Ask Questions to Find Your Story

Becca and I are super pleased to have editor and author C.S. Lakin of Live, Write, Thrive here today, because the stuff that comes out of her brain is just amazing. I’ve been lucky enough to read both her fiction and her writing craft books, and let me tell you, she knows her stuff! Susanne also helped us edit The Negative Trait Thesaurus, and we are forever grateful to her for her hard work!

Today C.S. is going to help us hone in on the heart of our story through questions that ensure we’re staying on track and making the most of each scene, emotion and word.

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C.S. LakinI ask a lot of questions in my line of work as a professional manuscript critiquer and copyeditor. Sure, I also give a lot of suggestions and fix badly constructed sentences. But it’s the questions that get to the heart of the story. Asking authors questions helps them get thinking about what they’re writing and why.

So much important information seems to be missing in so many novels—especially first novels by aspiring authors. Novel writing is tricky; there are countless essential components that all need to mesh cohesively. To me, the key to reaching that goal is to ask a lot of questions.

 Questions Create Story

Starting a novel is asking a question. What if . . .? What would someone do if . . .? What if the world was like this and this happened . . .? Then those initial questions lead to more questions, which shape and bring life to characters and story. Questions are the key.

Thousands of hours of critiquing and editing has led me to notice that there are some questions I seem to ask a lot. Which tells me there are some general gaps that many writers have in common in their novel-constructing process. I thought I’d share these questions, because maybe they’ll help you as you work on your novel.

1) Where is this scene taking place? I shouldn’t have to ask this, right? The writer is thinking, Isn’t it obvious? I know where this scene is taking place.

It may surprise you to know that readers can’t read your mind. The biggest problem I see in novel scenes is the lack of sufficient information to help the reader “get” where a scene is taking place. Just a hint of setting, shown from the character’s point of view, can do wonders. And what’s usually missing is not just the locale but the smells and sounds, a sense of the time of day and year, and exactly where in the world it is.

2) How much time has passed? So many scenes dive into dialog or action without clueing the reader in on how much time has passed since the last scene. Scenes needs to flow and string together in cohesive time. It’s important to know if five minutes or five months has passed, and it only takes a few words to make that clear. Don’t leave your reader in confusion—that’s a bad thing.

3) What is your character feeling right now? This is a biggie. It alternates with “How does your character react to this?” So many times I read bits of action or dialog that should produce a reaction from the POV character, but the scene just zooms ahead with said dialog or action without an indication of what the character is feeling or thinking. For every important moment, your character needs to react. First viscerally, then emotionally, physically, and finally intellectually. If you get hit by a car, you aren’t going to first think logically about what happened and what you need to do next. First, you scream or your body slams against the sidewalk and pain streaks through your back. Keep this adage in mind: for every action, there should be an appropriate, immediate reaction. That’s how you reveal character.

4) What is the point of this scene? This is a scary question. Not for me—for the author. Because if there’s no point to a scene, it shouldn’t be in your novel. Really. Every scene has to have a point—to reveal character or plot. And it should have a “high moment” that the scene builds to.

 5) What is your protagonist’s goal for the book? If she doesn’t have a goal, you don’t really have a story. The reader wants to know your premise as soon as possible, and that involves your main character having a need to get something or somewhere, do something or find something. That goal should drive the story and be the underlayment for all your scenes. That goal is the glue that holds a novel together. It may not be a huge goal, and in the end, your character may fail to reach that goal—you’re the writer; you decide. But have a goal.

I actually ask a whole lot more questions than these. And many are just as important to crafting a powerful novel. I’ve found when writing my own novels that if I just keep asking questions—the right ones—I’ll find just the right answers for that story.

GrammarIf you can get in the habit of continually asking questions as you delve into your novel, you may find it will lead you to the heart of your story.

 C. S. Lakin is a multipublished novelist and writing coach. She works full-time as a copyeditor and critiques about two hundred manuscripts a year. She teaches writing workshops and gives instruction on her award-winning blog Live Write Thrive. Her new book—Say What? The Fiction Writer’s Handy Guide to Grammar, Punctuation, and Word Usage—is designed to help writers get a painless grasp on grammar. You can buy it in print here or as an ebook here.  Connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.

PSSSST!  Because C.S. Lakin has a brand spanking new book out on grammar and we want everyone to know about it, we’re giving away a digital copy to someone who leaves a comment!

GIVEAWAY NOW CLOSED…THANKS SO MUCH FOR ENTERING!

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42 Responses to Ask Questions to Find Your Story

  1. Sorry I am late to the party.:) A critique buddy posted this on FB…I’m so glad she did. Thank you so much for a really helpful post that hones in on 5 of the most important questions a writer needs to ask about her story…before, during and after it is written. :) You’ve got a great blog here…I’ll be back. :)

  2. Pingback: Monday Must-Reads [2/17/14]

  3. sara beth says:

    This is great! I have several scenes in my maybe-novel that just lay there like a geriatric hound on a sticky summer’s afternoon.
    I am boing to cross to my blog syzygyn.com, once I figure it out. does anyone know who this works>

  4. This has so much help for authors. I enjoyed reading it. I remember hearing Ray Bradbury speak once and he always started his stories with “What if?”

  5. Jeremy C. says:

    Ms Lakin,

    This is all such wonderful advice. Distilled information like this can be difficult to come by! I do have a question, however:

    You establish the hierarchy: “First viscerally, then emotionally, physically, and finally intellectually”. Frankly this is the most helpful bit in this post for me, but I don’t understand the distinction you make between a visceral response and a physical one. Is it that the visceral response is reflexive and the physical response voluntary?

    Thank you so much for sharing your expertise! :)

    • C. S. Lakin says:

      I should be clearer. The visceral or gut reaction is physical. But often writers will show something happen, and then the character will respond with deliberate physical action. For example, a man might tell a woman she looks ugly, and the writer will then have the female character slap his face. Well, the visceral reaction is the “punch” to the gut she feels, the sick feeling or clenching her teeth or tightening throat. She may then even blurt out a sound (still visceral), then think a thought (“What? That creep!”), and THEN choose to slap his face. Maybe someone might viscerally slap without even thinking, so that is possible. But thanks for pointing that out. I meant the visceral is the character’s inner/immediate/unconscious reaction and the “physical” one the deliberate/choosen/done with thought response. I hope this makes sense :)

  6. Thank you for the thought-provoking, relevant post, C.S.! As an author in the final stages of my first romance novel, I can attest to the writing and editing process raising more questions along the way.

    I need to print this out and keep it by my computer!

  7. Joan says:

    This is a great article. I clipped it to my Evernote files for future reference.

  8. christine beryl says:

    Thank you . What a helpful article. I realized my ideas were vague, disorganized, and not always conscious to me the writer. Ooops!
    I now have a practical shopping list and in working my way through it, I find I have much more clarity about where I might be going, and what I need to address.

    Newbie writer, chris

  9. Luanna says:

    This is a great post! I’m saving this and putting it in my permanent “writing help” file.

    Another question to ask is “why”? Particularly if you’re searching for a good, deep motivation.

  10. Sara L. says:

    Thanks so much for this article, C.S.! I printed it out for easy reference later on.

  11. Diana L McDowell says:

    Thanks so much. This is helpful.

  12. Jean LeBlanc says:

    My protagonist doesn’t know what he wants. He can’t explain his actions. He moves through life a newly single middle aged man learning by trial and error. He’s typical of many. The women he meets are the focus of a set of linked stories, each one moving him further down the road to wherever he’s going, each one of them being more likeable than he, each one teaching him something about himself, relationships and love, but the women never recur… this checklist is valuable though the answers may be a little different.

  13. Rosi says:

    Such a rich post. Thank you for this. It is full of good information. I will be posting the link on my blog soon. Great stuff!

  14. Tyra says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts! They really got the cogs spinning, and with each question I could visualize more and more of where my story is -what is going good based off that list, and what isn’t.
    One of the things that need improvement would be weather and time of year. The basic timeline for my story is relatively clear, but whenever I hear weather or seasons mentioned in writing articles or books (or even read good writing that includes it!) I can see how lacking my current draft is. Luckily, weather and seasons are things I am excited to incorporate so I am grateful for the reminder to keep at it! :)
    If you had to pick one question to ask for the middle of the story, between the character’s re-commitment to her goal and the crisis, what would it be?
    Oh, and after reading Stacy’s question I am curious about one more thing. When incorporating back-story wounds to create a stronger present, do you have any thoughts on how the story’s flow is affected if the reader has a greater sense of back-story wounds in the beginning and the plot can then build off them as its’ foundation? Or, is it ultimately more satisfying to see the present problem intensified by cookie crumbs left along the way, building to the climax?

    • C. S. Lakin says:

      Hi Tyra, I’ll see if I can answer. I’m not too clear on what you are asking though. First, regarding the middle of your story. This is the muddle, where you complicate and make things as worse as possible, raise the stakes. So you would ask, how can I do this? What can I do that can make things as bad as they can for my protagonist?

      I believe you need to show the character’s core need, wound, fear, greatest desire all within the first page or two. For every character. The quicker you establish these, the quicker the reader will “get” them. That is not to say you dump a lot of backstory in, but rather through a character’s thoughts and speech as the present action is playing out, you reveal these bits to establish the mind-set, goal, need for each character. You can add more as the story goes along, and you should, but never too much at one time. Some people like it to sprinkling in seasoning when making stew. Usually all you need are a few lines here and there, adding mystery and curiosity, but not being so vague the reader is confused and frustrated. When unclear, return to the books you love and highlight with a yellow marker the scant lines of backstory through a scene to see how a great writer does this. That’s the best way to learn.

  15. Julie Musil says:

    Great questions! I’m editing my manuscript now, and I’ll keep these questions in mind. Especially how much time has passed. Not sure if I’m clear on that. Thanks!

  16. I always like to hear about the kinds of problems that editors see repeatedly in novels. This is a great list of questions to make sure address when writing. Thanks Susanne!

  17. Laura L. says:

    These posts are great not only for writers, but also for editors. Thank you.

  18. What great suggestions.

    “It may surprise you to know that readers can’t read your mind. ”

    I know, right? What’s wrong with the readers? It’s so obvious to me. That’s why I love getting feedback from the people who aren’t living in my head.

  19. Stacy says:

    What’s the best way to tell if a scene is important or needs to be cut? To me ALL the scenes paint a picture of who my characters are … but I know not all the scenes really work with the flow of the novel. So other than that “gut instinct,” is there a good principle for how to know which scenes to cut and which to keep?

    • C. S. Lakin says:

      Stacy, that’s a great question. We want every scene to have a point to it. If you have a number of scenes that only reveal character but don’t advance the plot, it can drag a book down. The readers want to see the characters trying to reach their goals, so if they sit around and talk a lot and no new stakes, risks, twists, complications, or reversals occur, you may want to reconsider whether you need all those scenes. Or try to find a way to rewrite each scene so there are clear high moments that advance and complicate the plot. If you are making things worse for your character in every scene, that scene probably has merit!

  20. Anna Labno says:

    When you’re hit by a car, you’re in shock. When in shock, people don’t feel pain. Later, they might be in pain.

    • Anna, this is a good point, that people respond to different scenarios in different ways. I can see how pain might be delayed for some. On the other hand, I was in a snow skiing accident years ago and broke my shoulder blade. I was absolutely in shock, but I also felt quite a bit of pain, too. This is one of those convenient scenarios where you can do what works best for your character and your story.

      • Anna Labno says:

        Becca,

        It depends on what kind of schock. If you fall, it’s a different story. I had a broken shoulder blade too.
        But many victims don’t feel pain until later when experiencing an extreme shock. While some people yell, others don’t. :) I have experienced both.

  21. This is such a great list of questions! Thank you so much for stopping in and sharing it, C.S.!

  22. C. S. Lakin says:

    Thanks for the kind comments! I got the idea to put this book together from my blog followers. Many told me they were printing out all the posts and putting them in a notebook, and I thought, hey, this is a lot neater than a big clunky notebook–and with an index, a lot easier to find the entries you need. Hope this book helps you all with writing better!

  23. Robyn LaRue says:

    This pretty well sums up my pre-write process for each project. I can fill a notebook with questions, and in finding the answers, I discover the story. Good list!

  24. These is a great little checklist of things to remember for each scene. Thanks!

  25. These are great questions to consider!! Thank you!!

  26. Thanks for the great post and excellent advice! I am so glad to know about the Live Write Thrive blog–what a wonderful resource for writers!

  27. Sandy says:

    I am working on my first book and this is exactly what I need. Thanks

  28. Steve Jennette says:

    These articles are red hot, burn your fingers “why don’t I use oven mitts”, helpful for novice authors. I have all three thesauri (plural Latin jokes are the best, don’t you agree?), and several Grammar Girl books, but these weekly blogs are my North Star. Thanks Angela and Becca.

    Steve Jennette, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

  29. Great blog. Shared with my writing students–thanks!

  30. Christina Kit. says:

    This is such a pivotal post – and shows how novels are born from questions and grow after the right questions are answered.

    Thank you!! :)

    • C. S. Lakin says:

      That’s a great comment. Questions are everything. I wrote a fun post on Live Write Thrive called Why, Why, Why? because I was working on a critique for a client and just had to keep asking questions about the story (well, I do that all the time, really), but it got me thinking about how questions really can get to the heart of the story. We often think readers can read our minds, but they can’t!

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