How to Keep Your Readers From Asking, “Why Didn’t They Just…?”

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by Stephanie O’Brien

My siblings and I have sometimes joked that we could take over several fictional universes with the power of “Why didn’t they just…?”

When characters fail to use an obvious solution, or forget a skill or superpower that could easily resolve the situation, it can be pretty frustrating for the readers.

It can also hurt their opinion of the characters’ intelligence, or of your attention to detail, even if the story is otherwise awesome.

How do you avoid instances of “Why didn’t they just”?

Here are a few ways to either keep the readers from asking “Why didn’t they just…?” or to use the characters’ mistakes and oversights to drive the plot, increase drama, or induce character development:

 

1. List your characters’ abilities, and refer to them when the characters face a crisis.

Whenever your characters are in a difficult situation, and are considering using a painful, dangerous or unethical solution to solve their problem, pause and ask yourself:

“Do any of these characters have a skill, connection or superpower that could resolve this problem in a safer, saner or more moral way?”

If the answer is “Yes”, then refer to methods 2-4.

 

2. Make the problem harder to solve.

If you don’t want your characters’ current abilities to enable them to solve the problem easily, ask yourself, “What are the holes or weaknesses in these abilities? What extra challenge or obstacle could I throw in, that would neutralize the power they’d normally use to fix this situation?”

This can add some extra character drama, because the ability they normally rely upon is suddenly useless, leaving them out of their element and causing them to either grow and adapt or freeze and fail.

 

3. Explain how somebody already tried the solution they’re considering.

“We tried to warn them. They didn’t listen/they were in on it all along/our contact turned out to be a spy.”

“I already tried that superpower on it. Turns out, he saw that coming and used X to defend against it.”

Alternatively, you can have them try the simple solution on-screen, and maybe even give the characters and audience a glimmer of hope that it’s going to work… before dashing their hopes and forcing the characters to think on their feet.

 

4. Point out the fact that a better solution was ignored.

If a character isn’t very bright, was too stressed to think clearly, or has a flaw in their personality that causes them to jump to extremes or ignore simple solutions, this can turn a moment of “Why didn’t they just…?” into an opportunity for drama and character growth.

A character who shot an enemy needlessly can realize that they’re too quick to violence, while a character who failed to shoot a villain and let innocent people die can realize that they’re prioritizing keeping their hands clean over other people’s lives.

A smart person who missed a simple solution while seeking a complex answer can discover the flaw in their thought process, and a person who failed an important mission due to an obvious mistake can go through a serious emotional crisis as a result.

 

Avoiding “Why didn’t they just…?” can be a lot of work, but it vastly improves your story.

On top of not annoying or frustrating your readers, taking the time to explore and account for all possibilities can greatly improve your story in other ways.

It can make the characters seem smarter, because they’ve taken so many factors into account while making their plans.

It can drive character development when they realize that they’ve screwed up.

And it can add new plot threads in which your characters attempt the solutions you came up with, only to fail. I recently had a situation like that in one of my works in progress; I had a tragic and poignant scenario I wanted to write, but for the character to be driven to such terrible extremes, EVERY other possibility had to be eliminated.

It forced me to do a lot of thinking, and in the process of eliminating the other possibilities, I actually ended up fleshing out the character’s personality, backstory and family history far more than I would have otherwise.

I also made great improvements to the antagonist, because I really had to explore his personality and abilities in order to make him dangerous enough to justify the protagonist’s desperate measures.

It was a lot of extra work, but the outline is already far better for it, and I know the finished story will be, too.

 

 

 

Stephanie O’Brien has been writing novels since she was twelve years old and has published three of them on Amazon’s Kindle. When she isn’t writing novels and running her marketing business, she’s usually creating comics, music videos, and fanfiction. If you’d like to get more writing tips, or to check out her books, art, and videos, you can visit her website. You can also connect with her on Facebook or on Twitter.


226373498_dacf4f263f_bNeed help with your book or novel? Check out the Writer’s Toolbox, a list of free, discounted, and overall helpful links to tools and benefits to help you with what you do best: writing.


 

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31 thoughts on “How to Keep Your Readers From Asking, “Why Didn’t They Just…?””

  1. Amen to that! I am constantly asking that question! Although, it more often pops up in movies, which are demonstrably less well-written in many cases. For example: The Blair Witch Project. Why didn’t they just follow the dang stream like they said they were going to???

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I guess in movies, they have less time to explore all the possibilities than they have in books. Still, some examples are pretty egregious. It can be especially bad in sci-fi and fantasy, where there are all these magic powers and technological wonders they could use, and it can be easy for the writers to forget what the characters have at their disposal.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Very constructive advise, I struggle with this conundrum every day I develop my lead character. He does have super powers, be it though they come from implanted microscopic symbiotic beings coming together to form a single consciousness by cooperation. Luckily for me I’ve written into my story that deceit, depression and confusion can weaken the bond between host and symbiots, meaning their not perfect. Just like the old saying goes…. we’re only human.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Nice article. Point One, referring to characters’ abilities could also prevent a character from doing something that is way beyond his or her abilities, e.g., a character to which no medical abilities have been assigned all of a sudden performs emergency surgery at the scene of an accident.

    Keep writing and sharing. You are a blessing.

    Lord Bless, Keep, Shine. . .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a good point! I keep extensive character profiles for one of my more complicated WIPs, so I know what everyone’s capable of, and I also keep track of things like injuries, so a bit of obvious physical damage doesn’t just magically disappear and reappear.

      Thank you so much for the glowing feedback. I really appreciate it!

      Like

  4. My mother is currently reading my novel. (Eeeek!) She asked me why the main character (who is eleven years old in the chapter Mom is reading) didn’t “just tell someone” that her skating coach was molesting her. I had to point out to Mom that a) this is happening in the Soviet Union where people don’t talk about such things, and b) even in the USA at that time, people were only starting to talk about such things. Besides, as Mom keeps reading, it becomes pretty obvious that the powers-that-be in my main character’s skating club are aware of what’s going on, but for various reasons they don’t intervene. Later still, the character DOES tell someone. But I don’t want to give Mom too many spoilers.

    It is a good sign that Mom has gotten emotionally involved in the story. Also, she hasn’t accused me of basing any of the characters on members of our family. That’s always a concern when your mom reads your book!

    Like

    1. Whoops! I once got some concerned questions from my dad regarding one of my novels, wondering if the characters were based on our family. Considering the fatality rate, it’s a good thing they weren’t!

      It sounds like your “why didn’t they just” could be a good opportunity for helping people to understand the viewpoint of sexual assault victims – either by having the child think about the reasons why she isn’t speaking up, or by letting the readers think “Why didn’t she just” and then emotionally slapping them with the answer, in a way that makes them realize it was wrong to judge her for not blowing the whistle.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Sorry to all the people who left wonderful comments, and didn’t get a reply for a while; it was a seriously packed month for me, and I got dauntingly behind on my notifications. Bad Stephanie. Bad.

    Like

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