Generating Story 8: Creative Q&A part 2

I realized I needed to blather a bit more on this topic to warn you against something before I bring the other authors on.

You’re going to be tempted.  You’re going to be tempted to seek for some Holy Grail list of magic development questions.  Some of you are going to be tempted to compile some big old honking list of “the questions that will produce a killer story every time and all I have to do is ask them.”

That list doesn’t exist. If you seek for it, you’re going to waste a lot of time and end up having to fight killer rabbits and fetch shrubberies for weird knights.

Don’t fall for it.

But, John, didn’t you say there were core questions?

I did.  You need answers for those.  But you need to also understand that a writer will ask a great number of development questions when writing a specific novel, some of which he might only ask once.

Last year I was out on the forum at CodexWriters.com and one writer asked the rest of us how we approached developing our stories.  He was looking for some kind of development map, e.g. I have this piece of the story, now I need to develop the rest–how does one go about that? 

That discussion led directly to this series on getting and developing story ideas. My thoughts then were that you need to define and understand the basic elements of story.  Knowing the key story principles behind each element leads us to a handful of core development objectives and questions.  But–

I DO NOT think there’s a comprehensive must-do list. 

Why?

Because it’s been my experience that no two stories are exactly the same, and so no two stories require the exact same questions. And even if stories are similar, questions and techniques don’t always produce the same results each time. One question or technique might prove fruitful one time, but it might be unfruitful the next, or even unnecessary.  So the point of this is NOT to get a checklist of a hundred questions that will lead you to generate the whole story in your mind before you write.

The goal is to develop the six parts. Use the questions you need to develop those parts.

Look at the many setting and character profile question lists that float around. As I’ve used those, I always run out of steam because while some of those questions are interesting and helpful, quite a few of them just don’t apply to the project at hand. They bore me. Maybe I felt a spark of life with one question, but instead of following it as the way into the story, the whole checklist format suggests I need to move on to the next one and fill in the blanks.

But my goal isn’t to fill in blanks. My goal is to make the story come alive in my mind, to make the character come alive, to develop someone sympathetic, deserving, and interesting (if he’s the hero).

So while I think looking for productive questions is important, and I DO think there are some core questions that need to be answered every time, I think a person will be more productive if they step back and identify the key things they want in the story, the scene, the particular character.  This means we’ll have some standard questions and techniques based on how stories work, but it also means we’ll learn how to do the creative Q&A process on the fly, following the zing for the current project, coming up with questions that we could never predict we’d use. 

And we’ll use the objectives for the six core parts as the guide then build upon them.

For example, when finishing up my last draft of Curse of a Dark God, I wrote the opening to a big battle chapter. I know that for things to be clear to the reader, I need to set the stage, have a hook, give the what, why, where, etc. I need to transport them as best I can. Those are my objectives. The questions, while not formally stated, flowed from them–what are some options for a good hook, how do I want to set the scene, etc.

These are fairly standard objectives/questions. They’re story fundamentals. And there weren’t a lot of them. You can get overwhelmed with too many niggling objectives and criteria. I’ve found it’s best to focus on KEY things. To ask myself–what are the Pareto factors, the handful of things that really have the biggest effect in story with character, plot, scene? Once I identify those factors I can easily turn them into questions.

So I had those handful of objectives. But I had some others that were very specific to that scene that I probably won’t use in any other scene ever.  And I couldn’t have really even known about them until I got to the point where I was writing the scene.

For example, one was how to introduce the Dogman of Toth and his pack of maulers in a way that makes the reader say “ho-lee crap those guys are screwed!” Another one was how to introduce the kitemen in a cool way. Another was based on a feeling I was getting from my Spidey-sense that the scene I was writing was going to undercut a later one if I made the hero’s objective to kill one certain character. So I had to ask, what is the right progression of these scenes? Who should the hero attack here so it feels right, like a progression?  Another objective was to make this whole battle scene awesome, thrilling. That’s certainly something I’ll want to do with other battle scenes. But not on all scenes.

With the very next scene I was asking–how can I make this scene tender and heart-breaking? These ad hoc questions about the Dogman and kitemen and the story progression are all great questions flowing from objectives, but they were for that one particular scene.

So I think there are some core objectives or principles of how character, setting, problem, plot, and text work. These are based on key story factors. I listed those out in the last post and in my series on suspense. You can make a “standard” list of objectives and questions out of these. For example, one of those key objectives is for the reader to care about the hero. Another is to find him interesting. I can indeed translate these core objectives into some standard POWER QUESTIONS that might be put on a list.  Along with some core questions, there are favorite techniques (tools) we each use to help us work up what we need and get into a story, scene, character, problem, etc.

But I think a lot of writing is using the creative Q&A on the fly because it’s just impossible to think up all the objectives and questions you’ll encounter before you get into it. 

Have I said that about twenty times now in this post?

Let me suggest you not try to develop everything up front before you begin to draft.  Some development questions occur when you’re sketching or outlining. Others when you’re in details of draft mode. It’s a mistake to try to get it all up front in some list.

The key, I think, is to have our handful of CORE development objectives/questions and ALSO expect to use the QA process along the way. This allows us to move forward in the creation without needing to develop everything up front, which is impossible (no, it really is impossible), and then step back and formulate questions when the need arises, based on our objectives of the moment, and use any number of methods to generate the answers until we have something that rocks.

But John, how do you know when you’re ready to move forward?

For me I need to have generated the story concept–the basics of the character, setting, and problem.  When I have that, I’m usually beginning to “see” things, although certainly not everything.  Often I’ve envisioned a couple of moments or scenes.  Maybe some dialogue, etc.  When I get to this point, I’m able to write a Story Setup statement.  And then I generate a sketch of the plot with a working outline.  I DON’T have all the details, but the story’s alive enough in my mind to proceed. 

Sometimes I begin to draft what I sketched and find out it doesn’t work.  And sometimes I have to draft to get my story concept. Eloise McGraw (I love her book The Moorchild) usually found she had to draft seven chapters before she really knew what the story was about. That’s fine. The key isn’t to use a certain set of tools in a specific sequence. The key is to get to the point where you understand the story you’re telling. If I can do that with a bit of sketching and a little drafting, great.  If I need to do a bit more exploratory drafting to have the story come to life in my mind, that’s fine too.  The key is to know what I need to know about the story and work until I know it. This is writing that’s based on objectives, on principles, not on procedures.

So there ARE core questions you’ll need to answer for every story.  But it’s also true that you will be hunting mythical rabbits if you look for a secret magic question procedure that lists all the questions you need to ask, EVAR!  Having said that, I’ll now let these other authors finally get a few words in edgewise.

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

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