Starting with ‘why’

Posted: May 21, 2014 in writing
Tags: , , , ,

Sense of purpose is important in fiction writing. As a writer you need a strong sense of purpose to keep you going through the challenges and down patches. Your characters also need a sense of purpose to give them drive, agency and that most critical of story elements, conflict.

Fortunately, and surprisingly, a management book has helped me with this one.

Sinek’s ‘Start With Why’

As I’ve mentioned here before, my freelance work often involves dabbling in the pool of management thinking. I’ve read quite a few books on this, and particularly on marketing in recent months. One of them was Simon Sinek’s Start With Why.

The central message of Sinek’s book is simple. Organisations that understand why they do what they do, what value they bring to the world, become more focused and more effective. It helps create consistency and effective decision making, as when in doubt employees can turn to that ‘why’ and find solutions that fit the organisation’s purpose. It also motivates people. Lets face it, it’s easier to get passionate about ‘keeping patients safe’ than ‘answering phones’, to take the example of a medical call centre.



As many businesses are discovering in their efforts to tackle poor morale, people don’t just want to be cogs in a machine. They want purpose. They want to know why they do what they do.

Asking why as a writer

As a writer, I think this applies in two obvious ways to my work choices.

One is that I need to understand why I’m a writer. What do I think I bring to the world and to my own life through this choice, that makes it a better choice than some other job? Because nine times out of ten, if I’m getting demotivated then it’s because I’ve lost track of that purpose and am trying to do something that misses the point of being a writer. Maybe I’m accepting jobs I’m not interested in, or writing stories that don’t interest me. If they don’t fit with my ‘why’ then it’s probably time to stop.

Same with stories. I need to know why I’m writing a particular story, and why I think it will be worth people’s time to read. Does it do something new with the genre? Does it represent different perspectives? Does it ask a question no-one else has? If there isn’t a good purpose behind the story, something making it worthwhile for me and for readers then it’s unlikely to ever see the light of day, and I should put my effort into something else instead.

Life’s too short to be writing this year’s seventeenth Tolkien knock-off.

Asking why of characters

And of course asking why is great for finding purpose in characters too. Why does Johnny rob banks? Why does Helena care what happens to the kingdom? Why is Iqbal on the side of the righteous rebels?

Knowing why gives your characters purpose and helps keep them on track. It’s something you can turn to for sources of conflict and for guidance on how to push a scene forwards. And signs of the why will make the character more compelling to readers.

Starting with purpose

So go forth, find your purpose, find the mission behind your characters! And then tell me about it – why do you write? why are you writing the story you’re writing now? what is the driving purpose behind your favourite character?

Show us all that you know your ‘why’.



Photo by Bilal Kamoon via Flickr creative commons

  1. Sue Archer says:

    I love it when business books end up being useful in other contexts. (It doesn’t happen often enough.) I was definitely that annoying child who kept asking “Why?” about everything, which I guess is why I grew up to become a business analyst who asks people “Why?” about what they say they need and how they do their business processes. It’s really tough to sell me on anything if I am not comfortable with why, and that includes characters in stories. As to why I’m writing, my purpose right now is to help people learn through the lens of storytelling. Still working out the details as I go. 🙂

  2. That’s a great purpose to have – keep it up!

    Sounds like your analysis work is a lot like the business improvement job I used to have – a lot of asking why things are done a certain way, keeping on asking ‘why’ until people see an opportunity for change. Or until they start ignoring you, but you can’t win them all.

    Also, I just realised that I’m turning into the anti-Sue – you use genre stories to shed light on business-related issues, while I eke shreds of writing wisdom from business books.

  3. Sue Archer says:

    LOL! Maybe someday I’ll be on the other side, Andrew! You just never know. 🙂

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