As a journalism student, I learned to answer four important questions in my story’s opening paragraph: Who, What, Where, and When. Thus: Police reported that at 2:00 AM last night (When) residents in the Royal Heights neighborhood (Where) complained of shouts and gunfire coming from the home of James and Melissa Cameron (Who). Upon arriving on the scene, officer Peter Fauntleroy (more Who, sort of) found the body of Ms. Cameron sprawled on the living room floor with a bullet wound in her chest (What: Murder!). Officer Fauntleroy then discovered Mr. Cameron in the basement of the house, cleaning his revolver and running a load of very bloody laundry.
Then comes the fifth W: Why? Why did James shoot Melissa? There is also a sixth W—Will, as in: Will James be convicted? But isn’t Why the most interesting question? Isn’t that the novelist’s question? All your characters are running around doing things—marrying each other, shooting each other, arguing with each other, buying each other presents—but why?
I wrote yesterday about life’s inherent mystery. In this way, aren’t we all mystery writers? Aren’t we all puzzling out the why of our characters? After all, motivation always precedes action, if only by a split second. The action is like the crack at the end of an unfurling whip of motivation, and the louder that crack, the stronger the motivation. We may appear to be writing action, but we’re actually only chasing motivation.
This knowledge has taught me well in my life away from the desk. When I find myself asking, “What should I do next? What should I do next?” I am often like a writer who is treating his character like a chess piece, moving this dead thing around the board of his story. There are thousands of moves I could make, and all of them seem right and all of them seem wrong. And so I ask myself, “What do I want? What do I want?”
And as I do with my own characters, I must ask this question with an open heart, prepared to hear whatever comes. It’s so easy to think I know before I ask; so easy to think the mystery is already solved; so easy to leave unsaid what could be written, to leave undone what could be lived.
If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com