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I think one way of looking at a story is to see it as a series of questions you're asking, and then answering. It's helpful, for me at least, to see it that way, because it helps me stay on track and avoid leaving out major things.

 

If you had to boil your current story down to a handful of questions (and answers), what would they be?

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This sounds like a nice way to look at/design a story, but your way of classifying "questions" may be vary different from ours. F'rexample, I'd have a hard time boiling things down to just a handful of questions. There would be a hierarchy; you may be thinking of only one level of the hierarchy, or you may assemble things differently from me.

 

Just a preliminary layout, but in the way I'd assemble a story (your mileage may vary...) , I could see:

  1. High level questions that the characters would be unaware of, like overarching themes, impressions/points/lessons to be left with the audience, other takeaways, etc. To me, these are a very large point of the story, but they're often only revealed well into it.
  2. Reasonably high level questions that the characters might only be vaguely aware of, like the nature of the "journey" that can eventually reveal answers to the level-1 questions, and the story milestones that must be passed thru in order get to those revelations.
  3. Consciousness-level questions, like the experiences that will drive the characters, and help them to discover whatever change-making events will affect them. There may be a difference between what the characters see/learn/understand, and what gets presented to the audience, and there will usually be differences among the characters. How the characters change can greatly effect the achieving of milestones required in the level-2 questions.
  4. Character-driven questions, like what experiences, outlooks and maturity levels allow the various characters to change in accordance with the level-3 questions. Story creation may well start with the level-4's, but all the hierarchy above depends on getting them right, or being able to make adjustments later. (Or in scrapping the hierarchy altogether, and rebuilding it.)
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You’re right, @Wes B—any given story is going to have a multitude of questions, but I was thinking of the 5-7 “big” questions that move the story along, because the characters (consciously or subconsciously) are trying to solve/answer them. The ones readers keep reading to find the answers to.

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11 minutes ago, suspensewriter said:

You know, I can't think of one solitary question that I have ever had--I just write, but I'll have to try it.

 

That’s so interesting. So you just start writing and see where you end up? I feel if I tried that, I’d find a lot of dead ends...

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8 minutes ago, Zee said:

You’re right, @Wes B—any given story is going to have a multitude of questions, but I was thinking of the 5-7 “big” questions that move the story along, because the characters (consciously or subconsciously) are trying to solve/answer them. The ones readers keep reading to find the answers to.

My apologies from the start... this will be long...

 

Not trying to argue, but to clarify my comments... I think you may be making some assumptions about your audience, as well as about the nature of stories in general. It's possible a lot of your audience may be looking at a story this way, and there will be a portion of the stories out there that may only have these questions to answer. That's great.

 

Now, by saying that the characters are trying to solve/answer these "big" questions, I think you say you're concentrating on the bottom of the hierarchy. That's fine, as i did suggest that you might be thinking of only one level, and there may be one particular level that's of interest to your target audience. Whatever works for you and them is also great.

 

But I might suggest that such questions will be "big" in only a certain kind of story. Some stories may make some kind of point, but their overwhelming purpose is to entertain. In these, your "move the story along" questions will often be essential. Great again.

 

Other stories may seek to drive a point or make a statement about life, and entertainment is merely a means to carry the statement. It's a secondary device, and in these, the "move the story along" questions will only be of marginal importance, though they're still there. Kinda great. 

 

Extreme case: In some forms of dark comedy that are intended to preach a point, (Catch-22, Being There, Network) the story is merely a delivery device for a heavy-handed sermon. The same "move the story along" questions are only of the tiniest importance here, because they become irrelevant when everything falls apart at the end, and all that's left is the lesson. Not all audiences go for dark comedy, but they're real, and substantial, and I was looking to cover all bases. There are a number of story types that would follow this pattern.

 

The question hierarchy as I presented it is my quick attempt to cover them all: from the lightest escapism of Star Wars, to the heaviest dark comedy of Dr. Strangelove. With Strangelove, you can see the hierarchy followed from the top, down, yet George Lucas did essentially the same when conceiving Star Wars (I hear it's done fairly well...)

 

He took what was essentially Level 1 from the 1940's movie theatre serials, thinking that if something that hokey could be so wonderfully exciting, that it would be wildly popular, if done well.  The "journey" of Level 2 is The Hero's Journey, outlined in detail in Joseph Campbell's Hero With a Thousand Faces, which was Lucas' Bible in plotting the story. Levels 3 & 4 will be the basic plot details, which seem to have been covered pretty well elsewhere.

 

Anyway, sorry again about the length. I think you were asking about a particular type of story, which is fine, but I couldn't read the details that weren't there, so i tried my best answer. I hope it's useful to somebody out there.

 

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2 hours ago, suspensewriter said:

 

Yes, that's how I write.  It seems to work for me, though.

 

So how do you start? With a mental image? A theme you want to explore? An interesting character? A mystery? Something else?

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12 minutes ago, suspensewriter said:

It sounds as though I'm obfuscating, but I honestly don't really have any method.  I just sit down and begin to write, and the stories just sort of happen.  No mental image, no theme, no interesting characters or no mysteries.  They just appear.

In a lot of ways, creativity is like a wild truffle. We can't cultivate it or mass-produce it. We have vague ideas of where and how to search, and we learn to use them as best we can. Yet in the end, it's wherever it happens to grow, and we treasure it when we find it.

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On 11/27/2020 at 4:24 PM, suspensewriter said:

 

Yes, that's how I write.  It seems to work for me, though.

I own several of your books. It works quite well.

 

When the Yankees were playing the Red Sox, Ted Williams asked Mickey Mantle  a bunch of questions about hitting. The Mick went into a slump because he kept thinking about what he was doing.

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On 11/27/2020 at 4:10 PM, Zee said:

That’s so interesting. So you just start writing and see where you end up? I feel if I tried that, I’d find a lot of dead ends...

In all my books I know all the questions for the first few chapters and the last chapters. In fact, I write the first four chapters, then the last two chapters and then fill in.  Maybe I should be asking more overall questions.

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Everyone has a different writing style. What works for Tom would not work for me at all. I tried writing ahead, but then when I went back to earlier, I couldn't remember what had happened when.

 

I do have a vague idea where I want the story to go and what the characters do to get there, but it's not on paper, and it changes as the story progresses.

 

Some people simply write as they go (pantsers write "by the seat of their pants), and others outline and detail and ... (plotters). I think it's like being short or tall. I could wish to be taller, but I've been standing up to be taller for many years, and it hasn't worked.

 

I'm really happier writing short stories. Not so many twists and turns that I get lost.

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