Category: Legit Theory

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Asking The Right Questions (At The Right Time)

“When the questions are answered, the play is over.” 

Playwright Louis Catron said that and it has since become one of our bedrock literary concepts. By keeping the questions we’re posing in our writing clear, we can answer some, while leaving others pending, creating a satisfying sense of forward progress as certain reader expectations are met and new ones arise. This narrative tool is simple, powerful, and applicable to all genres. 

Where To Start?

All writers are familiar with the concept of the inciting incident. This is where we pose the first question, or set of questions, to the reader. This could be done with nuance; perhaps we’re given a glimpse into the mind of a complicated character and we come to the end of the opening scene wanting to understand: “Why is she this way?” Sometimes it’s done with a heavier hand, such as a spy novel that begins with a chaotic action scene; here our question is more like: “Why is he being hunted?” In either case, the question or questions are responsible for engaging our interest. 

This touches on the commonly used–and commonly misunderstood–writing axiom in media res which means “in the middle of things.” Writers sometimes attempt this by plucking a lone, out-of-sequence scene from the middle of their story, chronologically speaking, and put it at the start of the narrative. Then, they spend the next chunk of the work leading up to it again, until the reader can finally figure out exactly what the first scene meant after all. This is not how the literary device was originally used and there are better ways to hook the reader. 

While it is important to capture the reader’s attention quickly, without wasting too many precious words on exposition or setting the scene, curiosity can be suitably piqued through the creation of compelling questions. It isn’t necessary to backtrack. If your first scene engenders interest, if it implies a world where something is at stake and immediately transports the reader into a situation with dramatic tension, why not just continue from there?

 

Carrying Questions Through The Narrative

An end to our questions is an end to your narrative, which readers will need at some point. At the same time, readers want the questions to unfold slowly; they want things to play themselves out. 

If all questions start at the beginning and all are answered at the end, the work will likely feel static and rote. Establishing the most effective rhythm of asking the right questions means knowing when to leave them for the time being while weaving in reminders of what needs to be answered — and then providing those answers in turn. All of this requires thoughtful mapping. 

Sometimes we get answers to questions before the end of the book, which is very satisfying. It gives us a sense that things will get resolved. Conversely, we might get a new question in the middle that brings a fresh sense of beginnings to the narrative. Maybe a question is answered in a way that immediately poses another, or else leads to a deeper question off its back. 

When enough questions that we didn’t see coming are being asked, or creative resolutions we didn’t expect are being provided, or layers of questions are being woven into a tapestry of intrigue, there comes a point when the reader gives themselves over to the mastery of the author. This is where the “Eh, we’ll see” energy –- the natural skepticism we all bring to new books or other forms of narrative -– gives way to, “What?!” And they’re all in. You’ve hooked them.

Heed The Click: Writing & Intuition

You may not know this, but I have a master’s degree in literary aesthetics. That might sound fancy, but we basically learned about one thing: aesthetics –art, in other words –operates by intuition.  

That means that writing well, writing about what matters, writing something worth reading is all about tuning into our intuition. 

Now, intuition doesn’t give you a read out like a thermostat. It’s not like one of those bank account apps where you can flick on and see the percentage of your discretionary income that went to eating out. It’s a feeling you have to be quiet enough to hear, a feeling that often squashed by life’s obligations, by the many instances we’re beholden to following someone else’s instructions.  

But knowing where to go with your writing, inviting intuition to the fore, can be as simple as dwelling on what would be fun versus what sounds like a drag. Consider the topics, the genres, the moments that feel the most vibrant to you. Listen for the click. 

Yes, heed the click. That might sound vague, but you know when there’s a yes — in terms of a project, a character’s motivation, or even a paragraph. You can feel when there’s a that’s what I should do; that’s what I care about; that really moves me. You can also very much feel when it’s, I don’t care about that shit

If you can tune into that frequency, it makes everything easier. It’s easier in the beginning, when you’re getting started. It’s easier in the middle, when you’re deciding what to leave out and what to work on more. It’s easier at the end when someone gives you unhelpful feedback and you know, “It doesn’t make sense to do that. That’s not the click.” 

So, heed the click, but also, wait for it. It’s okay — no, it’s ideal — to start a writing project with little more than a vague sense of something you find interesting, or worrisome, a thing that makes you think: “Wow, I’d really like to write about that but it would mean I would also have to deal with this.” 

Trust the process. Sit with the moments that present themselves to you and ask yourself what’s drawing you to them. Think of it like you’re an experienced marine excavator. When you hit a piece of rusted metal with a barnacle on it, you might decide, “Well, that’s obviously nothing.” But the veterans know, “Well, maybe it’s nothing. But maybe it’s attached to the hull of a Spanish galleon.” And then they pull it up and there are doubloons inside. 

Now, that hazy hope is not a lot to stand up against the internal dialogue which is always there, even for writers who’ve been practicing for a long time. This is the voice saying, That’s stupid; that’ll never turn into anything, and certainly not anything good. Certainly not as good as what you did last time. There is plenty of anti-intuitive dialogue around and it is entirely unhelpful.

The point is: don’t be looking at that little piece of metal that scraped your leg and made you bleed and decide it’s nothing. Slog deeper into the mud. Your intuition is not going to lead you astray, but it’s also not going to tell you everything all at once because you wouldn’t know what to do with it all. Keep moving forward, even when you’re not entirely sure where you’re headed. It will be clear in time, once the mud has settled and you’re holding that gold coin in your hand.

To that end, I leave you with the words of novelist E. L. Doctorow: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

 



The Semiotics of Theater

Write in scene. It’s something us craftspeople always hector writers with. We go so far as to say: if it’s not in scene, you can’t keep it.

In Finish Your Book In Three Drafts I say there are five definitions of scene. The first: “A scene is where something happens.” The second: “A scene is where because something happens, something changes.” (Read about the other three here.)

But maybe giving a few definitions, or admonishing people to “show, don’t tell,” isn’t enough. So, I went back into my graduate studies to ask myself, what does it mean to write in scene? What even is a scene?

 

 

I returned to theater and film to explore how a scene can be constructed. They call it semiotics, the various sign systems through which a story can be expressed. I made a list of 16 of them, grouped into 11 categories, from multiple sources. Here goes:

  • Gesture. We pick up a lot of meaning from the way people use their hands, the relative state of openness of the torso, and so forth. This also covers Facial Expressions.
  • Tone. We often assign adverbs to describe how someone said something. Less often do we think about the character as an actor, about the word choice and word order that will best let them hit the tone of voice they have to.
  • Dialogue. In plays and movies, they rarely waste a word. And they don’t use dialogue to describe things people already know. They let people interrupt each other, lie, talk about two different things at once… all the things you will hear at your local coffee shop today.
  • Lighting. I don’t know how this applies to creative writing, actually. Ditto Background Music, But it’s on the list…so maybe you can tell me?
  • Costume. Yes, what people wear! On purpose, by negligence. This also extends to Make-up, Hair Style, and even Accessories.
  • Action. People stomp about, kiss, throw things — and maybe break them, leave, get on their knees and beg forgiveness — and that’s just in the course of one argument.
  • Prop.This one I think we are all familiar with. See this PDF for thoughts about how a repeating object becomes a symbol.
  • Scenery. I don’t have a lot of patience for word-painting, or writers who try to reach their word count by lavishly describing everything their eyes can see. But it is still important to clue people into the context of an action. Are we inside or outside? What time of day is it? And beyond that, reaching people through the senses — what it smells like, what Sound Effects people can hear intermittently — brings them into the scene in a way that few other maneuvers can.
  • Number of Actors. A whole sign system is based on whether there is only one person present, an intimate few, or we have the makings of a crowd. And this is relevant not only to what can happen in the scene, but also to how it feels to the viewer (reader), what they can expect to happen, and how they understand what the scene means.
  • Awareness of the Audience. Another conceptual sign system worthy of contemplation. Are we, as the audience, at an impossible remove from the action? Do the characters have some sense we there, as if we might be extras? This might be communicated with an intimacy of tone. Or do they address us directly, as in an aside that breaks the fourth wall?
  • Diction. This will be the focus of a future blog, the level of verbal expression, including word choice and dialect. Let’s just say here that how fastidious a character is, and where they got their ideas (that is still reflected in the traces of how they express them), is a whole thing in and of itself.

It’s a lot to keep in mind. And really, I only produce this list so that, when you are stuck in one particular scene, you might glance at it, and say: Lighting! That is how I will show the crux of the situation as it modulates into a new reality that all the characters present must now cope with. 

And hey, if you do pull that off, let me know how you did it?