Jumpstart Your Career by Asking “Why?”

When developing a story or article, writers learn to incorporate the “who,” “when,” “where” and “how.” But what often gets overlooked is the “why.” Without examining why a story takes place, or why an article would be of interest to the reader, the entire writing experience can be a fruitless exercise.

Why this character?

At a writing conference I once critiqued a manuscript featuring a character in a situation where you wouldn’t normally expect to find him. When I wondered why he was there, the author answered, “He just is.” “But how did he get there?” I asked. “One of the other characters put him there,” the author stated. “Why?” I pushed. The author didn’t have an answer.

If you arbitrarily think it would be cute to have a monkey, a doll or a policeman as your story’s protagonist, the reader’s not going to care unless it makes sense to have that character inhabit your particular plot. And if a monkey shows up where he shouldn’t be–at school, for instance–why he’s there has to be an integral part of the story. But more than that, the reader has to know why this monkey is suddenly sitting in a first grade classroom. What’s unique about the character that makes him the only monkey who could possibly appear in this book?

Why this story?

Just as important as knowing why your character inhabits your book is understanding why this character experiences the conflict or problem that fuels the plot. Your readers have to believe this protagonist would encounter these obstacles, and not be able to resolve the problem in a few lines of text. Not every child is afraid of the dark, so if your character hides under the covers when the lights are out, plant something in her personality that causes this behavior.

How the plot conflict is resolved also harks back to “why.” Why does your character take these particular steps instead of an easier or more obvious route to reach his goal? What fears, hang-ups or quirks does the character have to overcome to get what he wants? Would a child understand and care about these traits? Have you laid the groundwork in the beginning of the story so the reader believes the character could not possibly act any other way, thus never forcing the reader to question you in the first place?

Why this article?

Virtually any nonfiction topic can hold a child’s interest if it’s presented in the right way. But first ask yourself why you’re writing this article or book. Does it have a direct application to the experiences of your readers? Can it tie in with what they’re learning in school? Will it enrich their lives in some way? If your motivations are clear, then take a hard look at your audience. Why would kids this age be interested in this topic? How can you present the material in a way that’s entertaining as well as informative? If you find you’re working hard to shape the information to fit a specific audience or format, perhaps you need to rethink your approach. Maybe you’re trying to write too young and the subject really requires an older reader. Or perhaps you assume middle graders will be fascinated with an animal alphabet book, but after researching other ABC books on the market, you learn they’re really targeted to much younger children.


Laura Backes Book

Laura Backes is the author of Best Books for Kids Who (Think They) Hate to Read from Prima/Random House. She’s also the publisher of Children’s Book Insider, the Newsletter for Children’s Writers. For more information about writing children’s books, including free articles, market tips, insider secrets and much more, visit Children’s Book Insider’s home on the web at Write4Kids.com.