Melissa Mead lives in Upstate NY with her husband and cat. Her stories have recently appeared in IGMS and Daily Science Fiction. She’s a member of SFWA, Codex, and the Carpe Libris Writers Group: http://carpelibris.wordpress.com/. She too had a story to tell about using questions to help her develop her published stories. I think it’s worth sharing.
My Double Dragon novel Between Worlds (Double Dragon Publishing) came about because of a reading mistake.
You see, I’d come across the word “cantrip.” Not being a D&D player, I’d never heard it before, so I went to the OED and looked it up. The first definition said “A minor spell or incantation.” The second said “A mischievous trick,” but somehow I misread it as “A mischievous sprite.”
Oh wow- a mythological being I’d never heard of! I ransacked the library looking for any reference to those mischievous sprites. Didn’t find any, of course. Finally I decided that if I couldn’t find them, I’d make them up. So I started asking myself “What are Cantrips?” From the definition, I figured they must have some minor magical powers, and were most likely small.
So why hadn’t we heard of them before? Perhaps they were hiding.
Why were they hiding? Perhaps something awful had happened between humans and Cantrips long ago, driving the Cantrips underground. Literally.
Then why we were hearing about them now? Something must have happened that made staying hidden more risky than coming above ground. Starvation? Underground isn’t the best place to maintain a steady population. But that’s not very dramatic or personal, for story purposes. Maybe, in addition, there’s an outside threat.
Ok, so someone needs to confront this threat. One person, so we have someone to focus on. Someone more adventurous than your typical Cantrip.
And so Miska, and all the Cantrips, brought a new form of mischievous sprites to the world.
All because of the question “What the heck is a Cantrip?”
First of all, notice she followed her zing. She stumbled upon this new creature and started to research. Her research didn’t provide much, of course. But following that impulse is key.
Next, did you notice she kept asking why? Why don’t we know about Cantrips? Why did they go underground? Why are they returning? That’s a motive or cause question.
There’s no way you’d use those exact questions in your story. But you WILL want to know WHY things are they way they are. You will want to know motives and causes, internal and external. You’ll want to know WHY your hero is facing this problem, WHY the antagonist is working against her, WHY the hero decides to tackle the problem instead of ignore it or run away. When the hero reacts and makes a decision to do X, you will want to know WHY (as well as WHAT’S THE RESULT). Same with the antagonist. When building setting, you might find it useful to ask things like WHY did they build a village here or WHY is my character a tailor? Do you see?
In addition, I’ve found that replacing “why” with “what” seems to be more productive to me. So “what led or caused my character to be a tailor” helps me more than “why.” “What’s motivating the antagonist” helps me personally more than “why is he doing this?” That might be my own weirdness, but I think “what” subtly leads me straight into nouns and situations and values and beliefs. Try it on and see if it doesn’t help you.
Finally, did you notice her use of objective. The story about overpopulation in the underground didn’t interest her much. She wanted something with an active antagonist. Something that could focus on a character. Knowing that objective, she started generating options that might fit the bill. Which lead to the cool idea of a new type of mischevious sprite.
Follow zing. Use the “what” (why) to identify cause and motive. If you can, state your objective; the clarity will give your wonderful mind a focus for its generating powers.
For more in this series, see How to Get and Develop Story Ideas