Generating Story 7: Creative Q&A

Filling up your mind with wonderful things by hunting zing is a writer’s bread and butter.  But guess what?  You can’t develop a killer story by waiting to stumble across great story ideas.  So while you must deploy your drag net and hunt with a purpose, you must also learn how to develop your own zing.  And I haven’t found anything more productive for helping me do that than the process of creative question and answer.

If you refer back to the Story Development Framework download, you’ll see that Creative Q&A is one of the key tools used to develop every part of story.  So how does it work?

Do you remember my first and second posts where I talked about Ed Smiley and the folks at NASA who helped save Apollo 13?  They used this technique.  Here’s how it went down.

They had a problem: the astronauts were running out of oxygen because the CO2 scrubbers weren’t working in the module they were in.

The problem led to an objective: figure out a way to get the CO2 scrubbers working.

The objective led to a question: what are some options for getting those CO2 scrubbers working?

Then they began to generate possible answers.  Two days later they had one that would work.  Ed and his team saved the three astronauts aboard.

This same thing happens over and over again in any situation that requires some new solution.  Do you remember all those redneck solutions I shared in the first post?  They were practicing creative Q&A.

You know all those accountants generating various ways to do your taxes?  They’re practicing creative Q&A.  Mine did that this year; he figured out one legal way do our taxes that saved us some money, then figured out another legal way to do our taxes that saved us more than $1,500.  I’m so glad he looked for that second, actually third, right answer.

You see all those mothers and fathers generating ways to make ends meet?  They’re practicing creative Q&A.

It happens all the time.  It’s a key tool when trying to develop a story, and I’ve found a couple of guidelines when using this technique that seem to help quite a bit:

  1. Clearly identify the objective.
  2. Turn the objective into a “what” question.  For example, “I need a more interesting character” becomes “What are some things that would make my character more interesting?”  Likewise, “This scene is stupid, nobody would do that” becomes  “What would make this scene more believable?” When I’m stuck with plot, “My character isn’t facing any real problems” becomes “What are some killer troubles the character can run into?”
  3. Generate a list of good, dumb, and wacky options.  It seems the more ideas I generate, the better chance I have to come up with something really good, especially if I cherish the dumb and wacky ones by writing them down.
  4. Don’t hesitate to steal other ideas I’ve seen and modify them to make them my own.  Or to go search for how others dealt with issue.
  5. Try to generate more than one good or right answer.


I use creative Q&A to help me develop my key objectives all the time.  I state a question and use the principles to guide me in the options I generate.  For example, in the thriller I’m writing I started with a character, an ex-con trying to go straight.  I asked myself “What are some threats to his happiness?” and “What could go wrong?”  I started to generate options.  Some were mildly interesting; some were dumb.  One was that “some old associates come back, old prison buddies, and try to drag him back into the life he’s trying to escape.”  That one tingled my zing meter, and I started to generate more information about that.  “What would they drag him back into?”  “What kinds of crimes?”  “Who are they?” (Okay, not every objective can be turned into a “what” question.)

There are also ad hoc objectives, i.e. objectives that arise only in a particular situation that I can’t plan for.  I can use this with them as well.  For example, in Servant of a Dark God I wanted a henchman to have a cool weapon, something that I hadn’t seen before.  My question for that was “what are some cool new weapons for this henchman?”  I listed out some that were stupid and had been done before like “a big knife” and others that were wacky like “a chain.”  I generated a big old list.  As I generated options I suddenly generated the idea of “spikes.”  And then “spikes that were alive.”  That tickled my zing meter, and I followed that path and came up with the Ravelers, which I think are just awesome.

For more information about creative Q&A, I recommend you read Creative Problem Solving: An Introduction, Fourth Edition by Donald Treffinger.  It’s one of the most practical books on creativity around.

While you’re waiting for that to come in the mail or to get it from your library, I want you to watch something.  Dewitt Jones, a photographer for National Geographic, uses creative Q&A.  He made an incredible twenty-minute video explaining the principles of generating options.  Please watch Everyday Creativity .  It says “Preview,” but it’s the whole wonderful video.  Then go here and watch that same last bit plus some material not on the other one.  These are two versions of the same presentation.  Everyday Creativity is the commercial version used for training.  Clear Vision is the personal use one that includes some extra material.  Let me recommend you purchase the Clear Vision version. You will not regret the $45 dollars.  I promise you.

All of what he says applies to generating answers for our writing.


Note what he says about these principles about generating options:

  1. Try different perspectives for stating a problem.
  2. Follow your zing, what you care about; figure out what’s exciting you about the thing.
  3. Look for more than one right answer.  Believe there IS more than one right answer.
  4. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes—you often must make them to get the good stuff!
  5. Try breaking a pattern, do something different.
  6. Train your technique.
  7. Put yourself in the place of most potential.
  8. Be patient, persevere.
  9. Relax and goof around.

One last thought on creative Q&A.  There are certain questions that seem to be more productive than others.  I find that those focused on the key objectives are usually very productive for me.  So give those a try, but there are others.  Furthermore, what might work for me might not work so well for you.  Don’t get stuck on using a specific question because someone else does.  The goal is not to use a specific tool, which in this case is a specific question.  The goal is to make the different parts of the story come to life in your mind.  Whatever question helps YOU do that best is the one to use.

Because creative Q&A is such a powerful tool, I want to make sure you see plenty of examples of authors using it in their writing.  To start, read chapter 2 of Orson Card’s Characters & Viewpoint and see what questions he finds useful and an example of  how he uses them.  Then come back here.  I’ve asked some other published authors to share how they use questions to help them generate story.  I’m going to start with Ian Creasey whose short fiction has appeared in magazines such as Asimov’s, Realms of Fantasy and Weird Tales, and has been reprinted in several Year’s Best SF anthologies.  He’s written a wonderful essay that I’ll use for the next post in the series.

For more in this series, see How to Get and Develop Story Ideas

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