11 June 2013

Why, Indeed! Strengthening Your Story with Questions

This is the fifth installment in the continuing story of "Editing Mister D," a joint project to coach British nonfiction writer Pete Oxley through completion and publication of his first novel-length fiction work.

If you have ever spent much time around kids, you know that some time after the Terrible Twos, they turn into "Why-maraners," asking "why?" about everything under the sun.  Kids are just naturally inquisitive; they're not trying to drive adults insane.  They really do want to know why the sky is blue.

Kids also have poorly developed internal governors, so they often horrify grown-ups by asking uncomfortable questions.  "Why is your hair blue?"  "Why is your belly so big?"  "Why do you smell funny?"  Again, they're just curious, and the easiest way to find answers is to simply ask questions, right?

So, what does this have to do with writing?  I'm glad you asked!

I advised Pete to review his own story with the attitude of a precocious four-year-old, asking "why?" about everything in his story, even the uncomfortable questions.  "Why does my character do what he does?"  "Why doesn't he do what he doesn't do?"  "Why is this character even in this story?"

I asked him plenty of questions, too (and even made the mistake of trying to come up with possible answers), and as painful as it might have been, Pete answered every question and made his story much stronger than it would have been.  Why?  Well, there are three reasons:

First, your reader will very likely ask the same questions, and you had better know the answers.  It doesn't necessarily have to be spelled out at the outset, but you still need to know the answer.  For example, say you have a character who kills another character, and then goes to a party.  Why?  Is he a psychopath, completely unaffected by his actions?  Is he trying to establish an alibi?  Is he meeting with his partner in crime?  Does he have another victim in mind?  Or perhaps you copied and pasted a scene in where it wasn't supposed to be.  The point is, if your characters don't have credible--not necessarily rational, but credible--reasons for doing what they do, they simply won't be believable, and neither will your story.

Second, every book--not just murder mysteries, but every book--needs a motive.  This is why we spend so much time trying to get inside the heads of our characters.  We want to know what makes them tick.  When we ask why a character does something and answer that question, we have more insight into the character.  This not only makes characters more believable, it makes the plot hang together better because it is driven primarily by your major characters and not by coincidence or happenstance.

Third, by asking why you will identify plot devices immediately and treat them accordingly.  For instance, your characters are driven out of a building by a fire.  Why a fire?  I needed them to leave the building for the next scene.  Why did the building catch fire?  Hmm.  I don't know.  Perhaps the fire is a random occurrence, in which case you will want to lend credibility by making it a rickety old firetrap of a building, an old match factory perhaps, with a few old cans of gasoline left in the garage.  Better, see if you can replace overly stagey plot devices with something that is driven by one of your characters' motives.

Note that the most well-developed characters have reasons for the things they have done before the story even started.  If your character is a paroled felon, what crime did they commit, and why?  Each question asked and answered provides greater insight into your characters, making them more believable and strengthening the plot.

Now, Pete had the unusual situation of having two characters who are essentially two halves of another supernatural character.  Intriguing, but here comes my question: Why does this character elect to split himself in half?  Pete didn't have a fully formed answer, which posed a major problem for the rest of the story.  In the end, he had no choice but to come up with answer.  In doing so, he has come up with an immensely compelling back story that simultaneously answered several other key questions--and added an entirely new dimension to the story in the process.  He changed a fatal flaw in his story into a new strength.  And he did it by simply asking questions and then answering them.

I've run into some authors who have dialogues with their characters, either written or verbal, in order to gain insight.  They ask their characters annoying questions and let the characters respond.  I've never tried it, but it seems to me this could work well as long as you are not overheard having conversations with imaginary people and promptly medicated with antipsychotic drugs.  However you do it, do it.  Your characters and stories will be stronger, and your readers will be happier.

But don't ask me why, or I'll have to use your parents' favorite answer: Because I said so!

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