When we see stories on the news, most recently including the disappearance of the Malaysian passenger plane, the Fort Hood Shooting, the landslide in Washington State, and the stabbings at the Murrysville, Pennsylvania school, our first reactions most likely include horror, shock and compassion.
But the “why” goes further than that. Whether we’re logical in our thinking or inclined, as writers are, to ask “what if?” the “why” behind major news stories creates order out of chaos while solving the puzzles events present to us.
When I worked at a police training institute some years ago, a typical test question for those in accident investigation courses showed the placement of vehicles on a highway after an accident. We often included details about weather, time of day, damage to the vehicles, and the length of the skid marks (if any) and asked students what kind of accident would lead to the vehicles ending up where they are. Eye witness testimony being unreliable and drivers having reasons to skew their own comments, the police often have to use turn their skills into a time machine to figure out what really happened.
The Nature of News
Traditionally, reporters try to answer the standard who, what, when, why, where and how. While 24-hour news channels love gathering panels of experts together to speculate on what might have happened before we know what actually did happen, many of us–in our own ways–ponder events that (apparently) don’t make sense.
We ask why would anyone for any reason go into a school or a military base and start killing people? Or, why were people living in an area where there was a risk of a landslide? And how could a plane seemingly vanish without a trace?
Of course, conspiracy theories seem to excite people, so–as one might expect–those reporting on the search for the Boeing 777 that apparently crashed into the Indian Ocean without a trace have heard quite a list of theories. Maybe it’s part of our nature to say that when things aren’t what they seem, something really strange happened.
I must admit that, after hearing how only a skilled pilot could fly an aircraft the way Flight 370 appears to have been flown, I wondered what sense it makes to go to all that trouble to avoid detection only to ditch the plane in the ocean. What kind of mindset would cause somebody to do that. Initially, it made more sense ot me that the plane had been skillfully flown and had landed in a hostile country that would cover up the whole thing. Maybe the CIA did it or a disgruntled pilot. But carefully crashing into the ocean in a way that creates a mystery makes no sense to me.
Others focus on the Fort Hood shooting and ask what kind of person, whether unstable, discounted by others, or angry would see a “solution” to their problems in the killing of a large number of people?
As writers, we ask “what if?” questions like this all the time because we’re looking for plots that keep people turning pages until the final scene. It’s our nature to provide multiple probable solutions and then work the story down to the only one that makes sense (and is possible) once everything becomes known.
In novels and short stories, we don’t want the reader to know “why” early on in the story because then s/he will stop reading. In “real life,” we want answers ASAP if not sooner. That which makes for good fiction often creates chaos, anguish and lack of closure when we’re living through it.
Ultimately, we want stuff to make sense. Until it does, we feel rather unsettled about it. What we crave in our reading, we deplore in our lives. Most of us don’t want to feel like we’re in our favorite novels when we’re watching the news or coping with accidents and other tragedies in our own neighborhoods.
As a journalist, I ask “why?” As a novelist, I ask “what if?” There are days when I feel like I’m wearing two hats.