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Questions That Move the Story Along PDF Print Write e-mail
Written by Kat Duncan   
Wednesday, 07 December 2011 11:29

Image of question marksUsing questions within the prose of your story can give your readers insights into your characters' direct thoughts. If your character is faced with some tough choices, this can be a way to help your reader wade through the options and feel the seriousness of them as the character tries to decide what's happening and what he should do.

But too much of a good thing can be bad. A common mistake I see in manuscripts is the author having a character launch a barrage of internal questions. Instead of connecting the reader more deeply to the character's private thoughts, this often has the opposite effect and puts psychological distance between the character and the reader. If you're having a conversation with a friend and they start spouting question after question without stopping, you're probably going to be turned off. After all, you can't solve all those questions for your friend and you understand that this is just your friend's way of venting. This is not a reaction you should desire for your readers.

Suppose you have a character, Janice, who has just lost an opportunity for a promotion to her friend Sue. Janice's internal reaction might be:

"Yes, thanks for letting me know. I'll work on that," said Janice, leaving her boss's office. She scooted past the secretary without making eye contact, then headed right for the ladies room, skirting around the back hall to avoid walking past Sue's department. Damn! All that hard work and overtime on the special project and the position goes to Sue? Who knew Sue was even in the running? Why hadn't Sue said anything to her? Janice stepped into the ladies room, slammed the door, and locked it. She was ashamed of herself for jabbering on for weeks about her hopes of getting the position. How could Sue do this to her? Could this get any more embarrassing? What was she going to do now? Would this ruin their friendship? What would she say when she had to go back into her cubicle and tell everyone how it went?

First, I think you can see that these are a lot of questions to throw at the reader all at once. For that reason alone, it would be best to find an alternative way of presenting Janice's thoughts. Second, the reader doesn't know the answer to any of the questions. So, the only purpose for having so many questions is to try to connect the reader to Janice's shock and her dilemma about what to do. Does the series of questions do that effectively? I don't think so. Janice's actions of skirting around the back hall to avoid Sue indicate her embarrassment, and her slamming and locking the door indicate her anger and sense of isolation. The questions don't really enhance or add to this picture. One easy solution is to turn some of the questions into statements. You can do this without losing any details in the process. Let's try that first.

"Yes, thanks for letting me know. I'll work on that," said Janice, leaving her boss's office. She scooted past the secretary without making eye contact, then headed right for the ladies room, skirting around the back hall to avoid walking past Sue's department. Damn! All that hard work and overtime on the special project and the position goes to Sue. Janice didn't even know Sue was in the running. Why hadn't Sue said anything to her? Janice stepped into the ladies room, slammed the door, and locked it. She was ashamed of herself for jabbering on for weeks about her hopes of getting the position. How could Sue do this to her? This couldn't get any more embarrassing. What was she going to do now? Would this ruin their friendship? What would she say when she had to go back into her cubicle and tell everyone how it went?

This still leaves quite a few open-ended questions that neither Janice nor the reader has the answers to.

Why hadn't Sue said anything to Janice?
How could Sue do this to her?
What was Janice going to do now?
Would this ruin their friendship?
What would she say to her coworkers?

Five questions, no answers. This could end up being very frustrating for the reader. The author is asking the reader to hold onto the sense of each of these questions and wait while Janice finishes fuming in the bathroom, then maintain enough interest in Janice to follow her back to her cubicle to see what she does. The author is also counting on the reader feeling connected enough with Janice to let Janice rant out questions and not be turned off by that. To pull this off in a novel, some pretty strong character driven writing would be needed. Another solution is to simply reduce the number of questions. I'd recommend no more than two or three in a scene.

Open ended questions work when the author wants to take the reader through the character's dilemma. The key is once the question is presented, the character should not leave the answer as open-ended as the question. The character should move through some possible answers, rejecting each one until finally settling on some decision and taking action toward a new goal. Be sure that an open-ended question has a definitive answer by the end of the book. An unanswerable question will leave readers feeling unsatisfied.

Open-ended questions should be used in small doses that focus the reader's attention on a dilemma. They should not be presented in broad groups that encompass huge, ponderous quandaries that could take a number of scenes to resolve. This would seem to be the problem with our paragraph, above. We've asked the reader to focus on too many things at once: why Sue hadn't said anything about her interest in the position, what Janice is going to do now in a broader sense, whether their friendship will be ruined and what is Janice going to do immediately upon returning to her desk. Narrowing the focus to one or two areas will help keep the reader from being overwhelmed with the direction of the story.

"Yes, thanks for letting me know. I'll work on that," said Janice, leaving her boss's office. She scooted past the secretary without making eye contact, then headed right for the ladies room, skirting around the back hall to avoid walking past Sue's department. Damn! All that hard work and overtime on the special project and the position goes to Sue. Janice didn't even know Sue was in the running. Why hadn't Sue said anything to her? Janice stepped into the ladies room, slammed the door and locked it. She was ashamed of herself for jabbering on for weeks about the position. How could Sue do this to her? This couldn't get any more embarrassing. What was she going to do now? Would this ruin their friendship? What would she say when she had to go back into her cubicle and tell everyone how it went?

Why hadn't Sue said anything to her?  - open-ended and significant; the answer should impact the story

How could Sue do this to her? - open-ended; more an expression of emotion than anything

What was she going to do now? - open-ended, requiring a decision from the character

Would this ruin their friendship? - open-ended and significant; the answer should impact the story

What would she say when she had to go back into her cubicle and tell everyone how it went? - open-ended and could be answered immediately as the scene continues; a good small hook

Overall these questions, taken together, are probably more open-ended than the situation can sustain. My recommendation would be to put emphasis on one open-ended question and have Janice be more decisive with another.

"Yes, thanks for letting me know. I'll work on that," said Janice, leaving her boss's office. She scooted past the secretary without making eye contact, then headed right for the ladies room, skirting around the back hall to avoid walking past Sue's department. Damn! All that hard work and overtime on the special project and the position goes to Sue. Janice didn't even know Sue was in the running. Why hadn't Sue said anything to her? Janice stepped into the ladies room, slammed the door, and locked it. She was ashamed of herself for jabbering on for weeks about her hopes of getting the position. Her friendship with Sue would be toast after this. What would she say when she had to go back into her cubicle and tell everyone how it went?

Why hadn't Sue said anything to her?  - kept; the remainder of the scene should develop a way for Janice to find out the answer to this question.

How could Sue do this to her? - deleted; the emotion is clear enough

What was she going to do now? - deleted; too broad a question to be useful right now

Would this ruin their friendship? - changed into a statement to emphasize Janice's attitude

What would she say when she had to go back into her cubicle and tell everyone how it went? - kept; this should be the next immediate focus for the scene and should lead into finding the answer for the "Why hadn't Sue said anything to her?" question.

I hope you've enjoyed this rather long example of how to use and focus questions to move your story along.

Last Updated on Monday, 09 July 2012 19:31
 

Comments  

 
0 #4 Kat 2012-06-22 20:58
Quoting Edith:
This was a really helpful article. Thank you! It helped me solve an immediate problem I am having with my short story!

Hi Edith! I'm glad you stopped by to take advantage of this article and so glad to know it helped you! :) -Kat
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+1 #3 Edith 2012-06-22 08:14
This was a really helpful article. Thank you! It helped me solve an immediate problem I am having with my short story!
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0 #2 Kat 2011-12-07 19:02
Hey, Raylee! The question trap is a good way to put it...but at least there are ways out of the trap! :lol:
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0 #1 Raylee 2011-12-07 16:42
Thank you for posting this, Kat. I, erk, tend to fall into the question trap. This will be very helpful since I'm editing.
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