Don’t Tell Me Why

I’ve seen several “how to write” textbooks that insist that in fiction, the reader must be given a reason why everything happens. If your main character comes down with the flu, the authors of these books would insist you need to show your main character getting sneezed on earlier in the story. If the main character gets a flat tire, they want to see her having driven through a construction zone first. Nothing, according to these writers, should ever happen randomly and without a clear, on-the-page reason for it within the context of the story. Speaking as both a reader and a writer, I’m going to call “bullshit” on this one. 

Now, before I go any farther, I want to emphasize that most of the time, yes, the reader needs to know why things happen. I’m going to be very annoyed with you if you have your main character pop open the hood of her car, see what the problem is, and then pull a socket wrench out of her purse to fix it without explaining to me why this woman is walking around with a socket wrench in her purse. That smacks of lazy writing. You’re letting your main character off too easily. Seriously, folks, how many of you have a socket wrench in your purse right now?

I’m also going to clarify that I don’t necessarily need the explanation beforehand. If the bad guys who are speeding away from your main character suddenly get a flat tire, I’m going to be on the edge of saying “Oh, please!” — but I won’t necessarily say it if shortly thereafter you have one of the characters reveal that when he snuck away earlier, he had moved the previously established caltrops from where they were to under the bad guys’ tires. In fact, I’ll likely appreciate the delayed explanation as it creates more dramatic tension. But if I never get that explanation, I’m again going to chalk it off to lazy writing that deprives us of seeing the main character work very hard to stop the bad guys.

But that said, I can think of three times when it’s not only acceptable but even possibly preferable not to tell me, the reader, why something happened:

  1. As the inciting incident.
  2. When it’s one of those things that happens in real life, and (and this is last clause is important) it serves as a complication for the main character.
  3. When it’s funnier not to tell us.

Let’s take these in order.

Your inciting incident is what kicks off the whole story. Let’s say you’re telling a story about a private airplane pilot whose engine fails. She needs to glide her airplane back to the airport, avoid flying over populated areas, and catch an updraft to give her enough lift to bring the plane in for an unpowered landing. The engine failure is your inciting incident.

Frankly, I’m O.K. with never knowing why the engine failed. The story is the heroic flight. If you back up to show the mechanic forgetting to tighten down the fuel line during the last service inspection, you’re slowing down the beginning of the story (and probably violating point of view). If you have her climb out of the cockpit to inspect the engine and find the faulty fuel line during the story, you’re straining credibility. If you take time after the successful landing to take the engine apart and find out what went wrong, you’re undermining the emotional impact of your ending. Engine failed. That’s all I need to know. She can speculate about why. She can chastise herself for not catching it during her pre-flight check. But I don’t need to know why it happened. As an inciting incident, no matter how unlikely an occurrence it is, I’m likely to roll with it.

Later on in the story, however, the more unlikely the occurrence is, the more I’m going to wonder why it happened. That’s why the second point says “one of those things that happens in real life.”

Cold viruses happen. Flat tires happen. Getting flashed in the subway station happens. Giant helmet falling from the sky and crushing a knight does not, as a general rule, happen in everyday life. The falling helmet would require explanation. The cold, the flat, the flasher… these really don’t. As long as these everyday events are serving to make your main character’s life harder instead of easier, again, I’m willing to roll with it, no matter where in the story they happen.

That said, a friend of mine has the “one huge coincidence” theory, which I will share even though I think it falls into the “use it sparingly” category. His theory is that once (and only once) in any story, the reader will accept something highly unlikely occurring without explanation, again, so long as it’s a complication:

“I’ll tell you what,” the terrorist said with a sneer as he caressed his knife. “We know the woman we’re looking for always carries tools. We’ll let you go as long as you don’t have a socket wrench in your purse.”

Melanie cursed. As blind, stupid, annoying luck would have it, she did have one of Joe’s socket wrenches in her purse.

In this case, as long as you haven’t made a habit of it, you don’t really need to tell me why she’s got one of Joe’s socket wrenches in her purse. It’s enough to know that she does. I can imagine a number of scenarios in which this would happen. Personally, as a writer, I’d be inclined to establish that she’s often picking up after Joe, and that she shoves his loose items into her purse when it’s not convenient to take it wherever it’s supposed to be, to ensure that the reader sees it as in character for her to have a surprise socket wrench. But the “one great coincidence” is something you can get away with in moderation. In this case, revealing the existence of the socket wrench only when it’s going to seriously spoil her day is a lot more powerful than telling the audience about it beforehand, and afterwards it might never be organic to work in the explanation. And, besides… coincidences can be funny.

Which brings me to the last point.

You can get away with a lot when if you can make the reader laugh:

“We’re out of time!” Aiden hollered over the incoming machine-gun fire. “The guns will only stop firing if there’s a wanted war criminal willing to turn himself in!”

“I’m a wanted war criminal,” Gus mumbled, bowing his head a little lower behind the overturned table.

Victoria spun around and studied at Gus as if he’d grown tentacles. “What?”

“I’m a wanted war criminal,” Gus repeated, more strongly. “I set off the nuclear bomb that wiped out San Diego.”

Aiden and Victoria stared, slack-jawed.

“It was self-defense,” Gus said.

Again, in this case, I’m fine with Gus never explaining why he set off a nuclear bomb that wiped out San Diego (assuming, of course, that it’s conceivable based on how you’ve written the character that he did so). I’m fine with not having learned about it before. I’m fine with never knowing why he’s hanging out with  Victoria and Aiden despite having such a terrible secret, as long as he stands up, identifies himself, stops the guns, and thereby saves the day. Why? Because he did offer an explanation, and it’s funny. “Self-defense” (in reference to a nuclear attack that leveled a major American city) is a strong enough punch line  that I’m perfectly willing to let the lack of real explanation slide. Again, this works by fueling the reader’s imagination just enough that we can come up with our own real-world scenario to fill in the blanks. And, trust me, what the reader imagines will be more powerful than whatever you tell them the “true” story is.

The key in all of these, of course, is that the lack of explanation does more to activate the reader’s imagination than to leave them confused and wondering. And in all cases, the “unexplained” event must be consistent enough with your world and your characters that the reader can come up with their own explanation. Because, ultimately, you’re telling your story in cooperation with your reader. The reader’s imagination — not your own — is where the story ultimately plays out, and it’s your job to fire that imagination.

And you don’t always do that best by explaining everything.

9 thoughts on “Don’t Tell Me Why

  1. As with all things in writing, there are exceptions to every rule. And I think you’ve identified possibly the best exceptions to the “explain it all” rule. But there are a few cautionary notes…

    – I believe you primarily get away with #1 (an unexplained inciting incident) if you also include the first half of #2 (one of those things that happens in real life). If your inciting incident is something outside everyday life, most audiences are trained to expect an explanation somewhere before the final page/reel, and may walk away feeling your premise was contrived if that isn’t provided.

    – I believe #2 (one of those things in real life + causing complications for the main character) is something that can be used, but only sparingly. An audience can grow frustrated with a protagonist if her struggles appear arbitrary & unpredictable, believing that she will continue to randomly fail no matter how clever she is simply because “the gods hate her.” If a protagonist is only as strong as her antagonist, being foiled by the mundane and/or random happenstance is a risky choice…unless that’s explicitly what the story is about.

    – No real issue with #3; I agree that you can get away with almost anything if the comedy is broad enough, and the laugh payoff is large enough.

    My bottom line: I still hold that while a writer *can* employ these things, they still shouldn’t necessarily do so if a motivated alternative is within reach.

    • I think you can certainly get away with having all the complications being arbitrary and unfair, as long as you’re aware that it will quickly become the point of the story, à la A Series of Unfortunate Events. But, yes, you’re probably right that in general, explaining when it doesn’t hurt your story to do so is a good rule.

      • Agreed. The Michael Douglas film Falling Down is another example of using random everyday roadblocks as part of the story’s focus, and being successful at it.

  2. Sounds like those how-to-write books aren’t taking into account the fact that normalcy is relative. It’s normal for humans in our world to catch a cold, so explaining how and why a character caught a cold is bizarre and unnecessary. Normal things don’t need to be explained. We can safely assume that all humans catch colds unless some story factor makes that an abnormal event — say, future technology that wiped out all disease. A cold-free utopia would need to be established in the story. Maybe not explained in detail, but at least alluded to before the characters are shocked by a case of the supposedly extinct common cold.

    • I like the idea of thinking of it in terms of normalcy. Of course, you need to carefully consider your audience, and whether they have the same expectations. In opera, it’s perfectly normal for singers to refuse to speak before a performance, but it strikes people who don’t need to maintain a perfectly balance voice as, well, odd to say the least…

      • This is true! But your blog post title is still right. I’d hate to see a book’s narrative stop, turn to the reader and give a lecture on the pre-show habits of opera singers.

        Also, while I’m thinking of it! I’ve heard the “when it’s funnier not to tell us” condition referred to as a Noodle Incident, named after the Calvin and Hobbes running joke.

  3. I’m carrying a socket wrench in my purse from now on.

    I’m fine with explaining things later. I hate it when “how-to” writing books tell you to do it NOW. Like, in the middle of the action I have to explain that I have a socket wrench in my purse because of Kyle’s blog. Readers are willing to wait a little while. I know I am.

    • Remember, for maximum utility, you also have to carry the English and metric socket sets. Also makes your purse useful as a bludgeon in the event of an attempted mugging. 🙂