The Why of Story (and why you should care)

The weird thing about making something isn’t when it’s done. Once I get my head around a story it’s not mysterious any more. The characters, locations and plot exist and it stops being scary any more. The knot in my gut goes from “What is this going to be?” to “How am I going to put a writing schedule together to finish this book?” I go from being a creative wizard to a mid-level manager who has a checklist of problems to solve. But I get ahead of myself…

Go back with me to before anything of the story exists. There’s just this will to make something, it could be anything, from an add on to my bedroom to a musical for a local theater. That space is weird because there is a hope that I’ll get lucky and make something worthwhile. This is where creating comics, bedroom additions, musicals or video games have the potential of being the best thing ever made. A knot forms in my gut because while I know I can generally make something, I don’t know if it’s good until I make it.

Enter the why. It’s the most important part of my stories because it determines if something is worth the time it takes to create it. Most of my stories have an invisible “why” operating behind all of those years of learning art and writing. This project I am about to start is supposed to be why I trained all of those years to be a story-teller. The previous eight video games, four TV series and sixteen graphic novels I worked on are mere training for the next project. It holds a lot of promise.

“Why am I telling this story?” is the most important question I can ask because it ends up driving so much of the story. We’re taught in all of these how-to books to write a backstory on characters and know who they are, but it’s more important to ask “Why?” Why did you make this guy the villain? Why is it a happy ending? Why do you spend your day making this comic? Why did you put this big action scene here?

But I don’t want to leave you in the clouds just wondering why, I want to let you in on one of my secrets… once you know the why of your creation it helps you organize the who, what, when and where. It’s important to know the sequence of events, but it’s more important to have them hanging from the internal reason why the story exists in the first place. When I think of great works I admire, from Moby Dick to It’s a Wonderful Life, I marvel at the great writing, but what really makes me drop my jaw is the “why?” The invisible reason the great stories track along is fascinating.

It’s true that in today’s crass mass media landscape that making money could be the ultimate why of story. Why is Tom Cruise in this? Why is there another Star Wars movie? To make money. That may be true but it’s not as interesting as what philosophy those stories and actions are dangling from, and it is more than just money. It’s the why.