Ask The Questions You Don’t Know The Answers To.
As cliche as it must sound, I have to confess I always start out any potential story by working it out by writing my thoughts down. And, as unhealthy as it may also appear, a big part of that involves placing myself into two separate parts of a conversation on the matter. Yes, that’s right; the literary equivalent to talking to myself.
Allow me to elaborate (you’re free to think of me whatever you like later). Questions are a valuable tool when you’re trying to plot out your stories… plot. I try to question myself at every possible point that I can before I ever even begin writing. Hence the internal interrogation so to speak I mentioned before. But the most important questions you can ask yourself are the ones you don’t already know the answer to.
Let’s say for example you already know that you are going to write a super fun adventure romp about a courageous young knight hoping to earn fame and riches. So asking yourself what motivates him might be futile, since you already know he seeks glory and gold. But what if you asked yourself something like just how far the young hero is prepared to go in order to reach his goal? How much would he sacrifice for that renown? How much would he pay for a pile of treasure? And, in the end would it even really be worth it to them?
One of the best things I have found in my experience to do is to always ask yourself every question you can. Ask why the hero is even involved, ask what makes the bad guy so bad, and even ask where everything is going to go from where you are at. The important thing is that you are asking every question you can. Especially if it is one you don’t know the answer to.
Everybody at some time or another that writes a story finds they are missing some detail in their work. Maybe they overlooked the fact that they never fleshed out where the hero came from, or what the name of some other character was. No matter what it was we all stumble into these kinds of things. But perhaps by questioning things as we go we can help eliminate some of these potential thorns.
Now my method of talking it out with myself might not be the most productive application for everyone. I’ll freely admit that, for you it might work better to use this technique in a different way. But however you make use of it; it cannot hurt you to ask yourself questions while you write. Try to put yourself on the other side of the desk, look at it from both angles. If you’re going to have a hammer swinging savior ask yourself why they wield the weapon. Try to reason out an answer to any element of the plot you can.
Finally I’ll leave you with an excerpt from some of my own pre-story notes to further highlight my point by example:
From a potential future story tentatively titled ‘Time Enough for Trouble.”
Time Enough for Trouble
Samuel Stormcrow is a man with a certain predisposition for always finding trouble wherever he goes. And as a wandering nomad with no place to call home that often doesn’t help him when it comes to making friends. But when he finds himself being escorted into a orbital star port under the false claim of charges he is unable to resist waiting around to see just what trouble is about to come calling. One should always make time for a little trouble – otherwise you miss out on all the fun.
Who is the main character?
Samuel Stormcrow – wandering wildcard and often regarded as an ill-omen everywhere he turns up. A lean built, witty wanderer who has an unnatural talent for being very good at surviving. Samuel is quite capable of thinking on his feet, and infamous for being followed by trouble. However, Samuel never runs from a problem and in fact looks on trouble as something fun. To him each bizarre encounter is another entertaining tale to tell later on down the road. He has been bouncing around from port to port since he was little – the only thing that feels like home is the familiar feel of hustling travelers and the like.
To describe Samuel; let’s say he is a lean waifish young man with ruffled coal black hair and eyes that shimmer like pools of frosted pond water. He is somewhat of a carefree witty happy-go-lucky kind of guy. Samuel enjoys a good bit of fun and abhors boredom above all. While he isn’t one typically known to be the aggressor in a fight he doesn’t back down from one either. In fact he often provokes such confrontations both unintentionally and sometimes on purpose. Samuel isn’t known for carrying a weapon per se, but he is infamous for his knack of making use of his surroundings to improvise implements of use. He is a vast repertoire of random knowledge, useless facts, and meaningless stories including irritating anecdotes. In short – he is a wandering man with a talented tongue, razor sharp wit, and extensive experiences with which to draw on. His only real fault, if you can call it such, is an unlikely coincidence for showing up prior to unfortunate events.
With regards to his name; Samuel is very protective of his name – being Samuel. He considers it quite rude and almost an insult to be referred to as Sam, Sammy etc instead of his given name. His name is the only thing he was given as a child that wasn’t taken from him. He grew up orphaned and shuffling around, his name being etched on the inside of his jacket. Samuel has no knowledge of his family, birthplace or past beyond his earliest memories. The moniker of Stormcrow was bestowed upon him in his youth as a nickname because everyone constantly claimed he preceded their own ill fortune. It was, unfortunately a name that simply stuck with him so he eventually opted to adopt it. Why fight fate when you could embrace it and enjoy the ride? He looks on the name with a sense of ironic pride, since it provides him a feeling of identity. Samuel has kept the etched name patch from his childhood jacket and transferred it to every jacket he has ever worn since.
Does he carry even a single keepsake or scrap of belongings? Perhaps aside from his comfortable yet somewhat resilient clothing he carries with him an old rather rough for wear chronometer. An aged mechanical model that provides him a rudimentary means to keep time, calculate his position etc. To others it is probably considered scrap, but to him it is a cherished treasure that he prizes. He carries little or no money, preferring to get by through fortune, circumstance and skill. He relies on whatever is around him to make use of and survives mainly through ingenuity or resolve.
What does Samuel do for money? Well, for starters; he hasn’t managed to endure his life on the road this long without picking up a wealth of tricks and wayward wisdom. When he has a need typically he engages in whatever means he has to. Whether that is him peddling tales or poetry for a hot mug, tricking traveling tradesmen out of a few coins, all the way down to patching a modest merchants malfunctioning motor.
What motivates Samuel to wander like he does? Consider the fact that he has never known a home other than the road. Then add in the element of his ever-following misfortune – which inevitably casts a lingering shadow of doubt on one Samuel Stormcrow. Together you have a recipe for a never-ending supply of cold welcomes and rude rushes to emphasize Samuel hurriedly move along.
But what brings him to his current stop; being the setting of the story? Perhaps during his last visit somewhere a report was made that named him as a wanted individual in a crime/investigation. Even though the matter was settled, due to the nature of events that transpired the report was never updated. That being the case, he is picked up by a bounty hunter and escorted back to the nearest outpost with a stationed official to claim his reward.
Each question I asked myself allowed me to shape some answer to further form a foundation for the story. Your mileage may vary but for me I find talking it out with myself by writing my thoughts down to be quite valuable. Hope it helps you, and if you want to share your own thoughts on the matter – or any of your own tricks feel free to comment. Everyone has something to share or teach that can help others improve. What helps you?