Asking the Right Questions
Last week I mentioned that a vital part of my plotting process was asking the right questions to ensure that I have well rounded characters and a plot that helps them move toward their goal—while still having plenty of conflict—and helping them to grow. The thing is, as I begin to work more and more with pantsers (right now two of my clients write that way), I’m learning that asking the right questions can help them as well—only those questions need to be asked as you write your way through the book, sometimes as often as before you start writing nearly every scene.
The one question pantsers should not be asking themselves is “What happens next?” It’s not because they shouldn’t know what happens next, it’s because it’s a plot driven question rather than a character driven one. The better question to ask is “Is my protagonist moving toward or away from their goal in this next scene?” and “What needs to happen in order for them to move in this direction?” In this way, you’re ensuring that your story is truly being dictated by the needs of your characters and not just for plot purposes. (By the way, if you’re writing a purely plot driven novel, obviously, you should be asking very different questions. I advocate for character driven novels because it gives deeper meaning and depth to a story rather than simply a fun or thrilling adventure.)
So what are the right questions you need to be asking?
Obviously, the first question any author should ask—plotter or pantser—is what is my protagonist’s goal, motivation, and conflict? What is it that they want by the end of the story? What is the entire novel driving toward? Knowing this will help you to figure out the plot of the story because you’ll need to know the events that will help your protagonist move toward their goal, and come up against conflicts that will hinder their progress. (Those conflicts, by the way, are the way the protagonist learns and grows as a person, by learning to deal with the conflicts and overcome them, so don’t discount them. They’re extremely important and not just there to provide an exciting tale.)
Another important question any author should ask as they begin to write is what is the urgency? Why does the character need to achieve their goal now? Why can’t it wait until next year or even later? There needs to be a compelling reason why they must achieve their goal and continue moving toward it despite all the conflicts they run up against.
Romance authors need to know why the two protagonists should be together. Why do they need to be together? What do they see in the other person that no one else sees? And why does that draw them together?
The flip side of that, of course, is why can’t they be together? What would repel them from each other?
And, of course, what I feel is an incredibly important question that so many romance authors forget: What do the two protagonists need to give up to be with the other person? The deepest, most enduring relationships are that way because the participants are invested. They’ve had to give up something important to them in order to be with the other person so you know they are going to put their all into making this relationship work.
Along the same lines, is to ask yourself what would be the most difficult thing for a protagonist to lose and what would make them willing to lose it? Why should someone say ‘yes’?
For Fantasy writers, it is essential to know how the world impacts how characters behave. What are the rules? What is possible and what simply isn’t?
Mystery writers need to understand why it is essential that your detective (or the one solving the mystery) solve the problem or find who did it? What do they have at stake in the solving of the crime? There needs to be something personal that drives them forward and makes them take risks to get to that answer.
Whether you are a plotter or a pantser, whether you answer these questions before or during the writing process, or possibly even after the book is finished, it makes no difference. These are all essential questions you need to know the answers to in order to write a compelling story. Good luck!