“Behind every answer is an important question.”
The greatest lesson my dad ever taught me was: QUESTION EVERYTHING.
And he didn’t mean it hyperbolically.
Question everything, he said. And then when you get the answer, question that too. Which probably isn’t the best piece of advice to tell a curious child. He basically gave me a free rein to pepper him with endless annoying questions. Why’s the sky blue? Why do some buses have one floor and others have two? Did cavemen exist in Australia? How do palaeontologists know they’ve put the dinosaur bones back in the correct order? Do we see colour the same? — question after question. I’m surprised he didn’t blow his brains out. His suicide note would have read: He wouldn’t quit questioning everything.
But it was amazing advice, and I’ve never forgotten it. We are constantly deluged with information — in papers, magazines, on the internet, from friends and family. Everywhere we turn someone is trying to convince us that their truth is the universal one. In this new-age of social networks, it’s even easier to distribute lies and spread propaganda. There are far more idiots out there willing to perpetuate half-truths and false statements, than those who are smart enough to engage their brain and do a little independent research on whatever meme or article they’ve just read. Nowadays someone only needs to post up a picture with a paragraph of lies printed across it and millions of people will share these lies on the internet, fuelling the fire. This is why my dad’s lesson — question everything — should be ingrained into every child from the beginning.
In any case, that’s not what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to show you how questioning everything, aside from being practical, can help you find new story ideas.
“Don’t just teach your children to read,
teach them to question what they read.
Teach them to question everything.”
Stephen King once asked himself a simple question: “What would happen if a psychotic fan captured her favourite author?” — and from that, Misery was born, a modern-day horror classic (at least in my eyes). And for the most part, that’s how he writes his novels. He starts with an interesting What if scenario and carries on from there.
When you look at so-called high-concept thrillers, these almost always hinge on a question: What would happen if — ? and then you end up with a film like Speed or Panic Room or even Home Alone. It works for other genres, too. Take Pretty Woman for example. The question there is clear. What happens if a hooker with a heart of gold falls in love with one of her clients? And in that nutshell, you have the beginnings of a story.
Many authors do this, but beyond that, let’s go in to the novels themselves.
Pick up one of your favourite books and try to guess what question, if any, sparks off the action — and by action, I don’t mean explosions; I just mean the inciting incident, the thing that grips you and pulls you deeper into the story. For instance, detective novels usually begin with a murder, which instantly poses a question: Who killed the victim? Almost immediately, the reader is invested in finding out; she reads on to see if the detectives will piece everything together and catch the murderer — and sometimes this involves a ticking clock, too: will they catch the murderer before he kills someone else?
Novels, short stories, screenplays — they can all be shrunk down to a question that needs answering. Even a family drama can be as simple as What happens to a family when their father dies? What happens to a relationship when one is caught cheating? What happens if a woman murders her boss for sexually harassing her? All of these are seeds: you plant these questions, then you add more, and you keep asking questions until your plot grows.
You write a scene, then you ask yourself what happens next. You build a character, then you question what is so interesting about him. Why should people care? What is his role in the plot? Is he necessary? The more questions you ask of your story, both to begin it and during the process of writing it, the more clarity of vision it will have. Question every scene, every construction, every twist, every word, every sentence.
But before all that, you need to answer your first question.
What is your novel or short story about?
“A wise man can learn more from a foolish question
than a fool can learn from a wise answer.” — Bruce Lee
With every question comes the potential of a story idea. If you see a tree that’s collapsed on the road, question it. How did it get there? Did it fall? And if so, why? Was it old? Did the wind blow it down? Did somebody chop it down? If somebody did chop it down, why? And don’t pick the obvious answer. Go abstract with it. Maybe somebody chopped it down in order to prevent traffic from moving or going down this lane. That brings you another question: Why would someone do that? Then you can think up more reasons. Maybe he’s planning to kill someone. Maybe he wants to get to a job interview before someone else. It doesn’t matter if the idea is stupid or inconceivable, at least in the early stages. For now you’re merely asking questions, building possible narratives to use. Later on, once you’ve asked and answered all your questions, you can pick and choose.
And don’t just ask questions from one angle, either. If the tree’s collapsed, don’t simply ask who chopped it down. Ask how it affects the people backed up in traffic. Maybe a man is on the way to see his son’s play. Maybe a woman is in labour and on the way to hospital. That would bring you more questions. Does she give birth in the car? Okay, maybe she does. Now ask some questions about delivering a baby by the roadside. Maybe the baby is a devil, or a dog, or whatever. Again, you’re merely asking questions and throwing out scenarios and answers, no matter how unrealistic they may seem.
Within an hour or so you’ll have multiple plot layers to play with. Not only are you finding answers out of thin air, you’re opening up your creative centre. You’re not forcing an idea, you’re allowing your mind to find a suitable option; giving it freedom to invent something interesting. In effect, you’re giving your creativity an outlet to breathe.
“In mathematics the art of proposing a question must be held of higher value than solving it.” — Georg Cantor
My short story London Eye Baby (available in issue #17 of The Literary Hatchet) was born from a similar process. My initial question was What would happen if a woman gave birth at the top of the London Eye? And then it became: What if her dickhead of a husband forced her to do it in order to get some cheap fame and notoriety? And I continued that process, asking myself how he could manipulate events to make it happen.
This not only gave me more questions to answer, but as the story went along it raised questions in the audience’s mind as well, which is what you want to do. They should always be questioning what will happen next. Don’t give them their answers right away. Make them work for it. Trickle information in small amounts, giving them just enough to keep up but not enough to solve whatever mystery exists in your story.
And that mystery can be something as simple as Will John ask Amy to the dance? Whatever it is, tease us with it. People like to learn things as they go along; that way, they feel like they’re part of the journey, following in the footsteps of your protagonist.
You want them to invest in your story, not put the book down.
“It is better to debate a question without settling it
than to settle a question without debating it.” — Joseph Joubert
Questions can work for character building too. If you don’t have a criminal record for being a peeping tom, I’d suggest people-watching. I don’t mean for you to hang around someone’s house and stare through their window — that’s not only weird but it’ll probably get you arrested or beaten up. The safest way to people-watch is to do it every day, as a default. You can do it anywhere and everywhere: when you’re walking down the street, or you’re sitting on the bus, or the tube, or driving to work. Look at the people around you and question their motives. Why did they buy that coffee? Was it out of habit or are they stressed out? Night out on the town, perhaps? Once you have that answer, question it deeper. Why are they stressed out? Or what did they do on their night out? Did they get too drunk? Did they accidentally kill someone? That night could be the genesis of your story. Or not. For now you’re just playing with ideas.
The point is, these connections can happen in snap moments. Look at a row of people and they usually all have a different style of dress, different books, different shoes, different bags. But what makes the people themselves different? Why does one prefer trainers and another prefer heels? Why does one laugh when another would cry?
These kinds of exercises work on two levels: one is to give you a greater insight on people in general — all the seemingly inconsequential differences and idiosyncrasies that each of us possess. The other is an ability to build characters and stories based on real-life people around you. You don’t want to write caricatures. You want your characters to be authentic, and analysing those around us can help with how you do that.
Look, learn, listen, absorb, and then later on filter it into your work.
You’ll be surprised about how much you can pick up from the world.
“A good question is never answered. It is not a bolt to be tightened into place but a seed to be planted and to bear more seed toward the hope of greening the landscape of idea.” — John Ciardi
Don’t simply stop at characters and story ideas, either. Question everything around you. Why is that building there? Why did they create a skyscraper? Why do all newspapers use bold font for their headlines? Etc. Some of the answers will be obvious, others won’t. As children we’re curious: we ask thousands of questions about anything and everything around us. But once we hit adulthood we tend to lose that childlike wonder. We just accept things as they are. We close our eyes to our environment and stop asking ourselves questions. The more you pick apart the world around you, the more observant you’ll become. You’ll start to notice patterns, flaws, issues, other things you’d previously overlooked. This, again, will help you when you get around to write your novel.
If you can micro-analyse the world and view its plethora of faults, constantly questioning and targeting motives, you’ll soon do the same with your characters and plot. On top of that you’ll be gathering more material for your work without realising it.
Imagine you’re a child and pretend you know nothing.
In the case of writing, ignorance really can be bliss.
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