Get Closer to Your Story With the Power of “Why?”

ACFWAdvice, Authors and writing, Brainstorming, Characters, Friends of ACFW, tips, writing 7 Comments

by Carol Alwood

Space exists between us and our stories. As much as we can imagine these fictional dreams, we can’t transcribe unfolding events. There’s a rift between what we imagine and what we write. This gap, depending on how wide it becomes, can be the victory or downfall of our books. It may be why readers continue or stop reading.

While I may not have realized I was doing it, I have kept too great of a distance between myself and my stories. There have been times I didn’t care what a character wore. Other times I didn’t want to labor over a secondary character so I can deliver them slippery with humanity into the story. It’s hard. But I’m learning to push away the thick drape of fear I’ll produce inadequate stories and make myself do the hard work so I can write better. No draft is ever stillborn. With multiple attempts and others speaking into our work, the word-product will breathe on its own.

Let’s look at how the simple act of asking “Why?” can help us close the distance between us and our writing.

Keep asking, “Why?”

Why is one of the most powerful words in the English language. It’s one of the most annoying, too. There must be a reason kids go through a phase in which they overuse this word. Why is the word that keeps digging. There’s hardly an end to it! The more you ask, “Why,” the deeper down you’ll dive into the unknown.

Consider driving yourself a bit mad with “Why?” as you prepare to write.

I’ll go first.


Jane sat alone as she ate her pizza.


Jane preferred the booth at the back because nobody could see the size of the pizza she ordered when she faced the wall.


Jane was sick of clothing labels that read, “plus sized” and her friends who stared at her waistline when they thought she wasn’t looking and said things like, “You do you, girl.”


Because she didn’t want to be this way any longer. She longed to wear skinny jeans and tank tops without worrying about the flab on her arms but the more she thought about it the more she wanted cheese stuffed crust with crispy pepperoni.


Her mom made it clear she preferred to spend time with her little sister whose metabolism and appetite was the same as a hummingbird’s.

I could keep going until I got below the surface of what’s going on in her entire family. The more you ask, “Why?” the more specific the answer becomes and the closer you get to the real story you want to tell. This process dredges up painful backstory that can be used to tell a powerful story.

It’s not enough to choose a big story goal while ignoring what’s going on beneath the surface. So, a character wants to lose weight. Why? Maybe a man wants to open up a pet shop. Why? There’s so much to explore the closer you get. Especially as Christian fiction authors, we must approach the unknown and expose hearts so healing can happen.

Happy writing, my friends! Let’s harness the power of, “Why?”

Close the gap between you and your story. @AlwoodCarol #ACFWBlogs #writing #writingtip #pubtip Click To Tweet

Carol Alwood is an award-winning author of young adult Christian fiction. She’s also the author of Focused Backstory: The Key to Writing Deep Character Journeys, a resource to help storytellers use character history for maximum reader engagement. She adores her husband, two daughters, and everything fiction.



Comments 7

  1. I once had a (very expensive) appointment with a script doctor, and this was basically his approach: read my synopsis and ask “why”.

    It sounds simple, but it’s actually very powerful, especially if you can’t answer the question.

  2. If you want to know your story,
    and you can face the Why,
    turn inward in both shame and glory
    and apply it to the writing ‘I’.
    Your characters are vital part
    of who you are and who you were,
    and asking Why from deepest heart
    will focus you, and make them clear.
    For, you see, you are the lens
    that burns them into living print
    and Why’s the focus that portends
    what they is, and what they isn’t.
    Understanding these, your secret Whys
    gives your characters their own lives.

  3. Great post. I really learned to ask why from Laurie Schnebly Campbell and Writers University. She has several courses she teaches, and one is Plotting Via Motivation. When I took that course, she asked me WHY so many times, I wanted to reach through the computer and slap her! lol But, she taught me to ask why until I find the core motivation.

  4. I really enjoyed this great post as it confirmed some stuff I was doing and thinking maybe I was going too far.
    Now I can see the reasons behind doing it and that I wasn’t really going very far at all. 🙂

  5. I’m happy this post sparked some discussion! I have had to find ways to dig deep to find characters’ motivations. It’s more fun when you have that deep journey to go along with the story because although the twists and turns are fun to write they don’t mean anything if it doesn’t affect a character on the inside.

  6. Thank you for a very insightful post, Carol.

    Asking why over and over again eventually gets us to the bottom of the well which is the human heart and where root causes lie and where healing begins.

    As a life coach for many years, I repeatedly asked my clients “Why?”. In the process, God revealed hidden hurts, wrong heart motives, and lies that blocked their healing and their progress in life. When my clients faced and dealt with these hidden hurts, wrong heart motives, and lies, God set them free.

    Now I do the same thing with my characters. I ask them why.


    MaryAnn Diorio

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