Lesson learned from a critique group: ‘why’ is the magic question for storytellers

871748560_85366532a1_zThe year was 1992ish, and it was my first time at the critique class. A member read some uncertain opening chapters and asked the group for guidance on where to develop it next. One of the other members began to play the role of analyst and asked what statements he wanted to make with the story, and what answers and conclusions he wished to present.

I hadn’t been writing long, so I kept quiet. Even so, this line of questioning struck me as mistaken. Weren’t questions more potent in stories than answers and statements? And if you were going to present conclusions, or lead the reader to deduce them, didn’t you have to write the story to discover them?

Questions are everything for a creative writer, aren’t they? They are open doors. Possibilities. A beckoning finger; a calling voice. Questions are the very essence of mystery, which is the current of wonder that keeps most stories afloat. What will happen? Come and see.

Skiving

By the way, I’m not supposed to be writing this. I should be finishing a piece on why I write, but it’s much easier to noodle around with something else. In considering ‘whys’, I’ve been diverted back to that college room, and questions about answers that should have been about questions. Especially the question ‘why’.

Some questions are better than others

Why ‘why’? Because there’s a hierarchy of questions. ‘What’, where’ and ‘how’ are important, because we must have events and cause and effect, but ‘why’ is the golden ticket. ‘What’, ‘where’ and ‘how’ are facts. ‘Why’ is emotions; the personal and individual urges that make us do interesting stuff; the forces that bend our judgement or make us take risks. ‘Why’ does not have a simple answer. It needs a story or a lifetime. It shows us the human condition; that one person is kind while another is vengeful, or one is fearful while another is forgiving. Indeed, the whodunit was perhaps misnamed; the real appeal is in whydunit.

Find your plot holes

‘Why’ is a magic bullet for the writing process too. Most plot holes can be diagnosed by conscientiously and relentlessly asking ‘why’. Why did the character do it? Why does this event matter? Why do the characters persist on their path if it’s causing such strife? If a plot event looks shaky or improbable but your gut says it fits, keep nibbling at why. (BTW, my characters book gives these concepts a thorough workout.)

I think that first session in the critique group taught me something valuable, even though it wasn’t my own work being discussed and I probably didn’t contribute a thing except super-concentrated facial expressions. For a storyteller, questions are more useful than answers.

Thanks for the pic Graeme Maclean

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a piece to finish. But do you have a particular lesson you remember from a critique group?

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  1. #1 by raulconde001 on October 25, 2015 - 7:07 pm

    I needed to read this. Thanks for sharing! I think you’re right, the “why” is the golden ticket towards writing a very good book. I will use the “why” wisely. Now I know what to do.

  2. #3 by Lesley Rice on October 25, 2015 - 7:30 pm

    I think you’re absolutely right, but I also think you were lucky. The writer’s groups I’ve been to were all full of lovely people so focussed on being kind, positive and supportive, they rarely asked any questions at all, useful or otherwise. Great help when you need to know someone understands, but not when it comes to telling you why your story doesn’t work. I like ‘why’, but I also like ‘so what’.

    ‘Why’ is all about cause, ‘so what’ is all about consequence. I think they make a perfect pair – for any event in your story the question is why did it happen, followed by ‘so what’ will happen next, which leads back again to why, but in this case, it’s why do I care.

    • #4 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 25, 2015 - 7:51 pm

      Hi Lesley! I like your thinking here. Often we miss the point that this happens because of this, and then this happens because of those previous things. And when I saw your suggestion of ‘so what’, I thought you meant it in terms of a shrug, a ‘why does this matter’ – another good question.

  3. #5 by Cyd Madsen (@CydM) on October 25, 2015 - 8:41 pm

    I use OneNote for prep and have a folder in a WIP’s notebook titled “Talk To Me____ (insert character name).” It’s the most disturbing part of the process; an experiment in psycho/Multiple Personality Disorder territory. I have to slip under their skin and see their nightmares and that which they deny until they’re tied down and forced to speak. The most common question is “Why___” until they tell me the truth. I adore your book on characters. It’s been a terrific boon in constructing characters that is now being suggested to acting coaches to help their students. (Here’s hoping tightening budgets will allow the purchase.) Most important lesson from a critique group? Don’t discount a newbie with no background in the craft and their inane comments. They are readers just starting off and often the ones with the best input from a reader’s perspective.

    • #6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 26, 2015 - 8:59 am

      Hi Cyd! Finding the characters’ nightmares – that’s brilliant! I was talking to some actors about the climax of a story and pushing characters hard, and they said the character has to get to the worst day of their life. Which is identified by .. finding their nightmares, as you are doing here.
      (And speaking of actors, I’m thrilled you’re recommending my characters book to acting coaches! Gosh. )
      Back to your comment … that’s a great point about the newcomer in the critique group.

  4. #7 by amariesilver on October 25, 2015 - 9:19 pm

    For me it was pondering the question of whether or not you should submit pieces of a novel to the critique group. Too often writers who did so would be bombarded with questions that they intended to address later. I think if anyone is going to submit a novel to a critique group one piece at a time, they should do so with a list of topics they want the group to focus on and a list of topics they don’t want to be asked about at the time. I don’t know why, but reading your blog made me think of this.

    • #8 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 26, 2015 - 9:02 am

      We certainly used to have that problem, but the writer would say ‘I’ll be addressing that but it’s too soon to tell you about it’. Or sometimes they wanted to discuss those later developments because they hadn’t completely decided on them. And when reading work in sections, the writer didn’t always read the entire book, just excerpts, so much of the time we had to fill in the missing portions by asking questions. But it seemed to work. Our novels got better as a result and we all learned a lot.

  5. #9 by acflory on October 25, 2015 - 9:55 pm

    Yes, yes and more yes. I always know when I’ve fudged the ‘why’ because the story doesn’t flow the way it should. It’s like hearing a flat note in a song, or feeling a rough patch in a piece of velvet. It feels wrong, and it is wrong because I’ve tried to get from point A to Point B without a good enough reason.

    You can skimp on ‘why’, but you’ll pay the price when the story languishes in a dead end. ‘Why’ is king.🙂

  6. #11 by giffmacshane on October 26, 2015 - 3:01 am

    I totally agree. Motivation is central. If you don’t tell the reader what makes a character tick, he’ll end up two-dimensional. And when unexpected things happen to characters, it’s usually either because their motivation hasn’t been explained well, or that the motivation presented leads us to expect the character to act in another way. Both can be very disappointing.

    In one critique group I belonged to, one writer set himself up as the style guru. No matter what you were writing — novel, flash fiction, poetry, memoir — he’d return his copy of your work to you having changed almost everything in it to his style. (I’ll never forget the time he gave me a chapter back with only two sentences left untouched.)

    From that experience, we (well, most of us!) learned that style was as individual as the person writing. And that giving a critique was not about pointing out the “wrong” things, it was something much more fundamental — explaining why a passage/story/poem did or did not work for us. And nine times out of ten, if it wasn’t working, it came back to motivation.

    Very nice article.

    • #12 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 26, 2015 - 9:06 am

      Hi Gifford!
      Your style guru made me smile. Our group never made corrections on paper copies. It was all verbal. But there’s always a character who thinks their way is the only way, whereas it’s far more useful to look at what works and what doesn’t. That’s the essence of good critiquing.

  7. #13 by thelonelyauthorblog on October 26, 2015 - 5:46 pm

    Great post. Thanks

  8. #15 by DRMarvello on October 27, 2015 - 10:06 pm

    Thanks for the great advice, as usual, Roz.

    “Why” drives my thinking when I work on the passions and motivations (P&M) section of my character sheet. As a bonus, thinking through the “why” of character P&M always generates a bunch of personal history/back story for that character. I don’t feel like I truly know the character until I’ve gone through that process. Drawing up the character’s physical characteristics is helpful from a continuity standpoint, but following the path of “why” helps me understand how a character will react to a given situation more than anything else.

    Like you said, “why” is all about emotions. For readers to engage with my characters on an emotional level, they probably need to understand why my characters do the things they do. It’s hard to make that clear unless *I* understand it first.

    Experts often talk about internal and external conflict, but I find it difficult to look at characters in those terms until the story is done. For me, internal and external conflict evolve from the injection of characters with different P&M into circumstances that place them at odds with each other. I’d argue that there is no conflict without competing whys.

    • #16 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 28, 2015 - 8:47 am

      Hello Daniel – nice to have you back! You introduce a good ‘why’ here that hasn’t yet been considered – the conflicting ‘whys’!

  9. #17 by Cris on October 30, 2015 - 4:52 pm

    Very captivating & eye catching write! Yes, sometimes, questions’re even way fascinating than answers. I guess, before getting bled with words, every write should even must have to follow the realm of ‘What’, ‘Why’, ‘When’, ‘Where,’ & ‘How’. It the very intriguing as well as quite productive way to get undone things done with magnificence.

    Enjoyed reading your work. Would be looking forward to reading “you”!

  10. #18 by Alexander M Zoltai on February 14, 2016 - 5:51 pm

    Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
    Today’s re-blog from Roz Morris ends with these words:

    “For a storyteller, questions are more useful than answers.”

    It begins with the words right below what I’m typing…

    The middle is the really good part🙂

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