Skip to content

WHY This Story? … Or 8 Questions They’re **Really** Asking


One of the questions I’ve been asked and heard other writers asked most is the ubiquitous, “WHY this story?” Very often this triggers a writer to look like a rabbit in the headlights and start garbling plot. But that’s NOT what publishers, agents, producers and filmmakers are asking. Here are 8 possible things they want to know about your project … or you!

1) WHY  these characters?

Remember, we don’t want characters that are THE USUAL … but equally, we don’t something completely out of the left field either. We want something surprising, that is still recognisable. So, what’s different about your character, but which great characters are they like? MORE: 4 Tips To Write An Unusual Character.

2) WHY these characters at this particular point in their lives?

Too often a story starts in a random place: a character *suddenly* decides to do something about a problem or issue in their lives, but it’s something that has been going on a while. As a result, that reader (or agent, or producer, or whatever) will say essentially, “Why NOW?” In other words, what is the catalyst that sets that sets the character on his or her journey? When catalysts are NOT missing altogether, too often – again – stories will rely on THE USUAL elements of a character losing their job, spouse or home (and too often all three!); female characters will be met with unexpected pregnancy and/or get jilted at the altar. Remember, if you want to go for something in these veins? It needs to be a FRESH TAKE somehow to grab someone’s interest.  My novel, PROOF POSITIVE of course deals with pregnancy but not only is Lizzie a teenager (NOT a twenty-thirty something professional in a Rom-Com), she is faced with *all* her possible futures, SLIDING DOORS style.

3) WHY should I care?

I often hear this bandied about by writers who get very angry at this question, as they believe someone is saying, “I don’t like your characters.” Whilst this *may* be true as well, usually the question of “care” in my experience relates to a character’s arc, ie. the reader, agent or producer can’t see why they’re supposed to invest in THE JOURNEY. What is so compelling about it? Great characters DO STUFF. Great storytelling is about ACTION. If your character doesn’t do much, we simply don’t know why we’re seeing or reading this character’s story; so no matter how well drawn s/he is, we simply don’t “care”. MORE: Is “Good” Characterisation About Change?

4) WHY this genre?

Sometimes I will hear pitches and writers attempt to cover all the bases: “It’s a Horror/Thriller/Drama” they’ll say A LOT, but I also get “It’s A Rom Com Drama” almost as much. No. Just no. Pick ONE. And know what genre IS and what conventions separate Horror and Thriller; Comedy from Drama; Romance from Tragedy and so on. That’s not to say you CAN’T do hybrids – of course you can – but you need to know what *makes* your genre/s what they are, ultimately. It’s non-negotiable. If you don’t know at the pitch? Then we will not believe you’ll know in the draft.

5) WHY this storyworld?

There’s a lot of Science Fiction storyworlds in the spec pile and too often for no real story reason: writers just want to write something cool and futuristic. And that in itself is not an issue, especially if you do really well. But most spec Science Fiction storyworlds are merely homages to that writer’s fave works, typically stuff like BLADERUNNER, or Tolkein’s Middle Earth. In short, there’s nothing really new about them and if there isn’t a STORY reason for it being in a future metropolis? Then I’m not grabbed. At the other end of the scale, there’s LOTS of “gritty” dramas set in sinkhole estates in the spec pile, too. And guess what: they end up feeling like recycled material as well, whether screenplay or novel. But if writers really put their storyworld choices under the microscope, then chances are they can find new and interesting ways of representing them. What’s not to like? MORE: Want to get noticed? Don’t Write Sci Fi TV Pilots Or Depressing Drama and 4 Reasons Concept Counts Above All Else.

6) WHY would an audience get behind this?

If you don’t know who your audience is, you’re shouting into the wind. It really is as simple as that. If you’ve made it to a meeting with someone, then you need to go armed with knowledge of works that are *like* yours and who liked it; why yours is different; plus who that audience is and why it will appeal to them. This might take the form of knowing the potential scheduling of your TV pilot; the age classification of your movie and recent Box Office figures for similar movies; or knowing the titles and revenue of similar novels to your own. But never skimp on this aspect, because a project without a discernible audience has no IDENTITY. MORE: Who Is Your Work FOR?

7) WHY are you asking me?

The industry likes self starters and autonomous workers … And let’s face it, writers have unprecedented access to technology and potential resources and contacts on their own now. We don’t “need” publishers, agents, producers etc in the classic sense anymore: we can and are doing it all ourselves. So if we’re going the traditional route for a project, why are we in the room? What does that publisher, agent, producer, filmmaker ADD to this project? What’s your strategy? Why do you want to work with that person? Simply saying “‘Cos you’re great” or “‘Cos you did X” will not cut it. MORE: 12 Tips For Taking A Meeting

8) WHY should I give you my time and money?

Publishers, agents, producers are filmmakers are not patrons of the arts. If they’re going to invest time and money in YOUR idea (rather than their own), they need a really a good reason for this. The good news is, what they want is fairly simple: a great story, with great characters. And what does THAT boil down to? Pure and simply, a Killer Concept. Something that makes us go, “Why the hell haven’t I seen THAT before???” The bad news is, a Killer Concept is damn hard writing. But it can be done. So get going! MORE: Writing And Selling Thriller Screenplays and 7 Ways Of Road Testing Your Concept

Good luck!

Share this:

2 thoughts on “WHY This Story? … Or 8 Questions They’re **Really** Asking”

  1. Hi Lucy,

    I have to admit I found this to be an interesting post mostly because as an industry outsider I had assumed that the writer produced their best material and the “powers that be” used their own internal criteria or checklist (formal or informal) to assess the material against. So to some extent it seemed odd to me that the decision makers would rely so heavily on the writer to justify to them…why this story and why now since its their job to assess the merits if the work against the needs of the marketplace.

    However I recently read Writing The Pilot by William Rabkin where he tells the story of network executives approaching him to write a pilot with a female superhero protagonist…so he pitched it, wrote the final draft, submitted it, the head of the network liked it and he was convinced he had delivered on what the network wanted. It all looked positive until the network called and asked…why this story, and why now? Understandably Rankin basically responded “because you asked for it!” The show never got made and he regretted his knee jerk reaction.

    So you’re exactly right…even when the decision makers ostensibly know what they want they still seem to need the writer to be able to justify their investment in the script…apparently the decision makers are just as insecure as the writer which is both comforting and terrifying.

  2. Pingback: A Little Writing Help | A Writer's Discrepant Memoirs and Other Tales

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *