think of how movies and books have offered escape to so many people during the hardest times of their lives, inspired others to do great things, caused us to step back and take a look at our future and past and make changes, inspired innovations that otherwise might have not been thought of for years to come.

And I realize what fiction authors are doing isn’t so worthless or useless after all. We just have to remember why we do this in the first place, whatever that might be for you: to entertain, to inspire, to stimulate contemplation, to offer escape, to terrify, to pleasure, to teach … to change the freakin’ world.

“Stories have the power to make people feel. To give a shit. To change their opinions. To change the world.”
― Chuck Wendig, 250 Things You Should Know About Writing

❤ J. R. Frontera and the Wordwraiths!

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