The How and Why  of Writing a Pourquoi




                                                                                                   Marilyn Kinsella  


                                                             Part One: the how and why of pourquoi...

One of the most popular types of folktales are the How and Why Stories. But, what is a how and why story? It's a type of  folk tale that explains how or why something is the way it is today. Sometimes, it is called "pourquoi" (por-kwa) which is French for "why." Many, but not all, of the stories begin with the word "why." This could be a story about an animal, place, or thing. Examples - Why Possum's Tale Is Bare,  How Devil's Tower Came to Be,  Why There are Echoes, and Why the Sea is Salty. However, just because a story title begins with a "how" or a "why," it does not mean that it is necessarily a pourquoi. There are other earmarks as well. They are usually short, come from an ancient culture, have talking animals or people, demonstrate character traits, end with a change in the animal, thing or landscape, and...they are fun to tell!

Before attempting to write an original how and why, read many of these stories from various cultures to familiarize yourself with the format. These stories are found in many, many cultures. Folktales collected from cultures are in the non-fiction section of the library. These collections are in the 398.2 (adult) and J398.2 (Juvenile) section of the library. Many of them contain how and why stories. Sometimes, by reading the title of the book, you will know there will be how and why stories in it.  However, you will often have to look through the table of contents to find, if the book of folktales contains pourquoi stories. Many picture books are how and why stories. Often they are designated with an "E" in front of 398.2. These books are easy to read and are some of the most popular how and whys. And, of course, there is the Internet. It is full of collections of stories from many lands. You may need to do some reading to get to the pourquoi...but they are there. Remember, not all pourquoi stories have a "how or why" in the title and not all story titles that have "how and why" are necessarily pourquoi. You will also find that other types of folktales can, at times, be how and why tales, too: legends, tall tales, and trickster tales. Before telling stories that are from another country, it is best to familiarize oneself with the culture. Here are some sites that have some pourquoi stories in them: Native American Folktales, Legends and Stories., Canadian Folklore, and African Folktales.

Some how and why stories cross over into mythology, when they explain the beginnings of the world or the universe. Then, they are often called "myths" or "origin" stories. Some religions are based in a mythology of stories. When telling myths, the teller has to do careful research, so he or she can come to an understanding about the characters, symbols and intent of the story. They will often, but not always, talk about gods and goddesses. These narratives include how the world began, how creatures and plants came into existence, and why certain things in the cosmos (star stories) have certain qualities.  See: Maori Legends and MythsGreek Mythology, and  Norse Myths.

How and Why Stories are teaching tales. Hidden behind the fun adventure there is a lesson tucked away. It is not so much about a possum's tale being bare as the it is the consequences for being too proud. As opposed to fables, they do not blatantly come out and say what the morel of the story is. It is much more subtle. These tales were often used to teach valuable science and social lessons, too.

Although there are hundreds of how and why stories from folk literature, many authors have used the same premise and have written literary versions. Examples - Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling and some of the stories in Rootabaga Stories by Carl Sandburg.

                                                                         Part Two: Time to Write:


After reading and listening to how and why stories, it is time to write your own. A pre-writing exercise to do with a class, is to take an existing pourquoi, bring it down to its bare bones, and let the class, either individually or as small groups, work on fleshing the story up with their own words, dialog, etc. See Down to the Bare Bones.

It may daunting for young writers to come up with an idea. Go to websites that describe oddities in animals like  or land formations. Have them identify an unusual characteristic that they will use for their own stories. Or, look at pictures of common animals and ask: "What is unusual about this animal?"

In writing the story it has to end with a change. That change is usually the title of the story. So, the beginning of the story has to set the scene for the way it was before the change. Often the story starts..."a long, long time ago, when the world was very new...(state the situation as it was"  Some problem must develop that needs to be resolved. It's usually in that resolution that the change takes place...and, then, that's the way it stays to this day.


1. First Line: Standard beginning for a folktale (Long, long ago...see others HERE) or make up your own.

Decide what natural occurrence is the subject of the story. Introduce it the way it originally looked.

Examples: Why is the Sky Blue, Why Rainbows are Arched, Why Skunks Smell, Why the Mississippi is so Muddy, Why the Otter Floats on its Back, How the Grand Canyon Was Formed.

2. Select the setting of the story - when did it happen (usually a long time ago) and where (describe habitat)

3. Select animals and/or humans as the main and minor characters (Choose animals from that habitat) Give the animals and humans certain traits that make them unique. Avoid giving names to characters as that often distracts the listener. It oftentimes causes the listener to pre-judge as names have many connotations, both good and bad.).

4. Identify the problem (animal wants what another animal has, animal is careless with what they have, animal is too proud or too greedy, etc.)


5 Go through a sequence of events with trial and error, asking for help, moving from scene to scene until the conflict is resolved and lesson is learned.


6. That is why we see this (...) as it is today.

7. Go back through the story adding some creative language: metaphors, imagery (not too much!), idioms, etc. Add dialog whenever possible and set the tone of the story - serious, silly, maudlin, etc.

                                            Here are some other websites that use the idea of writing an original pourquoi story:

bullet Journey North: the Common Loon - Research an animal, write down interesting facts about it. Take those facts and write a pourquoi. On this website they use many interesting facts about a loon.
bullet Read, Write Think: Pourquoi Stories: Creating Stories to Tell Why Good on-line links to handouts to use in the classroom
bulletMore pourquoi stories: Canku OtaNative American Lore Index Page,  
bulletCutbanks School: Secondary work with Pourquoi stories. a more in-depth look at pourquois.

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