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The Awesome Power of “Why”

Most writers are familiar with the six journalistic questions. The first four are who, what, when, and where. Every writer, whether they write fiction or nonfiction, needs to answer these questions in every story or book.

As a practical matter, writers almost always do answer them without even thinking about it. If you’re writing fiction about a shy teenage boy who dreams of acting in Hollywood you’ve answered who (shy teenage boy) does what (dreams of acting) where (in Hollywood) and when (in the future, obviously.)

But to give your story depth and interest be sure to address the why too. (And also the how, but that’s literally another story). Why is often overlooked. For example, we said your teenage boy is shy, especially around girls. If you tell your readers why he is shy around girls you’ll go a long way toward further developing him as a character. Perhaps he’s been teased too many times by girls, or there might have been verbal abuse from an important female figure in his life, thus making him afraid of the fairer sex. Whatever the reason, if you tell your readers why he is shy they will know much more about him and his shyness, and the more they know about your character the more your story interests them.

For nonfiction writers, the who, what, when, and where are a given. You can’t have a story without who did what, and almost all stories acceptably answer when and where. But too many times stories fail to answer why. You may have noticed this as you’ve consumed news. A typical news story lead might say:

       Three people were injured in a two-car crash at the intersection of Broad and Main Streets Sunday night.

That lead answers the who, what, when, and where. If the journalist is doing his job he’ll answer how the crash happened:

       Police said a car driven by 28-year-old John Smith ran a stop sign.

But why did Smith run the stop sign? A good journalist would check into that. Maybe an overhanging tree branch made the sign hard to see. The journalist can add that information to his story and perhaps that additional detail will get the city to cut the branch so future accidents can be avoided. Or perhaps Smith was texting and driving, in which case the story will call attention to that issue.

Journalists call these stories enterprise stories. They go beyond stating the obvious who, what, when, and where and delve into what’s behind the incident. That’s the kind of story that interests readers and can change the world. But even if you’re not a journalist you need to tell your readers why. Let’s say you’re writing a story about a grand adventure you engaged in, perhaps hiking the entire Appalachian Trail or boating all of the Mississippi River. Of course, you’ll tell your readers who you are, all the details of your trip (which is the what), when you undertook your adventure and obviously where. But your story isn’t complete unless you tell your readers why you chose to embark on such a journey. That’s the aspect that will make them identify with you and get involved in your story.

Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Joe Wisinski