Writer Reason Vs. Story Reason
Writer Reason vs. Story Reason
Which one will win?
July 19, 2018
Generally the things we put into our work have strong writer reasons for being there. The main character has a sidekick to give him someone to talk to so the scenes have dialogue. The story is set in an area we know well. The main character has a job we once held and understand. And there is nothing wrong with having writer reasons for choices we make. But once we've made such a choice, we must allow it to shape the story in a way that gives it a story reason as well.
Why does the main character hang out with Oscar so much? We know the writer reason has something to do with balancing dialogue and action, but what could the story reason be? Maybe the main character hangs out with Oscar because he's one of the few people always willing to go along with the main character's wild ideas. Or maybe they hang out because they grew up as neighbors on that street, and they're more like brothers than friends. Those are story reasons, and they'll shape things in the story in a much deeper, more meaningful level. Story reasons are usually personal to the character, so they help make the characters more real for the reader.
When you're revising, you have to ask yourself "why" over and over. Why did you make this choice? Why did you include this scene? Why is the character acting that way? There will often be a writer reason (mostly to do with making the writing easier) but there must be a story reason as well, and during revision you need to look for those story reasons and be sure they work.
Writer Reasons are Shallow
Here are some writer reasons I've employed when making character decisions:
• Gave a character a strong regional voice to contrast better with another character.
• Made two characters strongly opposite in personalities to increase conflict.
• Had the character run into a friend at an event so that there would be dialogue options.
• Gave a character a passion for tinkering because STEM topics are popular in young reader markets.
Do you see what all those choices have in common? They are shallow. If I don't think deeply about them, they're going to feel tacked on and false. Now, each one was a valid writer reason, but I want my story to feel real and to linger with the reader, so I have to spend extra time considering each choice and how the choices should affect the writing. In other words, I must go beyond the writer reason and ponder the story reason.
Let's think more deeply about some of the choices mentioned above. What if my character with the strong regional accent is a newcomer to the area? He's a bit of a fish out of water, and he likes to remind the main character of how things are done in his hometown. That will change their relationship, because it's annoying. Also, being a newcomer is likely to put him in conflict with regional norms and create conflicts that play out in the story. So to deepen this from a shallow author reason to a story reason, I need to let it play out throughout the story and the characters, letting it shape action as well as dialogue.
How about the opposite personalities choice? This is one I often make when writing fiction for very young children, because children that age tend to find extremes to be funny. But their opposite personalities will also shape every interaction, so it needs to spill over into everything. I need to think about why the two children are so different. Why is Joey so bold while Felix is so shy, and why are they best friends when they are so different? What bonds them? What motivates them? When we build a personality for a character, it must color everything. So I may have initially just chosen opposites, I must then let those choices deepen and become significant so they affect conversation, choices made by the characters, actions, conflict, and resolution.
Even something as minor as having one character run into another at an event so I can have dialogue needs to be looked at deeply. It has to do more than simply make it easier to add dialogue. It should change the actions of the scene, the choices the main character makes, the way the scene unfolds. Maybe it makes it easier to have dialogue but hard for the main character to accomplish what she came there to do. Why would she then stick with the newcomer? Or is the newcomer giving her no choice? And if so, why is the newcomer acting that way?
Finally, my character who tinkers should display that tinkering urge throughout the story, and it should change the situation as a result. For example, someone who tinkers will often be able to see fixes for small problems that would stymie someone who doesn't think that way. Tinkerers often employ outside-the-box thinking about all kinds of things, not just inventions. So that choice really shaped nearly every moment of the story and became a major story element. It also made the story much harder to write well, and there were times I seriously questioned whether it was a good choice. But if I hadn't let that tinkering trait affect everything, it would have quickly felt fake and pointless instead of interesting and engaging.
Question everything and dig deeper. That may force you to change some things when you realize that your writer reasons can't be turned into story reasons without making changes that wreck the story. In that case, you would have to rewrite to change the element you added for strictly writerly reasons, but you'll also be rescuing your story. And isn’t that the most important thing?
Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Show us a sample of your work here.