Questions, part 2: Kinds of Questions

This is the second in a series of posts about questions in storytelling. Here I will talk about the subject of a question.

All Kinds of Everything

Questions in a story relate to character, plot, setting, or theme – any element of the story, in other words.

Character

Your characters are what you use to tell the story. It is through characters’ actions, motives, and suffering that we learn what it is we care about in the tale.

When the story opens, we are unlikely to know much about the characters, so there are more questions than answers, but even once the basics of a character are laid out for the reader there may be questions we can ask which pique curiosity.

  • Why is the character wearing a heavy coat on a warm summer’s day?
  • Where did the character get that walking stick with the eldritch carvings?
  • Who does the character think he is, jumping the queue like that?
  • Will the character survive the riot?

All of these questions can be used to illuminate the character, but also to engage the plot.

Plot

Your plot is the storyline that the characters follow. The characters’ actions will affect the plot, and the plot will inflict changing circumstances on the characters.

Plot questions can relate to the core plot, or to a dummy plot, or even to some subplot which has no direct relevance to the central story.

  • Is that walking stick the fabled Shipley Summer Stick, the only hope for exorcism of unquiet spirits?
  • How will the character get to the theatre in time to stop the cultists from opening the gate inside?
  • What will happen now that the crowd is roused against interlopers? (the character and his friends)

Setting

Some stories use settings which are almost no setting – a family home, a quiet street, a park: the term itself conjures the place from the readers’ expecrience – while others weave complex worlds which are themselves entirely novel. Some of these are so explicitly alien that they could be called puzzle novels in themselves (for example, Anathem by Neal Stephenson or Transition by Iain Banks), presenting a barrage of questions to the reader.

  • Why is there a blue police box on this New York street?
  • Why are the character’s parents not at home?
  • Where do the pineapples come from?
  • How do the floating islands stay in the air?

Theme

Thematic elements are of variable importance. If all you want to do is to tell an adventure story about pirates then a theme may not matter at all, but if you wanted to explore themes of defiance, independence, and the inevitable cruelty of the individualist then a story about pirates battling with English naval vessels and privateers could be a good vehicle.

  • How are the events connected together?
  • Why does this character always make the same mistake?
  • Will the character find enough self-knowledge to overcome his selfishness?
  • Can the inevitable doom of the pirates be averted?

So Many Questions

This has been a very quick canter around the kinds of uncertainties that we can raise to engage our reader’s curiosity, but it is worth making one more observation about questions and audience: the kinds of questions you ask must be consistent with the target readership.

For example, thematic questions of existential dread and nihilistic horror would not necessarily be suitable in a children’s book (although some might disagree), while questions about hair colouring and nail polish choice may be a little lightweight for a post-technological science fiction setting.

One Reply to “Questions, part 2: Kinds of Questions”

  1. Two thoughts on this one, one of which is that character questions can be particularly tricky if you use the same characters from story to story, because then you have to explain them to new readers without boring the rest.

    The other thing is that I’ve always thought it was important to leave some questions unanswered. Answer some, of course, but only some. I remember one very effective Sue Grafton mystery where, right at the end, she suddenly realizes that she may have misinterpreted everything that’s happened to her, that there’s another possible explanation. And then the book ends. 🙂

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