When learning a new skill in fiction writing, is it better to know HOW or WHY first?
Daniel posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
In your recent eZine you wrote:
“Tactics are great, because they teach you HOW, but I always believe in learning strategic thinking first, because it teaches you WHY. Once you know WHY, learning HOW is a cakewalk because you’re motivated to work through all the details.”
So for marketing, learning WHY comes before HOW. But in writing fiction, isn’t it better to show (HOW) before explaining (WHY)? Better yet, don’t explain at all or only minimally. Readers are smart enough to fill in the gaps. I learned that from James Scott Bell.
These seem contradictory. Did I separate them and clarify the differences correctly? (learning marketing vs writing fiction)
Randy sez: There’s an essential ambiguity in this question. In the article Daniel’s quoting on my e-zine, I was talking about my own philosophy in teaching stuff (apparently this was an article about marketing fiction). I prefer to teach the strategic principles (why you do things) before I teach the tactical methods (how you do things). In my view, knowing why makes it a whole lot easier to learn how. It also helps you decide whether to change your tactics.
The reason Daniel’s question is ambiguous is because I can interpret it in two ways:
- In teaching fiction, shouldn’t you teach HOW first and then teach WHY?
- In writing fiction, shouldn’t you show your reader HOW first and not bother to tell WHY at all?
My answer to the first question is no. My experience is that people understand the HOW better and retain it longer when they first know WHY. This is the reason I always begin teaching a course on fiction by making the case that the most important thing you can give your reader is a Powerful Emotional Experience. Once a writer understand this, it provides the WHY for everything else in the course. Then I teach the HOW by talking about one-sentence Storylines, Three-Act Structures, character motivations, themes, synopses, scene lists, motivation-reaction units, and everything else, always explaining how it contributes to that pesky Powerful Emotional Experience. Furthermore, knowing the WHY for all those rules means that you know when to break the rules.
My answer to the second question is yes. As Renni Browne and Dave King say in their book SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS, “Resist the Urge to Explain.” This is good advice. Show what happens. Don’t tell why. If part of what is happening is that one of the characters is learning why things are the way they are (this is called backstory), then that’s OK. The character needs to know it. It’s fine to let the reader listen in. Otherwise, generally the reader doesn’t really need to know. For a fine example of backstory being delayed for thousands of pages until the character needs to know, see the Harry Potter series. Late in Book 7, Harry finally learns the whole backstory of Professor Snape and at last he understands WHY. That is the way to write great fiction.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.
Lois Hudson says
I discovered a long time ago when my sons were small that they were far more likely to cooperate with the house rules, or a specific decision (a no to something they wanted to do), when they understood the why behind the decision.
And I just realized that parenthetical comment was an unnecessary backstory. 🙂