Questions Rule

Everyone knows it’s important to create fully rounded characters, and that you do that by asking the right questions. But which questions are the right ones, and how many questions are enough?

A good question that helps you flesh out your characters, setting or plot, should be:

1. Daring (digging into uncomfortable areas)

2. Open ended (yes-or-no answers must not be possible)

3. Un-biased (not direct the answer one way or another)

4. Investigative (get to the bottom of things)

Let’s create a simple story backbone to use as an example.

Say we’re in a small town in the middle of who-cares, our protagonist is a thirteen-year old girl, Emma, standing in the corner of her grandparents’ living room while the whole family is gathered around grandpa’s coffin.

It’s summer, it’s hot, and there’s a weird smell in the air. Mommy is crying, but wipes her tears quickly before they flow down her cheeks. Dad isn’t sad, because he’s “the man in this house”. Aunt Margey sobs into her hanky, and uncle George pats her back. The priest is giggling into his fist. He stops as soon as he notices Emma staring at him.

Ugh, what’s that weird smell? It reminds Emma of her pet canary who died in his cage and she couldn’t bare to tell mommy that she hadn’t fed him for a week. So she hid him in the desk drawer and said he’d flown away. He’s been there ever since. He’s silent too, and smells like grandpa. But not quite like grandpa.

Emma’s toes are ice cold in her sandals. There’s a chilly draft on the floor. Where’s it coming from? Is that why the room smells weird? And where’s grandma? Emma hasn’t seen her at all.

 

Now to the juicy questions. Remember they should be

(1) daring — What’s the priest hiding? as opposed to Why is mommy not showing her tears?

(2) open ended — Where’s grandma? as opposed to Is grandma dead too?

(3) un-biased — What’s wrong in this picture? as opposed to Is there a ghost in the room? which would implicitly lead into a paranormal direction, while the story may actually have a much better potential as a murder mystery or zombie horror story;

and finally (4) investigative — Where’s the cold, smelly draft coming from? If the cellar door is open, why does it smell like dead canary in there? Why isn’t anybody asking about grandma? If somebody killed grandma, why doesn’t dad care, grandma was his mom after all? How come mommy never noticed the dead canary? Why’s Emma so indifferent to death?

I bet you came up with a hundred more crazy questions to ask. That’s great, always keep asking, like a nosy little brat.

Also, it’s very important to not go with the first best answer that crosses your mind. It should go something like this: you ask, you answer, you doubt that answer, you ask an even crazier question, and so on. Be investigative, unsatisfied with front-value answers, just like Columbo used to be about his suspects. Keep digging deeper and deeper, and you will flesh out your characters and your story almost automatically.

For example, take this information: Dad isn’t sad, because he’s “the man in this house”.

Now, how does Emma know this? Does he say so himself, or does mommy say it? Does he tell it to mommy when they’re fighting? When they’re playing tickle-the-pickle in the bedroom? Does he tell it to Emma when he’s punishing her? Does he whisper it to Emma when he’s touching her? How does the idea of dad being “the man in this house” make Emma feel, comforted or scared? Or did the priest say it to dad, now that grandpa’s dead? Is dad proud of this title or does he hate it? What will change in the future now that he’s “the man in this house”? What does Emma believe he’ll do next? What will he really do?

The next great thing you can do is to make the reader ask interesting questions while she reads. Never give information freely, like cheese samples in the supermarket. Don’t saturate your reader’s curiosity. Every information you give should contain the seed of a new question. Let it bring back the wonders of being a child, when everything encountered bore the potential for an awesome story and a brand new game.

Curiosity is the best thing ever! Train it, cherish it, because it’s your greatest asset. It’s what fuels your imagination and makes fiction and life itself hellovalot more interesting. Questions are what make the world go round. Just look at the physicist Isidor Isaac Rabi, who won the Nobel Prize for inventing a technique to probe the structure of atoms and molecules in the 1930s. He attributed his success in physics to the way his mother used to greet him when he came home from school every day: “Did you ask any good questions today, Isaac?”

 

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This blog post is part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge, April 2012

12 Replies to “Questions Rule”

  1. Now this is an interesting post, Vero. I might just use these four during my “printed paper” edit: put each scene up against the questions. Take the temperature. Notch it up where it’s flagging. Backtrack when it’s telling versus showing.

    Thank you! 😀

    (I must go Tweet your A-Z awesomeness now.)

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  2. This is kinda funny to me, because I sometimes catch myself acting like Columbo when I’m trying to flesh something out. Pacing, almost leaving, coming back, “One more question…”

    I even forget that my pencil is behind my ear.

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  3. I love how you included a great example to really show us your point. Your post makes me wonder if some of these techniques become second nature, or if some writers always need to remind themselves to employ them.

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    1. Thanks, Cindy! I guess to some writers it becomes second nature easily, if it wasn’t so already, but some need encouragement and inspiration. 🙂 I was always a very, let’s say investigative kid, and I hope I will never unlearn that!

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  4. Great post! I think this would be a really useful (and fun) approach to any story. My Q post (which I’m still working on) is also about Questions. I wonder how many of us will do the same?

    Anyway, thanks for this. Now I’m going to go back and re-read it.

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  5. Great advice! Questions are so useful to the writing process. One of the first things I do when gearing up to outline is write down a varied list of questions that need answering. And of course, I always “interview” my main characters.

    Also, I find it’s helpful when working with a willing beta reader to get them to jot down the questions that form in their mind as they read (similar to your example), then see if your reader got the answers or payoff they were looking for. It makes for great feedback sometimes.

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    1. Questions when beta-reading (and from beta-readers) are just as important as those during writing, you’re totally right! 🙂

      I’ve only once attempted to interview my protagonist, but I quit after two pages because she almost scalped me. She didn’t appreciate being probed about her motives after all she’d been through. I had a hard time even removing the random sharp object out of her grip, to be safe while I asked my questions. Uhm… I’ll go commit myself to the closed ward now.

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