Things I’ve Learned: Raising & Answering Questions in Fiction

Many–hell, most of my stories and projects never see the light of day. A lot of times, when people say that, it’s a way to humanize their otherwise spectacular efforts. “Yeah, sure, I’m anthologized in Best American Short Stories and was nominated for a Pulitzer, but I also write lots of other stuff that I don’t publish.” And sure, it’s true, but as a tactic meant to bring the big shot down onto the level of us little guys, I’ve never thought it worked very well.  (Feel free to call me on this if I ever get to that point.) But it is true, even though I have yet to earn a fiction pub credit to my name. I do throw away most of my work.

In the past, this has been because I had no audience or workshop, wrote for an echo chamber, or just plain didn’t see stuff through to the ending. I’m trying to get better about that, but it’s a work in process, and sometimes, you just have to admit that crap is crap. But in the mean time, I persist, because, regardless of my skill or lack thereof in actually writing stuff, most of my ideas have some kind of merit. Deep down.

I have a fantasy project right now that’s mostly the result of a challenge. (Note to self: If your friends are asking why you’ve never done something, don’t respond with the most ridiculous possible scenario. They’ll make you do it.) It has elements of space and high fantasy in an alternate present setting, and is, more or less, a coming of age story. It’s also completely stupid. (And no, don’t tell me it’s not stupid. It is. That is, weirdly, one of its strengths.)

Writing this thing is like beating my head against a wall. Part of that is me. It’s relatively undignified, and much less introspective than my usual work. I take myself too seriously, and part of this challenge is to stop doing that. But there’s not really a plot. This is a point of contention, by the way. Certain people, you know who you are, will call me on this. But the thing is, it doesn’t. It’s a situation. A scenario. There’s an internal conflict, but nothing really going on on the outside, other than random bullshit, and no particular impetus to address it in a timely fashion. Infuriatingly, I know this can work. I’ve read great literary works with half the plot. So I tried writing it anyway, and ended up this close to a breakdown over how impossible and awful it all was. Is.

If you follow me on social media, you probably know what I’m talking about, because I vomited my Inadequate Writer Feels all over twitter. The next day, when I reread it, and still felt the same way (though less emotional over the whole thing), I did what any self respecting wannabe writer would do in 2016. I googled it. “What to do when you hate your own writing.” I can’t be the only one who does this.

After slogging through a number of useless but conciliatory encouragement blog posts and lists of other famous writers who hated their work (my favorite is Kafka, who, shortly before he died, requested that the executor of his estate destroy everything he had ever written. Boy have I been there) I ended up watching a four part video series: Ira Glass on Storytelling. I’m pretty late to this party, as it was posted in 2009, but god if it wasn’t one of the most useful things I have ever stumbled across. Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve read or watched any kind of “how to write” piece and actually learned something from it? So. LONG.

In the first video, Glass goes ahead and points out something so obvious I can’t believe I never thought about it: that any story can be compelling, no matter how boring, if you are both providing and answering questions. A scene’s or story’s premise should raise a question. Even something as simple as (in his example) “why is it so quiet?” And even that has two parts. If you raise a question, you have to provide an answer. In providing that answer, you can raise more questions. And that carries your reader through to the end. And once you’ve done that, you need to provide time or space for reflection on those answers.

Now, Glass was talking about video and radio broadcast journalism. But I still feel like it applies to fiction writing, especially since, the moment he said it, epiphany hit me like a two-by-four. If your story isn’t working, Glass says, it’s probably one of three things.

  1. You’re not raising any questions, making your story just a series of anecdotes.
  2. You’re not answering those questions, leaving the premise unfulfilled.
  3. Or you’re not providing space for the reader to digest those answers, and are instead just rushing through to the next bit.

It’s so brilliantly simple, and I’ve never even considered it. How many times have I written a scene with no question? Just an event I needed to facilitate something else, or to fill some space. And I was doing it. I was setting up my story with a goodbye scene, but never emphasizing any question. Just an awkward, ham-handed conversation and a paltry bit of world building. And nothing else. Oh, sure, I was answering a question. Where is Juniper going? TO SPACE. But I never asked that question. And I didn’t ask anything else, either. Much less the more compelling ones, like why. And past the introductory section, I didn’t even know what questions I was going to be asking. Stuff was just going to happen, and eventually my characters would mature.

I don’t know if having learned any of this means that the ridiculous challenge story will be any good. But it does give me something new to try. I spent all of yesterday morning trying it out. And now I have a new outline format. I’m using the five part plot structure as a base, with a notebook page for each section, as follows:

Part # – Short Statement Describing Scenario

The Big Question(s):

Conflicts: List Conflicts Present In Section – Resolve? Y/N*

Notes: Themes/ideas I need to introduce

New Characters: [if necessary]

Scenario: [Brief section outline. Map conflicts & questions when possible.]

*this is also new. But I think it might be useful to track which conflicts I’m leaving open, and which I need to resolve by section end.

Let me know if you decide to try this outline strategy, and if it works out for you. I’m curious to hear what you think!

For anyone who wants to, you can find the first installment of Ira Glass On Storytelling HERE. I might revisit the other parts for future blog posts, if there’s interest, because he really has a ton of helpful advice.

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