Monday, December 03, 2012

Why don’t people ask why?

 “A wise man can learn more from a foolish question than a fool can learn from a wise answer.” – Bruce Lee

In English we use the word “why” to ask questions, but we also use “why,” rhetorically, to mean that one shouldn’t, to criticize. When we are annoyed by people we might say, “Why do people act like that?” But it is not meant as a question as much as a condemnation.

When it comes to story structure, I often get questions from students that are not questions. I remember once talking about the structure of Finding Nemo and a woman asked me, almost angrily, “Why do so many of the mothers die in these stories?” She meant, “I hate when they do that.”

This is really common—we ask questions without wanting an answer. Often we think we know the answer. We often don’t ask a real “why,” an honest “why,” a “why” without judgment. A “why” without assuming the answer. A pure “why.” Until we train ourselves to do, that we will never get to the true answer.

We have to take the time to ponder. Pondering is an essential part of asking why. And it may take, days, weeks, months or even years before you have come to a conclusion where all of the puzzle pieces click together. Even then, your answer may change and evolve as you learn more.

“Why?” and I are lifelong companions. I often ask “why” because no one else will. There is a scene in the HBO biopic Temple Grandin where the autistic Grandin is at a slaughterhouse and asks why the cows are mooing. 

She is dismissed for asking such a question, but Grandin’s reasoning was that cows are prey animals, and would not make sounds unnecessarily to call attention to themselves.  A moo alerts predators to their location, so they would not do it without cause. She asked a real “why” and got a real answer. The cows were stressed. They were alarmed. There were too many things around that spooked them. It was through asking this question that Temple Grandin was able to help design more humane slaughterhouses.

I, to the best of my knowledge, am not autistic, but I am dyslexic and dyslexics are known to think this way, too. When Temple Grandin asked that question, it reminded me so much of myself. It is exactly the kind of question I would have to ask.

In my ongoing quest to understand my brain and why it works the way it does, I just read a great book called The Dyslexic Advantage by Brock L. Eide, M.D., M.A., and Fernette F. Eide,M.D. One of the traits they mention is that dyslexics have a compulsion to know why. I know this is true for me. It is difficult for me to grasp anything fully until I understand why. So most of my “whys” are honest ones. I need to know.

So, why do so many mothers die in fairytales and other stories? I could be wrong, but I have pondered it, and had even before I was asked the question.

If stories are told and re-told because they contain survival information, as I and others have argued, then why so many stories with deceased moms?

Because, I think, for most of human history this was not an uncommon occurrence. Mothers did die, often in childbirth. But children need to know that life goes on and that they can survive even this ordeal. In BrunoBettelheim’s book on the subject of fairytales, The Uses of Enchantment, he points out that often there is fairy godmother or some such figure that is a kind of ghost of the mother looking after her child even after death.

Mothers want their children to survive even if, God forbid, they are no longer there to take care of them.

Stories are dress rehearsals for life’s ordeals, so that when we confront a problem we are better equipped to deal with them. And no matter how our world advances technologically, we still face the same basic problems that humanity has always faced.  We need to eat, find love, protect and feed our children. We still fear death and wonder what happens when we do die, just as did that famous Danish prince:

HAMLET: Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?

Stories are rehearsals for life’s problems. Stories allow us to face and survive many of life’s dilemmas in our imaginations, so that when confronted with such problems they are not wholly new to us, and we can better navigate them. And because we have the same basic problems as humans have always had, with mainly superficial changes, stories will by necessity have many repeating patterns.

Many storytellers today, upon noticing these patterns, ask, “Why do they always do that?” But it’s not a real “why,” if they vow not to use this pattern themselves. “I’m going to do something that no one has ever done,” they proclaim. They change things without asking an honest “why.”

Sometimes the answer is that many storytellers have been lazy and followed the story patterns without asking “why” themselves. This too is a mistake. But often the pattern has stayed in place because it helps make the story’s point clearly.

Many storytellers want to know what makes their story unique, then, if they are going over such a well-worn path. The answer is you. You are the only one with your particular set of experiences and if you filter what you write through those experiences and make honest observations about what it means to be a human being trying to survive in this world, even those old dusty story patterns will shine like new.

But that will only happens if you know why, or why not to, use certain story devices.  And the only way to do that is to ask with humility and sincerity, “Why do they always do that?”


Kevin Sterling said...

My new favorite quote: "Stories are dress rehearsals for life’s ordeals, so that when we confront a problem we are better equipped to deal with them." Eye opening. I never thought of it that way before. Thanks again, Brian, for emphasizing just how important stories and the craft of storytelling really are.

jean said...

Now I know why I come back to this blog over and over again to better understand the craft of storytelling. Your compulsion to know WHY, Brian, has given you a far deeper understanding of what a story is that any other source I have encountered in twenty plus years.
By the way, I've just ordered INK SPOTS, and I am sure, even though I've read all of these posts more than once, I will learn something new....

Brian McD said...

Thank you, Kevin.

Brian McD said...

Hello Jean,

Thanks for the nice comments and for ordering the new book.

imyjimmy said...

Thanks Brian. You delve deeper than anyone I know.

Julian Perez said...

The notion that stories deal with issues that and problems we've always had is interesting, but there may be some occasions that stories deal with issues that are exclusively a product of their time and culture.

For instance, I was just reading the Turkish national poem, the Book of Dede Korkut.

In one story, our hero (Muslim, of course) promises to fight the Christians in Georgia (other Georgia), after swearing to his lady love he'd love her forever and come back and marry her.

While at war, he gets kidnapped and is held prisoner. The Christian princess falls in love with him and offers to help him escape if he would marry her.

At this point, I was surprised. Our hero seems like he's in trouble. He needs the help of the princess to get out of jail, but he's already promised in marriage. What to do?

In the end, the hero chooses to give his word to escape.

And how did our hero solve this dilemma?

On returning home, the hero married both the women.

And then I was like, "oh yeah. Muslims can do that."

As a result of the culture, there was an innovative solution to the problem.

(DISCLAIMER: It's entirely possible I misread the story and the dilemma that drove the story was entirely in my head. Still, I can't quite accept there is a culture out there that has NO love triangle stories.)

I heard an interesting argument that the reason old-time heroes, confident and secure in their invulnerability like Superman, Tarzan and the Lone Ranger, were popular then but less popular now, is that in the past people dealt with real scary mortality: polio, infant mortality, and wars like Korea and WWII. The reason we wanted to be Superman and the Lone Ranger was their invincibility. Removed of these factors, the untouchable beefsteak type heroes became less popular.

Brian McD said...


All stories are created in a time and place with specific circumstances, but that does not mean that there is nothing universal there. At their core stories are always about something human and deal with human motivations, conflicts and desires.

And the reason that Superman, Tarzan and the Lone Ranger are not popular at the moment is because they haven’t had any good compelling stories told about them for a while.

I have seen things going in and out of popularity in my life and if something has been popular once it be that again.

-- Brian

Arthur Dent said...

What on earth are "more humane slaughterhouses"?

Brian McD said...

You can take that question up with Temple Grandin:

It is not my expertise and beside my point.

Arthur Dent said...

"It is not my expertise and beside my point." -- of course it is beside your point. It just felt fascinated by the figure of speech, "humane slaughterhouse". It's kind of an oxymoron, i think, and would probably make a great book title.

Btw. i just finished Invisible Ink. How did i like it? Well, i already begun to read Ink Spots.

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KD Bailey said...

Interesting note on dyslexics and our penchant for asking why. I'm a professional artist by vocation, a writer by avocation, and I've always been slightly dyslexic. It hasn't really affected my life so I never really delved into it, but I will now, thanks! Because I have had an insatiable desire to understand WHY my entire life. I've made a study of human nature because of it. I can read expressions on faces like nobody's business. I can often spot a sociopath by looking at his eyes. And I can almost always figure out why a person does what they do. It's a compulsion for me, a problem I MUST figure out, putting together all the clues from what I observe and learn about a person, until I can come up with a reason for a particular strange behavior (and often a correct clinical psychological diagnosis).
I believe this compulsion is what makes me a good writer. So hooray for dyslexia! And maybe dyslexia isn't so much the diagnosis, but the symptom of a person who thinks differently than most. I think if someone was to categorize the way people actually think, creatives would be their very own category. We see patterns others miss. We see the big picture. We think about the ways things that outwardly seem to have nothing to do with each other interlink. Like storytelling and life. Which is why I think your writing has clicked with me.

We think the same way.

Please keep writing!

- a student