Friday, January 2, 2015

What question is your novel asking?

Story Questions vs. Plot Questions

I ran across Karyne Norton's blog the other day. Karyne is a young adult fantasy writer. She hasn't tried pitching any of her books to agents and has not self-published. She wants the book she does that with to be good and understands that writing a book is a learning process. I respect this. (It might feel familiar to me.) In one of her posts on 

It's easier to answer when you know what the question is.
This was exciting because it was something that I had my novel group focus on when we first started out. When Pigs in Heaven first came out, I'd read that Barbara Kingsolver started her book with a question. The question for Pigs in Heaven was something like, “When their needs don't match up, how do you determine whether the needs of a single person or their community are more important?” Or something like that. Since I'd heard that, I'd always tried to ask a question that seemed vital, but which a person isn't able to answer quickly or simply.

Our group came up with story questions like these, as related to our books:

When there is a tangled web of unethical institutions affecting the lives of individuals within a society, what can you do about it? How will you be effective? Will you become unethical or immoral in turn? Is taking a ethical or moral hit to your own soul worth it if it helps someone? What if it hurts others in turn? What if those you perceived were going out on a limb to do something right for someone else, even if we thought it was wrong?

What is real and what is fantasy? When the line is blurred in one's mind, is there something deeply wrong? Is there something intrinsically wrong with living in fantasy? How do you balance reality and fantasy in a healthy way? Is religion fantasy?

It was messy to think about in the beginning because we then had to pare our mess of questions down to one. The additional questions may be sub-questions that support the working out of the larger question.

The idea, though, was to present a question that the characters in the novels would face through action and conflict. It's the greater question that the story strives to answer and creates a sense of fulfillment in the reader.

It's also a question that you, the writer, can return to when you get stuck later in the book. It reminds you of your purpose, of the guiding idea of the story. When you are pushing your character through the novel, it reminds you of the hidden and deep-seated needs of your character as she acts and reacts and makes decisions.

But I never really thought of it as a physical plot question—a question that drove the character to participate in a plotline, sure, but not the action itself.

That was until I read Karyne's post.

The questions she asked: "What if a girl wakes up in someone else's body? In a mental institution?"

what happens question? WTF?

This may be obvious to a genre writer. But, really, this can work with us literary folk, too, even those of us who fly by the seats of our pants.

Check this out. The first set is the group of questions I was asking as the guiding questions for the novel. The second set is the group I asked as physical plot questions.

1. How does a young person learn to find her place in the world when that world is in flux and everyone seems to be wrestling with their own identity? When no one has confidence any longer that they understand what is going on or where they will fit into a transformed culture?

2. What happens when you don't follow your parents' lead? When you refuse your family and find a new family?  What happens if you abandon your family when they are in need? Can you choose your own family? Do you ever really leave your original family behind? Under what condition will you return? And will you be accepted? What if you aren't?

This may be more than what Karyne recommends, but with character-driven fiction, I find that these internal questions inspire action. You can see how the questions in 2 will aid the progression of answering questions in 1, which are not what happens questions. Any character-driven plot, including conceptual (genre) fiction, will benefit from considering the internal questions that force the characters to act.

It's a lot easier to answer when you know what the questions are.


  1. First, I love the idea of posing a question that needs a whole novel to answer. The richness of that is so enticing. (And, I agree, could potentially re-motivate you when you're feeling stuck.)

    Second, I absolutely love your questions. They're so compelling I read them through 3 times. Your questions make me feel this is going to be a very satisfying novel to read. And, for you, writing it should be an even deeper experience than you may have had without posing the right questions.

    I'm excited for you! The quality of your questions speaks volumes.

    1. A question that takes a whole novel to answer... Sort of a variation on the Japanese idea (if I recall correctly) of the title of a book being the entire novel...

      Sometimes people comment and say things so eloquently about the post that I wish I said it. Thank you, Milli!

  2. I really enjoyed reading this, thanks very much! I'm a relatively new blogger and quite inexperienced so it's really nice to see different styles in blogging!

    1. Oh, yeah... It's funny how blogging winds up being so different from every other kind of writing--and then you have to find your voice all over again just for this format! Good luck with yours; I'll check it out!

  3. every writer has their own creativity and i guess many writers turn to your site.

  4. Got me thinking about what question sums up the entire novel of the one I am in process of getting published. I came up with a few ways of wording what, essentially, is the same question. Which one do you think would intrigue best?
    How far will a mother go to find her missing daughter?
    When would a mother stop searching for her missing daughter?
    Would a mother ever stop searching for her missing daughter?
    Why would a mother stop searching for her missing daughter?
    Thanks for a very helpful, thought provoking post.

    1. Hi Christine... I tend to think that the questions that require an explanation are the ones that we need an answer to, and especially the ones that we, personally, would have difficulty answering without our own experience. You know, with "How far would a mother go...?" most people think to themselves, "I would track the bastard down that took her. I'd go underground. I'd live in the sewers if I needed to find her there because I couldn't stand knowing she was there. I'd travel to Yemen to rescue her. My other kids would have to understand that."

      But faced with a question like "WHY would she stop...?" That's a hard one because we want to say we won't ever stop. Most of us probably would, though, at some point. At least we'd physically stop the vendetta because it would kill us and destroy the rest of our family if it just got to a point where we really were at a dead end... even if we were always looking around us, or searching for her in the faces of others, or secretly waiting for that one critical clue to finally come to us... How do we really answer a question like that? Look how much it made me think! I'm still thining about it!

      I think the most difficult question to answer is the question to ask.