Imagine for a moment a time not so far from now. All your hard work has come to fruition. You’ve been published. You’ve made bestseller lists. You’ve won over hordes of fans. There are tours and signings and interviews. You’ve even been invited to speak at a convention where no one can get enough of you. You’re the life of the party and the star of the panel. Then the floor opens up for questions. Your self-proclaimed greatest fan ever is the first to the microphone. They excitedly ask why Bob, though clearly literate, always signs his name as just an X. To which you reply, “Well, I just thought it was an interesting quirk.”
What a letdown. No worse answer could be provided. Even if it didn’t make sense, anything would have been better.
Having reasons for things is a necessity in writing. Without reasons, our writing is paper-thin. It’s shallow and hollow. Worse yet, it stunts our writing and our potential as writers. There’s some good news, though. One simple question can fix the problem: Why?
Everything happens for a reason. Ask why of everything. If you don’t have an answer, find one. It doesn’t matter if Bob signs with an X because he doesn’t know cursive due to being homeschooled through elementary school or because he signed the wrong paper one day in college and had his identity stolen because of it. Either way, you now know more about Bob. Bob is a more complete character, with a more fleshed out history and personality. He’s more real. And isn’t real what we, as writers, are going for?
You don’t have to stuff the reason into your writing, though. If the explanation comes up naturally then have at it. Otherwise, tuck it away for your own personal giggles—and for those future fans eagerly awaiting you at conventions and signings.
The greatest casualty of not knowing reasons is you. Forget the fans. Forget the interviews and conventions. You’re shortchanging yourself. Your potential can never be reached if you can’t master the art of asking why. The characters, the histories, the places, and everything else you create will never reach its full potential without being questioned. The answer to why a monster in a cave has a magic ring can lead to an explosion of new ideas and new potential stories. They would never have been discovered if you’d just been content with the surface idea and never asked why. Why is the ring magical? Why does the monster want it so badly? Why is the monster in a cave? Why is it in this cave? Why this monster? You can only benefit from asking why.
“Why” is a catalyst for greatness. Don’t just listen to me, though. Go back to your favorite literature and analyze it. Do you think the author stopped at surface ideas or did they explore the why of things?
So let’s try this again. You’re asked why Bob signs his name as an X. To which you respond, “Well, his mother is very gullible. She was told by a neighbor once that public schools are corrupting the youth and she bought into it. She pulled Bob from school and taught him at home. It took a couple years for her to realize her mistake, though, and that she just couldn’t handle teaching Bob. She enrolled him in a private school but Bob never learned how to write in cursive. He’s too self-conscious of this to fix the problem so instead he just signs with an X.”
A little better, yeah?