This is the last segment of this simplified look at the usefulness of questions for a writer. Previously, we considered the value of who and where, then what and how in developing characters, situations and the interactions that necessarily arise from them. In fact, it seemed that just the four of them already generated so many sub-questions that plots were already thick enough. However, when you add when and, perhaps the most important of the lot, why, you uncover limitations and possibilities which can take narratives in some unexpected directions.
On the surface, ‘when’ is relatively easy. Your choice of epoch can suit your strengths and/or overcome your weaknesses. If your grasp of quantum mechanics is a bit sketchy, put your characters in a space ship launched by a civilisation so advanced that all its machines, including the computers that drive them, run on sewage and litter and produce zero emissions.
You’ll still get readers who complain that such a scenario is farcical but a couple of paragraphs about how history showed Einstein to be a fraud and that E=mc2 was nonsense because when mass-energy equivalence and the universal proportionality factor integrate singularities with the relativistic symmetries of space and time, the measurable mass defect is demonstrably unstable. Hence sewage.
Or if the beautifully intricate plot of your mystery might be shattered by the discovery of some DNA, shift it all back to a time when knowledge wasn’t a few thumb presses away and detectives wore gabardine macs and trilbies.
You see how, by taking away some of the staple features of contemporary reality, the complexities we’ve already created can be woven into truly alien textures.
‘When’ also provides ready-made comic setups. Comedy relies on leading the reader along one reality, only to subvert or replace it at the critical moment by another. So, if you take a peculiarly modern problem, conflict or phenomenon and move it to a different era, the two realities are ready-made. Imagine the meeting of Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure at the Casterbridge disco, just after the fight had broken out between Michael and Susan Henchard over her desire to work at a McDonald’s Drive-thru. And what if Pope Julius II had only wanted a coat of magnolia emulsion on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling but was then stuck with a huge bill from Michelangelo for … well, basically, graffiti.
‘When’ is a precious tool. It recreates cultures, habits, reminds us of legitimate alternatives to our confident suppositions about what constitutes reality and behavioural norms.
One of the constant attributes (or curses) of writers is their insatiable curiosity. And that’s the reason that ‘why’ is the most precious question of all. It’s easy to let (or make) your characters do anything, from the simple act of ‘putting on a jacket’ to wandering naked in the snow in order to place a peach on a gatepost and sing ‘Chitty-chitty-bang-bang’ to the gerbil she has on a lead. The hard part is when you have to explain why they did the things they did. ‘Why’ makes your narrative make sense.
Mysteries rely on it, of course. ‘Why’ reveals motives, gives explanations, unravels conundrums.
Best of all, though, is the fact that ‘why’ sometimes refuses to provide an answer. You’re left with something inexplicable – but you’re a writer; readers expect you to tell (or, to satisfy the creative writing specialists, show) them everything. That’s where your creativity gets stretched. Life doesn’t have meanings and yet we live as if it does; we impose our own meanings, which may conflict with those of others, but which are all legitimate to those who proclaim them.
Long ago, I wrote a previous blog on ‘why’. It featured a sheep tick called Ixy and I concluded it by saying:
‘The question that always strikes me when I read of the wonders of nature and the processes of evolution is – Why? And, of course, simply by asking that question, I’m back with my old mate Sisyphus and his rock. What on earth is the point of it all? Maybe evolution is making the hill smaller with each ‘advance’, but why? What’s it for? I don’t suppose Ixy is much of a thinker but if he is I bet he’s cursing God for making him a sheep tick when he could have been something with more apparent purpose like an Aardvark or a merchant banker. Imagine his thought processes as he dangles there on his bit of grass, feeling hungry and just waiting. He doesn’t even have the comfort expressed by Estragon in Waiting for Godot ‘We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?’
And that is the end of Writing 101. Next term, Quantum Mechanics for Dummies.