Be your own four-year-old – Susan Meissner

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By Susan Meissner

If you’ve spent any time around four-year-olds you know that they have just one thing on their minds. They want to know the why of everything. It’s their favorite question to ask, and they can be unrelenting about it because the why of things is all that matters. When you’re four, the why of things is how you grasp your universe. ♥

So what can a writer learn from four-year-olds? Every good novel presents the reader with a character who wants something and who must overcome some kind of opposition to have it. It doesn’t matter if you’re reading Seuss or Steinbeck, the emotional glue of a story is that the reader identifies with what the character wants and why. The why is everything. It’s what bonds a reader to the main character and woes her to keep turning pages. If she doesn’t know why the main character wants something, then it really doesn’t matter whether or not the character gets it. And if she doesn’t care whether or not the protagonist gets what she wants, that reader will probably put down the book.

You can solidify your main character’s motivation by keeping in mind that your future reader is going to be a bit of a four-year-old when she reads what you’ve written. She probably won’t even realize it, but while she is in the pages of your novel, in her minds she is asking “why” all the time. Which means you have to ask that same question, not just as you are writing but as you revise and edit. You need to be your own four-year-old.

Why does your main character want what she wants?

Answer that question and then ask why again.

Answer that question and ask why again.

And again.

And again.

Keep asking until you’ve reduced the question to the very essence of your story.

Let’s take a look at a classic to see how this might play out. In Gone With the Wind what did Scarlett O’Hara want? Ashley Wilkes.

Why? She thought he was in love with her.

Why did she think he was in love with her? Because she thought everyone was in love with her.

Why did she think everyone in love with her? Because she was pretty and smart and always got what she wanted.

Why did she always get what she wanted? Because she lived a life of privilege.

Why did she live a life of privilege? Because her father was wealthy and she never had to want for anything. She didn’t know what it was like to suffer. She didn’t know what she was really made of.

Why didn’t she know what she was made of? Because she had never been tested.

Ask enough why questions and we find out the heart of the plot of Gone With the Wind isn’t so much that Scarlett wanted Ashley, it’s that Scarlett had no idea what she was capable of before war took her to the crucible of suffering and showed her.

Try it with your novel. Be your own four-year-old. Relentlessly ask yourself why your character wants what she wants and keep asking until you can’t ask anymore. Does your character’s deepest motivation show up in the pages? If not, identify the places that are most organically tied to the plot and your character’s main goal for life, and then weave in details that show the why of it all.

The inner four-year-old soul of your reader will be glad you did.

Susan Meissner is a multi-published author, speaker and writing workshop leader with a background in community journalism. Her novels include Stars Over Sunset Boulevard, and Secrets of a Charmed Life. A California native, Susan is a pastor’s wife and a mother of four young adults. When she’s not working on a novel, Susan writes small group curriculum for her San Diego church. She is also a writing workshop volunteer for Words Alive, a San Diego non-profit dedicated to helping at-risk youth foster a love for reading and writing.

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