Monday, February 18

Story Craft: Five Important Questions

The most useful advice I've ever read was Stephen King's admonishment in On Writing that, above all else, one's writing must be clear.

But how can we cash this out? How can we ensure that our writing paints a vivid picture?

C.S. Lakin, in her recent article, 5 Key Questions to Ask as You Write Your Novel, talks about the importance of asking questions.

Questions Create Story

Why are questions important? C.S. Lakin replies: because questions create story. After all, what is a novel except one huge "what if" question?

Here are 5 questions that C.S. Lakin asks whenever she writes a novel.

1. Where is the scene taking place?

One thing I love about Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series are his descriptions. I don't think I've ever had the feeling of being 'blind' when reading about one of Harry's adventures. The first time JB takes us to a new location we get a detailed description, after that a few well-chosen words suffice to reorient/remind us where we are.

Don't forget to include smells, sounds, textures, and so on, in your description.

I find that doing a short warm-up exercise before I begin writing for the day can help put me in the right frame of mind. I try and describe a place using information from at least 3 senses.

2. How much time has passed?

Whenever a change of place occurs so does a change of scene, but a change of place often coincides with a time jump as well. Make sure it's clear whether 5 minutes or 5 days have elapsed.

3. What is your character feeling?

The goal of writing--at least, why I write--is to entertain. In order to entertain readers with a story they need to care about the characters our story is about. How do we accomplish this? By showing the reader our character's emotions.

Yes, absolutely, the characters thoughts are important, but we need to know how story events affect our characters emotionally.

Think of the last movie you saw. How many times was the main character afraid? Worried? Happy? Vengeful?

Let me put it another way. Why would your readers care about the antagonist's eventual defeat (or victory) if the main character doesn't seem to?

Show what your character is feeling, show their reactions.

C.S. Lakin writes:
For every important moment, your character needs to react. First viscerally, then emotionally, then physically and finally, intellectually. Often a writer will show a character reacting with deep thought about a situation, when their first natural reactions are missing.

If you get hit by a car, you aren’t going to first think logically about what happened and what you need to do next. First, you scream or your body slams against the sidewalk and pain streaks through your back.

Keep this adage in mind: for every action, there should be an appropriate, immediate reaction. That’s how you reveal character.

4. What is the point of the scene?

How does this scene move the story forward?

Your point of view character has a goal. Chances are, they're not going to accomplish this goal, or if they do, they'll have to defeat various obstacles in their way. If the protagonist never has to struggle to get what he wants we aren't going to care very much when he,  eventually, gets it (or fails to).

We need to see character under stress, we need to see them improvising, scheming, hoping, developing other ways to achieve what they want, a way that might not work.

A terrific example of the hero being blocked and improvising ("Yes, but .../No, and") happens in Indiana Jones and the Lost Ark: 
Conflict: Do Indie and Marion survive the pit of snakes?
Setback: Yes, they use torches to keep the snakes at bay BUT the torches are about to burn out.

Conflict: Do Indie and Marion escape the pit of snakes before their torches burn out?
Setback: Yes, Indie crashes a pillar through a wall providing them a way to escape BUT the room they enter is filled with skeletons that--for Marion at least--seem to come alive.

Conflict: Will Indie and Marion escape from the ancient burial vault they've been entombed in?
Setback: Yes, BUT the bad guys have the ark and Indie needs to get it back. (Making A Scene: Using Conflicts And Setbacks To Create Narrative Drive).
Bottom line: If the point-of-view character doesn't have a goal, or the goal is unrelated to the story goal, then the scene can't move the narrative forward.

5. What is your protagonist's main external goal?

Your protagonist needs a goal. No goal, no story.

The protagonist's goal will likely change over the course of the story. For instance, Mitch McDeere's goal in The Firm changes midway through from making partner at of Bendini, Lambert & Locke to staying free and not getting disbarred.

C.S. Lakin writes:
That goal [the protagonist's main external goal] should drive the story and be the underpinning for all your scenes. That goal is the glue that holds your novel together. It may not be a ‘huge’ goal, and in the end your character may even fail to reach that goal—you’re the writer; you decide. But have a goal.
These aren't the only questions to ask, there are many, many, more. One book I find immensely useful is Donald Maass' Writing The Breakout Novel Workbook. For instance, here are the questions at the end of his first chapter:
Step 1: Who are your personal heroes? Write down the name of one.
Step 2: What makes this person a hero or heroine to you? What is his or her greatest heroic quality? Write that down.
Step 3: What was the moment in time in which you first became aware of this quality in your hero/heroine? Write that down.
Step 4: Assign that quality to your protagonist. Find a way for he or she actively to demonstrate that quality, even in a small way, in his or her first scene. Make notes, starting now.
When you write, what questions do you ask yourself about each scene?

Other articles you might like:

- Joe Konrath Made $15,000 dollars over 7 days using Amazon Select
- Screenwriting Software: Adobe Story
- Chuck Wendig's Flash Fiction Challenge: Write What You Know

Photo credit: "buh buh buh baby" by Vato Bob under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.


  1. Excellent categorization and explanations, Ms. Woodward. You should consider writing a "how to" book on this subject. (possibly making it free) It would be less of an effort, since you have so many great posts with tips and observations. I think people would find such a book very helpful. I know I would.

    1. Thanks Serban! Actually, I have been meaning to do just that for a couple of weeks but it has been difficult to find the time. I appreciate your encouragement, I think it just might be the nudge I needed! :-)


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