Monday, January 14, 2008

The Most Important Question

If you've ever studied journalism, one of the first things you will learn about is the concept of "the lead." The lead is the opening paragraph of a news article. In a strictly news story (not a feature), the lead's job is to introduce the story and carry all the salient points that essentially summarize the story and pull the reader into the article. The journalism student is taught that five questions form the basis of any news article and any lead: Who, what, when, where and how. The body of the story then deals with the question "Why."

The reasons for this arrangement are two-fold. First, the news media providers are aware that most news readers are after the crucial facts of a story. These readers are more than likely to skim the opening paragraphs of a story and skip the rest. Secondly, newspapers exist to sell advertising space. Their objective, therefore, is to commit the least amount of space possible to articles and leave the maximum space available for advertising, while still maintaining the interest of the readership. If this means that an article must be cut before the ending is reached— even in the middle— the article will be cut. (In the old days of hand-done paste-up, the cutting was literal. The long column strip that contained the article was cut with a pair of scissors. The first part was pasted on the page, the excess either went to another page (if it couldn't be left out), or more likely fell to the floor to be swept up in the evening trash.) News writing, therefore, is intended to get as much into the start of the story as is possible, allowing the editors to cut the remainder of the article at any point, yet still know that the key facts are covered. The "why" is considered less essential.

Fiction, thankfully, isn't written this way. All of the questions from the news story still remain— the who, the what, the where, the how and the why— but as fiction writers we don't concern ourselves with a lead. Consider one of my favorite books, The Hobbit. If it were written as a news story, it might start something like this:

DATELINE HOBBITON: The recently lamented Bilbo Baggins, Esquire, stunned friends and family by arriving this morning during the auction scheduled to sell his supposed estate. Accompanied by the well-known, if not well-regarded, conjurer Gandalf (officially labeled a Disturber of the Peace, see related story page 5), Mr. Baggins gave forth an explanation of his absence involving an expedition into the interior of Middle-Earth with a company of dwarves from the Blue Hills of Lindon. Among his claims are an encounter with trolls ("A preposterous tale. Trolls are a myth," says Michel Delving Master of Antiquites and Other Lost Items, Tharbo Muckbuttom), and battles with goblins, elves, dwarves and men, and a treasure hoard protected by a dragon named Smaug. ("Purely legend. Nothing whatsoever to it," according to Muckbottom.)
Despite this absurd tale, Mr. Baggins was positively identified by Hamwise Gamgee, his gardener, Miller Aldo Sandyman, and Otto Proudfoot, all respected citizens of Hobbiton.
A request for a formal inquiry into Mr. Baggins's identity has been filed by an alleged cousin, Lotho Sackville-Baggins, Esquire. "Oh, it's a grand tale, alright. Trolls and goblins and dwarves and dragons. He'll be throwing giant spiders and dancing bears into it next, just you wait and see. How's he supposed to have gotten over the Misty Mountains, I ask you? Flying on giant eagles? What rubbish. He's an imposter, put up to it by that Gandalf fellow. Probably a spy for the dwarves, wanting to figure out the secrets of growing pipeweed." -30-

Lots of information there, but not quite the same thing as "Once upon a time, in a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit..." There's a great deal of who, where, and what, and even a bit of how, but the why is almost completely missing or utterly wrong. And in a story, it's the why that matters the most. News-style journalism aside, "why" is the most important question. More than anything else, it is the question that the other questions are truly out to answer— and it is the question that must be foremost in the mind of the writer. We can have our who, our where, our when, our what and our how, but unless we have a why our story will be flatter than the news article above. It's not enough to populate a tale with elves and dragons, magic rings and magic swords; we must fill our tale with "why." Why causes us to explore the depth of a story, and in exploring produce even more depth.

Consider the sequel to The Hobbit, the grand epic that is The Lord of the Rings. In a way, it all springs from asking one "why" question: Why does Gollum have a magic ring? In asking that question, Tolkien was forced to explore hundreds to thousands of who, what, when, where and how questions, all tumbling one after the other. The result was not just one story, but a rich trove of stories, some only hinted at, some told in full, all intertwined together— and all stemming from one simple question— the most important question: Why?

--- Howard Shirley