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Story Therapy: Finding the WHYs behind the WHYs

Updated: Jun 22, 2023


I had just pitched a timepiece romance to a Hollywood producer, and he asked, “Why do you want to tell this story?” It was a straightforward question, so I gave him a straightforward answer.


He asked WHY again, so I gave him another answer.


Back and forth this continued — WHY, ANSWER, WHY — until, finally, the Producer asked, “What’s the REAL reason behind this story?”


Okay, what? Hadn’t I already given him lots of “real” reasons? (He growled.) Apparently not. He said that everything I told him was “surface stuff,” and that the “true” reason for telling this story was still hidden behind a wall.


I said there was no wall. Nothing hidden. Nothing more to say. The story I had pitched was simply a drama about two underdogs helping one another out of an unpleasant situation.


“There’s more” he said.

I shook my head.

Why do you have two people helping one another?”

“Because everyone needs a little sunshine to dry up the rain.”

“Why?”

“Sometimes people need help from other people.”

“Sure they do, but WHY do they need help?”

“Isn’t it obvious?”

“Pretend that it’s not.”

“Because they get into situations they can’t handle alone.

“Tell me more about THAT.”

“If someone digs a hole too deep, it’s harder to climb out.”

“And?”

“That’s it.”

“Have you been in a situation you couldn’t get out of by yourself?”

“No.”

“Someone else?”

“No.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

He wasn’t convinced. “You know someone, don’t you?


I shook my head NO, but, as I did this, something started pressing from inside my chest and mind. It was strong and determined, a singular force hell-bent on finding a chink in my equally willful armor.


The Producer watched and waited,


as I wrestled and resisted.


I held on tight and locked it down,


but the words clawed out in a whisper...


“It’s my sister.”


*************************************************************************

All of that happened several years ago, while sweating out my last stretch as an undergrad in Los Angeles.


Throughout the five weeks prior to this meeting, my screenwriting classmates and I had pitched our story concepts to at least twenty other Industry veterans — producers, directors, show runners, writers, development executives, agents, and managers — who each offered bits of feedback, which we used to polish our pitches even further.


On this particular day, I was nervous, but confident. I thought I knew my story pretty well and that my pitch was as polished as it could be.


I was wrong.


The thing is, most of those other Industry veterans had also asked WHY I wanted to tell this story, but they didn’t probe beyond my first answer. Instead, they countered with other questions, like: What inspired this concept? What’s the theme? or How does it end?


I had answers for their questions, but, again, they were all superficial.


What the Producer was doing — by asking WHY after WHY to get underneath all the surface reasons — was Story Therapy. He had a mystery to solve, and like a dogged detective, he knew the only way to get “real” answers was by tapping into my psyche.


You can see from the dialogue above that I was hiding something not only within myself, but underneath the story I was pitching. I thought I was simply telling a tale from my combined interests and imagination, but what the Producer was trying to get me to see was that my story was being fueled by something deeper, something very personal.


As writers, we need to be aware of what truly motivates our stories. It’s these deeper reasons that are the main drivers which determine the direction of our story and the choices our characters will make.


Discovering that my sister was at the “heart” of my story was a revelation. There I was, for five weeks, believing that I was pitching a story about two characters helping one another, when, really, I was pitching a rescue story.


ONE of those two characters needed significantly more help than the other, though they would ultimately help each other in smaller ways.


If you reflect on the characters of Rose and Jack from Titanic (1997), you will see that Rose is the Protagonist. Jack seems to be an underdog, but, actually, he has strengths and a way of seeing life that Rose lacks (and finds appealing). Jack is in this story literally to help Rose fight for her life — and the life she truly desires.


This is very similar, thematically, to the dynamics of my two characters — a highly coveted prostitute and a repressed young artist at Coney Island in the summer of 1917 — but my story wasn’t yet fully developed.


Once I realized which character was in greater need, I found my Protagonist and FOCUSED on her Big Want and Big Struggle. From here, I was better able to “see” that what my Protagonist really wanted was to be free of her oppressive life, so she could live an expressive one. The artist, with his formerly dormant enthusiasm, would be her primary helper.


Living an expressive life is the Big Want the Protagonist would fight for — and it would also serve as the emotional fuel for my story — its heartbeat. The heartbeat is the WHY BEHIND THE WHY. The story’s emotional engine. Everything that is said and done to serve the Protagonist’s Big Want and propel her past the Big Struggle supports the central heartbeat.


If you think about every little thing Jack did with Rose, you will see that he was determinedly helping to free her mind from the False Belief that she needed to stay in her corseted and oppressive world. Even fiancé Cal’s antagonistic presence and pressure supported Rose’s emotional heartbeat.


So…Why do I really want to tell this story? Because I want to help my Protagonist escape a terrible situation, so she can live a better life — the life she was meant to live — the same thing I want for my sister.


In the REAL WORLD, I’m not able to help my sister. Actually, I don’t know how. She took one of those dark roads that too many people take, and never came back. It’s possible she doesn’t even want my help, but helping her is my deepest desire nonetheless.


In the story realm, I CAN HELP my Protagonist. Vicariously, some of that inner helplessness is somehow diminished via my fictional counterparts. Truly, this is one of the most beautiful parts about writing and being a writer — the ability to mend our own broken hearts.


Understanding our underlying reasons (aka our CORE motivations), gives us the much-needed foresight and insight to write cohesive stories with FOCUS and INTENTION — the primary benefits of doing Story Therapy.


****************************************************************************

Story Therapy is a therapeutic technique for writers to promote deeper thinking and soul-searching, especially as pertains to the many WHYs of a particular story.

For example: Why do you want to tell this story? Why this story? Why are you the best person to tell this story? Why now? What is the Protagonist’s False Belief about her situation? And Why? What do you ultimately want for this character?

  • STORY THERAPY can be done one-on one (or in a group), where one Writer presents his/her basic story concept and is then asked Character and Story Development Questions — as though being interviewed for a newspaper feature — while someone else takes WRITTEN NOTES.

  • BEFORE THE QUESTIONING BEGINS, the Writer is instructed to “Only share what you’re comfortable sharing.”

  • Ideally, the person(s) asking questions are GENUINELY INTERESTED and/or curious and asking SOLELY for the purpose of supporting the Writer’s Story and Character Development process. While this can feel like a psychological exercise for the Writer, it is NEVER meant to be transformed into psychotherapy.

  • This exercise is NOT about “fixing” personal problems. It’s about GAINING INSIGHT to better understand why we are motivated to write the stories we write.

  • If a Writer chooses to reveal something of a highly personal nature, the INTERVIEWER should ASK if the writer would like to connect that detail to their Story on their own or with the group. Sensitivity and Mindfulness are key in this exercise.

  • INVITE THE WRITER TO ASK STORY QUESTIONS as well. They may have concerns about their story that have not yet been addressed. They may want to know if their Protagonist is likable or relatable or motivated and challenged enough.

  • ALL NOTES are given to the Writer at the end of the session. Respectfully, each session of Story Therapy is for the writer’s benefit, and their comfort and sense of security in sharing their story is what makes this exercise most effective.


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