Monday, February 29

Are You Asking the Right Story Questions?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A novel is a series of story questions, so it’s important to, A) have enough, and B), make sure they’re questions readers want answers to. Without questions drawing a reader into a story, there’s no reason to read that story.

Story questions also keep our scenes from being just flat descriptions of what happens. They give readers directions to wander through our story worlds, encourage them to spend time with our characters, and challenge them to discover the answers to the things we’ve teased them with.

The Big Question

The biggest story question of the novel revolves around the core conflict. In some novels that’s easy—such as a murder mystery or a romance—others are more thematic and thought provoking.
  • Who killed the mailman?
  • What does it mean to be human? 
  • What exactly is that thing hovering over the South Pole? 

The Big Question is what the novel’s plot will spend time exploring. It’s also the reason readers likely bought the book in the first place—to get an answer to this question.

It will drive the plot, affect the character arc, and cause the majority of the action in the novel. Most (if not all) of the major turning points in the plot will be steps to get to and answer this question.

If your novel doesn’t have a Big Question, that’s a red flag you might not have enough conflict, or could be looking at a premise novel that’s more idea than story.

(Here’s more on the core conflicts) 

The Important Questions

Larger story questions will surround the characters and world. They’re questions that concern the people and places involved in the story and how it all works together.
  • Who are these people living in the sewers? 
  • How does magic work here? 
  • Why is Kendra so afraid of dogs? 

The important questions often explore the character arc, subplots, and thematic elements, digging deeper into aspects of the story as a whole. For example, in a murder mystery, readers will wonder who killed the mailman, so some important story questions supporting that Big Question might be:
  • Where were the characters at the time of the murder?
  • Who wanted him dead?
  • Who benefited from his death?
  • Did anyone see anything?
  • How did the murder take place?

If your novel doesn't have a nice mix of important questions, that's a red flag you might be giving too much away and leaving nothing for readers to wonder about. Look for excessive backstory or infodumps that might be explaining away the story questions instead of leaving clues to them.

Story questions might also create ambiguity, making readers unsure if what they’re seeing is real or not. Sure, all the evidence points to Chuck as being the killer, but he just doesn’t seem like the murderous type. Readers wonder if what they’re seeing is true, or if things are not what they seem. Ambiguous story questions create enough uncertainty that readers have to keep reading to find out the truth.

(Here’s more on how ambiguity can work to create story questions) 

The important questions flesh out the core conflict question, and are great tools for plotting. Answering these questions make up the steps in the plot, and give our protagonists the goals they need.

The Plot-Driving Questions

These questions connect the scenes and show how the plot tells that story. In every scene, at least one question will be hanging in the air, teasing readers about the answer and making them read on to find out. These questions drive the plot forward.
  • Will Bob find the key to the shed? 
  • What’s the detective doing with that shovel? 
  • Why is Carlos keeping Luis away from the garage? 

Think of these questions as the worker bees of the plot. They fit into the entire hive, and if they don’t do their jobs the whole hive suffers, but they’re only concerned with their little part of it. They focus on what happens in a scene or chapter, and while the answer will lead to something bigger, once they reveal that answer they’ve done their jobs.

For example, if we start with “who killed the mailman?”, and move on to the important questions of who and how, our plot-driving questions might be specific goals for the protagonist as she works through the scene:

Big Question: Who killed the mailman?

Important Question: Where were the characters at the time of the murder?

Scene: Detective Chen goes to suspect A’s house to interview him about his whereabouts on the night of the murder. She asks:

Where were you last night? (Readers wonder as well)

Suspect A says home, yet Chen (and readers) see a fresh club stamp on the back of his hand, leading to plot-driving questions such as:
  • Where was he really?
  • Why is he lying?
  • How close is that club to where the murder took place? 

Detective Chen will try to uncover those same questions, which will give her things to do to drive the plot forward.

If your novel doesn't have many plot-driving questions, that's a red flag that you might be missing goals or motivations for the characters. They're not trying to accomplishing anything, just acting out what the plot tells them to do. It could also suggest episodic scenes where things happen, but none of them are connected to a larger plot or problem.

(Here’s more on asking the right story questions) 

Story questions lead the protagonist through the novel, as well as keep readers hooked by what happens in that novel. They help us create our plots so we can tell our stories in the most compelling way.

Do you plan your story questions or do they happen naturally? Or is it a mix of both—big questions are planned, but smaller questions just happen?

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those    with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter(Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  1. Ain't that the truth? I have a middle-grade detective story, all about recovering stolen puppies, but the real question is "will (the protagonist) be able to do what he needs to do in spite of himself?" You put it so very well.