I 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.
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.
If 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.
BIO: 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.