Wednesday, May 30, 2012

My Two Favorite Questions

Most people don’t have a favorite word. I’m a writer, which means that I’m not “most people” in pretty much any category.

For a while, I thought my favorite word was “pretentious.” The word just sounds like what it means. (Try to say “pretentious” without sounding pretentious. Can’t do it, can you?)

And before I knew that word, “snickerdoodle” was high up on the list. Besides sounding funny, you can practically smell the cinnamony goodness as soon as you say it. It’s like an onomatopoeia, but for a smell.

Then it came to me one day, the obvious answer to the question, “What’s your favorite word?” in case anyone would ask (which they haven’t yet…maybe I need stranger friends). My favorite word is my favorite question: “Why?”

I’m not sure how to explain exactly how much I love this question. I actually get excited about it. If I’m in a conversation and someone else asks a good “why” question (i.e., “But if you admit it’s important, why don’t you care about it?” or “Then why is that stupid show so popular?”) I feel like I’ve been given a gift.

If the who-what-when-where of just about anything doesn’t interest you, try asking why. It shows the meaning, motivation, and messiness of people, relationships, and reactions. “Why” is the intricate clockwork behind the simple façade of the daily.

On a slightly less dramatic and sweeping scale, I ask “Why?” a lot. If you don’t, maybe you should, especially if you’re a writer. Here are a few reasons, well, why.

  1. Asking why helps you be more compassionate. Most direct, blunt people see sympathy as something that you’re either given or are not, like a christening gift from the fairies in Sleeping Beauty. The truth is, being sympathetic to undeserving people is mostly just trying to answer, “Why did he do that?” It shouldn’t be used to justify someone else’s actions, but when you understand a little more who a person is and what has made him that way, you’re less likely to judge him…especially if you realize you might do the same thing in his place.

  1. Asking why makes your characters more relatable. Robot-characters serve the plot, pulling it behind them like a heavy cart. Real characters drive the plot like a car, turning it where they want it to go. That’s not to say the author isn’t in control. It just means that the author should give characters motivation—know the why behind what they do—so that what happens in the story doesn’t seem forced and fake.

  1. Asking why makes you think. I am really, ridiculously passionate about the fact that becoming a better thinker makes you a better writer. I’m not saying that all of your stories should have intense philosophical underpinnings or that your elevator pitch should be something like, “It’s a fictional exploration of the theology of man and his relationship to the futility of a predetermined existence.” It’s more like one of those cause-effect things, like the fact that boring people are the most likely to get bored. Thinking people write thoughtful stories. Asking “why” every now and then, in my opinion, makes you a more interesting person, which makes your writing more interesting too.

Okay, “why” is my favorite question, but there’s another one that trails closely behind: “What if?”

“Why” is the coffeeshop question. “What if” is the playground question, about possibilities that could be instead of realities that are. They can both get complicated, but in totally different ways. “Why” draws up an architect’s blueprint about the way things work. “What if” pins up a storyboard of unrelated ideas that may get moved around or redesigned a hundred times before creating anything at all.

For fiction writers, “what if” is a game to spark ideas. I play the game a lot, especially for creative writing, like I do for Plays magazine. Here are the “what-ifs” that inspired the five children’s one-act scripts I’ve written so far.
  • What if a jaded Snow White decided to sell her collection of fairy tale relics in a yard sale? (“Happily Ever After”)
  • What if a museum accidentally hired five detectives with very different personalities to solve a break-in? (“Too Many Detectives”)
  • What if a college graduate saw an opening for lab technician in the paper, not realizing that the employer was a mad scientist trying to take over the world? (“Help Wanted”)
  • What if thirteen Wild West characters all died in the same room at the same time? (“The Thirteen Ghosts of the Gimme Mine”)
  • What if Cupid had an evil twin? (“Rescuing Cupid”)
“What if” and “why” work together surprisingly well in writing. You can’t have one without the other. Even these silly little plays answered some why questions: Why do we insist on believing in happy endings in a less-than-perfect world? Why should we even try to take a stand for what’s right when it looks like we’re doomed to failure? Why does the lure of “everything you ever wanted” get us every time?

So give it a try. Play with a “what if” idea that you’ve always wanted to make into a story. Send me a message asking a “why” question that’s been on your mind. (Seriously. Do it. I would enjoy it.) Go out there and ask questions!

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