The Why of Your Story

honing the craft plotting revising tips and tricks Jun 10, 2021

Post written by Katie Wall.

While many writers know that they write because they enjoy telling a story, they use writing to escape reality, or they are compelled by the characters living in their head, I find that many writers don't take the time to sit back and really reflect on why they are writing the particular story they are writing.

In other words, a writer might be writing a pirate adventure novel because they love the escape that type of adventure provides. But, I want to ask, why this particular pirate adventure? What is the why behind the conflict and the character arc and the resolution?

What this boils down to is the "why" behind the story, not the "why" behind the writing.

For example, this writer whose manuscript is a pirate adventure novel could have the main character take a journey from believing they are worthless to realizing that they have inherent worth. Or perhaps the protagonist transforms from judging others for doing what they need to do to survive to realizing that they are no different. Or maybe this character thinks they want to go on a grand adventure on the mainland but then realizes that the sea holds their heart.

Did you notice that in each of these examples the protagonist learns something? That their motivation is tested and they come out the other side?

This is why it is so crucial to understand your story's "why"—it becomes the guiding principle that shapes your story as you write. It’s an invaluable revision tool, since you can hold up any aspect of your story and ask, “Does this support my story’s guiding principle?”

The story guiding principle is the message you want your reader to come away from the story knowing. It’s the reason you’re writing this particular story with this particular protagonist arc.

So how do you define that principle? It takes work. But here’s how I like to help my clients define it.

Ask yourself:

  • How does my protagonist change from the beginning of the story to the end? What is the internal shift that occurs? What do they believe or lean about humanity or the world by the end of the story?
  • What is this story really about?
  • What message do I want my readers to get from reading this story?
  • What universal truth is at the heart of my protagonist’s journey?

Some examples of story guiding principles are:

  • Accepting oneself is the true road to happiness.
  • There are goals more important than simply surviving.
  • Love conquers all.
  • Revenge is better than forgiveness.

So what is the guiding principle of your story? Why are you writing this story?

Whether you’re just starting to brainstorm your story idea or you’re on your fourth round of revisions, knowing the core message of your story is invaluable. If you’d like help discerning your story’s why and ensuring that your plot and character arcs support that why, check out my Planning Support package. I have an entire workbook that will help you with this process alongside 1:1 coaching calls. I can’t wait to work with you!

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