Katia Raina

The Magic Mirror

Questions and Answers

Hard to believe Hanukkah is almost over, Christmas almost upon us, the year almost through, my very last MFA semester completed. As I am wrapping up the preparations for my final Vermont College of Fine Arts residency (!!), I think it’s appropriate to share one last lecture post I had promised you. This one comes courtesy of our lovely Margaret Bechard, VCFA faculty and YA and children’s science fiction author, and it deals with the use of questions and answers in building stories.

Note: much of this lecture was based on a craft book by Will Dunne, THE DRAMATIC WRITER’S COMPANION.

“Asking questions is what the brains were born to do.”  And it is an activity readers constantly engage in. In addition to multi-dimensional and relatable characters and an authentic story world that feels alive, it is the curiosity and the wonder that turn page after page. Because, “Every book is a mystery,” and all reading “a kind of puzzle-solving.” This curiosity is something the writer can harness by purposefully planting question after question after question in the reader’s mind.

Remember though that questions need not all be intellectual or simply curiosity-driven. “From a technical point of view, the function of a story is to make a reader worry.” Some of the questions you might want your readers asking themselves include “will she make it?” “Will he love her back?” “How can they possibly beat that villain?” Sure, your readers might wonder, “who done it?” or “what had happened to make him this way?” But also, ideally, you’d want them thinking, “what is going to happen next?” According to Will Dunne, “Suspense is a state in which the audience is in two places at the same time: the present (what is happening in the here and now of the story) and the future (what might happen later in the story as a result of what is happening now).”

Tension in a reader is a state of “being stretched tight.” Introducing doubt then is part of that mystery-weaving process that keeps the tension high, and it can be done through a series of questions. Margaret (and Will Dunne) recommends to think of one grand story question that you as the writer know won’t be answered till the very end. In addition though, you are going to need to plant a series of smaller questions throughout the story. As you go along, you are going to have to supply the answers too, the answers your reader is going to need in order to understand and continue being engaged with the story, the answers that might provoke new questions in turn. If the reader is missing too many pieces, they will put the book aside in frustration. “Suspense is as much a product of knowledge as a lack of knowledge.”

questionsKeep in mind however that as you answer each question, the tension will ebb, and the reader’s attention will momentarily lag. Unless, just before answering the question, you have introduced another one!

Like so much of writing, this too is a constant balancing act: introducing just enough questions, but not too many at once, alternately keeping the reader in the dark and illuminated with understanding, surprising the reader, but not shocking them with developments that come out of nowhere.

This is useful to keep in mind when creating exposition. When the flashbacks or explanations are unwelcome, they feel like “info dumps.” If, however, you have created a question in the reader’s mind first, the background will be welcome, as the reader suddenly craves those answers.

Through the story’s middle, as you build your chain of questions and answers, the more connected your subplots to the main plot and the story’s grand question, the more engaged the reader will be.

In crafting the ending, you can leave some of the questions unanswered. But generally, if you want your reader satisfied, the big story question should be answered. Of course, even as I am typing this, I am thinking of exceptions to the good rule: Lois Lowry’s Giver, anyone? Will Jonas escape to Elsewhere? By the end of the story, we still don’t know it. (Of course, we can probably have an interesting discussion about whether or not that is indeed the big story question, or is there another, even bigger one that had been answered, after all?)

Here are some questions from Margaret for you to consider, as you craft your stories and make your choices:

1. What is your story’s grand question?

2. What knowledge does your reader need to being asking this question early on?

3. What is your final answer? Can you express it as a “yes, but…?”

4. What must occur in the story to make this answer logical and truthful?

I thank Margaret for allowing me to share this with you guys, and I hope you find these questions and ideas useful in creating and sustaining tension in your own stories. Wishing you happy holidays, a happy New Year, and happy writing, as always!

We’ll talk again in 2015!

xoxo

Katia 

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December 23, 2014 Posted by | VCFA Adventures, What I've Learned Series, Writing Mirror | , , | 11 Comments