Finding the Question II

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Last time, I posted about identifying a probing question at the heart of a novel, something not limited to the book’s plot, something which readers could relate to, something which had implications for the real world in which they lived. Some of these questions may be broadly moral (when is it OK to take a life?) or philosophical (which is better, to live in happy delusion or to face up to painful truths?) but I was struck by how many of the questions raised in subsequent comments centered on identity. I had raised this focus in my Harry Potter example, so maybe that stacked the deck a little, but I think that the popularity of such questions speaks to a basic truth about readers; we may have different moral, philosophical (political, religious etc.) viewpoints, but we all think about ourselves as individuals, as people with problems and potential. This is, I think, central to the very idea of the novel in which character is king, in which (contrary to film, say) getting into a fictional person’s head has always been one of the form’s special intimacies.

At its heart, a novel is, I think, the intellectual, emotional, even spiritual journey of a central character or characters (though that plural should be taken as suggesting a very small number), a journey which the readers share. Along the way, through partaking of the fictional character’s crises, dilemmas and discoveries, the reader is invited to ask Who am I? What do I want to be? What happens to me when things I take as central to my sense of self change or die?

Simple enough.

Tricky though, particularly in fantasy, I think, where we put such a premium on world building, on action and adventure, on magic and other things which, if not well handled, can make the book feel remote, disconnected from reality entirely. If the book is purely escapist, something quite apart from the reader’s sense of herself and the world, it misses the opportunity to raise the central question I have been discussing in a compelling way. It might be wonderful fun, but its pleasures are only in offering a vision of what is not, and I think that for thinking people—for thoughtful people—that kind of appeal pales quickly (or becomes a pathology, though that’s material for another post).

So how do we write the question which will extend beyond the fiction so that it twines itself around the reader’s life?

I have, of course, no formula, no sure answers (only questions: only ever questions), but I can offer some possibilities.

First, I think that we need to believe in the power of the question and see how it works. The key to this, I think, simply comes from mulling our favorite books as I suggested we do last time, probing for the issues our conscious mind may have passed over, but parts of our imagination had seized upon anyway. I’m convinced that the books we love, particularly as we get older and more reflective, speak to us directly, connect to our lives and sense of self. Look at the things you read most fervently, the books you want to reread, the books whose sequels you look forward to and ask yourself what you think the book is asking of you.

Second, think about your own life, its hurdles, its rewards, where you want to be in five years, ten, fifty, and what it is about those goals that appeal to you. Their specifics may be yours alone, but the impulse toward them, the kinds of satisfaction you hope they will bring are likely to be common to lots of other people. Save these thoughts and use them, find ways to build versions of them (as modified to fit the universe of your story) into your novel.

Third, discover the question through the writing of the book. You may be able to build a great novel from the starting point of the question, but for most of us that approach will feel clunky, the question itself seeming intrusive or overworked. Rather, tell the story you want to tell, but at some point—for me it’s usually as I complete the first draft—step back from it, think about it and ask yourself what the book is about. You may have to angle the book in the light to see it, and you may need to change parts of it to develop the question more fully, but it’s probably already there, albeit embryonically.

Fourth, point it up, underscore it, but carefully, without allowing the question to turn into a hammer with which you beat the characters or your reader. A few words here and there, a snatch of dialogue, an unusually precise bit of insightful thought from a character, a particularly rich or developed image from the narrator may be all you need.

Fifth, as with all things in writing, accept that not everyone will get it. Some will, and others will without realizing that they have gotten it. That latter group is, perhaps, what you want to be the largest constituency of your readership. You aren’t trying to show off your cleverness (always a danger for some of us!). You’re trying to make a connection with the reader which doesn’t get in the way of the story and its characters. Better that they stumble upon the question a week after reading the book, while they’re talking about it to a friend, or walking the dog, or taking a shower. If you can leave a reader making discoveries about themselves as well as the book a week after they’ve finished it, I think you may have something.

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16 comments to Finding the Question II

  • Love this, AJ; great stuff. Two point especially stand out to me: first, the question of identity. I read something a year or so ago (I wish I could remember where so I could properly credit it, but alas, I don’t) that talked about how one of the most important things to anyone is their sense of identity. Challenge that sense of identity, or worse yet, force it to change, and you have pushed a major button for most people (and therefore most characters). The second point that struck me was when you said the vast majority of people won’t “get it” — at least consciously. I think approaching the writing of a story with that fact in mind will make it easier for most writers to keep from getting heavy-handed about it. Nothing sucks quite so much as preachy storytelling.

  • Seconding Edmund’s comment. Wonderful post, which, like all your posts, has me thinking. I’m working on a middle reader book right now, and I think that the two points Ed mentions are particularly crucial when writing for kids. It really does have to be all about the reader; the characters need to be unique enough to capture the readers’ interest, but broad enough, typical enough, that kids reading the book can see themselves in the characters’ struggles. And, of course, the book needs to entertain, not preach. I’ve been working through these issues throughout the process of writing this book, though of course I didn’t have the terms of that intellectual quest defined. You took care of that eloquently, as always.

  • AJ, this nearly made me cry. The *question* of a book is central to me, to my heart, and if I can spot it in a book I am reading, it gives me such intense pleasure because I can follow that question to its answer. And yes, if it hits me over the head, I’ll put the book down. It needs to be a journey.

    I’ve had an AKA’s (Gwen’s) book under the bed for over 20 years and I just finished rewriting it. I didn’t discoverd the central question until this rewrite. Adding the bits and pieces of the Q&A were such a delight. And it feels like a book now. Oh, it isn’t much more complex than before, and it is still sooo simplistic in so many ways. But it’s a book. Thank you for this post!

  • Ed, yes, thanks, that clarifies the thing. However much we are shaped by our environment, cultural moment, by the economics of our social position and so forth, we think and feel as individuals for whom a great deal remains out of the public eye. We are all the hero of our own life story, and that notion should make its way into our fiction. And I agree that we should consider the core question, as with any theme or philosophy in the book, something that for most people will stay under the radar, adding depth to the story but not dominating it. I suppose that in literary fiction it may be more acceptable to wear such things on the book’s metaphorical sleave, but in genre writing such things have be treated with a lighter touch.

    David, thanks. As you know, I’m wrestling with middle grade stuff these days as well, and it creates other challenges (definitely a subject for a full post). How do greying adults like us tap into what motivates and terrifies a ten year old? I’m writing kids’ fantasy so I don’t feel like I have to plum the depths of real life kid problems (drug abuse, say), doing rather what I heard R.L. Stine say he does: think back to when he was a kid and write about the things which frightened him. Maybe a series of posts on making the switch to writing for kids would be fun and interesting, since we’re both in that area right now.

    Faith, *almost* made you cry? I knew I should have left that stuff about the puppy in :) I love your example of returning to a book after 20 years and being able to see now what you couldn’t at the time in terms of figuring out what the book needed to be, the questions it was trying to ask. I’ve had the same experience. I say here that I think about this stuff after the first draft is done, but there have been several instances when that *after* has been months or years after, often when I couldn’t sell the book in its original form. Then I come back to it and can finally see what I think the book is or needs to be about.

  • From a practical view, your fourth point is one of the most important. This type of thing can be so heavy-handed as to actually do the opposite of its intent. If you overdo it, your deep Q&A will end up reading like an after-school special and if done really, really too hard, can end up reading like a mockery of the very idea you want to put in. So, as you say in your fourth point, just a little bit here and there. SPRINKLE it in, don’t drown us. Great post, AJ!

  • Agreed, Stuart, and let me emphasize that I want to float a question or questions, not necessarily answers. Keeping that in mind should stop teh book turning into a sermon or polemic.

  • This has to be one of the most informative posts on Magicalwords that I can think of off hand. Great job, AJ!

    I think you nailed the reason why some books are “good” and others “great”. A good book will have action, interesting characters, and twists. But a great book will tap into the questions which bounce around people’s minds (even those questions which we don’t actively know that we are thinking). We will find ourselves drawn to those great books time and time again in order to reconnect to that Question.

    Thanks for the insight, AJ!

  • I just finished teaching the short-short story “Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin. She actually asks (what I think is) the big question: “is the joy I’m feeling monstrous?” in the text. (The MC just heard her husband died, and after instant grief, she’s elated at the freedom she will now have in her life. A bit later, hubby shows up not dead and MC has a massive heart attack and dies from “the joy that kills” heh.) But the story doesn’t bang us over the head. It’s a legitimate, fearful reaction from the character, and yet it is the same question we should ask: is wanting freedom, or suddenly finding outselves happy to have it, a monstrous thing?

    Anway, I just thought this was a good example of actually asking the question in the text without it going badly. I think it might not have worked so well in a novel.

    A lot of what I write about is concerned with “I don’t like who I am, but it is who I am” and “I am being forced to realize I’m someone/thing else.” I think fantasy is great for dealing with the transformative idea because it can manifest itself literally (i.e. now I’m a vampire/werewolf/demonslayer or I discovered I’m a princess/wizard/chosen avatar/whatever) and that elminates the “as you know, bob, emotional and metaphorical transformations are hard…” and the character CAN say things like “you know, it sucks turning furry once a month,” and “does it make me a monster?” without it feeling overly metaphorical and deep.

    I hope that made sense.

  • Thanks, Mark. That means a lot. I was just thinking (and saying to David off the site) that judging by the deafening silence no one thought much of today’s post! Glad you thought it helpful.

    Pea,
    interesting example, and yes, it all amde sense :). I agree that it’s different for short stories (a form over which I have no mastery at all!) but I’m sure that you can get away with actually articulating eh question in a novel overtly without it feeling heavy handed. As in all things, the execution is all.

  • I totally agree with Pea! I’ve had to edit that story a few times for work recently and it *did* strike me unconsciously. (We’re supposed to edit roughly for page numbers and typos, not explore it in depth.) And Fantasy is definitely a great place to explore things.

    Thanks, AJ. All of this rings true. As I’ve been finishing my WIP, the questions do start to emerge. And then I realize how the things going on in my life touch on some of those questions, which then helps me to add authenticity to the work, and explore the questions in greater depth (where the story calls for it). This is another thing I’d like to look at more when I’m finished.

  • Philip

    This post and your last one on the question of a narrative have both been incredibly thought provoking. And not just about my characters but about myself and how I view myself on my journey to become a published author. I wonder if that is one of the reasons why the comments have been so quite today, everyone is doing some introspective thinking.

    Anyway, thanks AJ. These posts have been very helpful and appreciated and I look forward to any post in regard to making the switch to middle reader fiction.

  • Sarah

    “I suppose that in literary fiction it may be more acceptable to wear such things on the book’s metaphorical sleave, but in genre writing such things have be treated with a lighter touch.”

    And that is why I dislike so much recent literary fiction – because it sacrifices plot and, ironically, real character development to overwrought passages that come closer to being essay writing than fiction because they are supposed to express the writer’s soul, rather than the soul of the character simply existing and unfolding in front of the readers’ eyes.

    Now, I freely admit that my own life/values/desires heavily influence what I write, but if I’m doing it right that should come out on the page as a deeper empathy for my character as an individual, not as a mask for me. I keep trying to remember what Dorothy Sayers said about her highly popular detective Peter Wimsey. She was a devout Christian who even wrote a book on how the writer’s work reflect the triune nature of God, but she adamantly refused to write a “conversion” for Peter because it wasn’t in his character. The Wimsey novels have some deep human questions in them, but she argued that one should never would let that depth or ones opinion come at the expense of a character’s individual humanity. To do so, she argued, would be a violation of both character and reader because it would make a tyrant out of the writer. When Sayers wrote didactic essays she was very clear on her opinions, and she had plenty, but she believed that the freewill given a character was as sacred as (and reflective of) the freewill given by God to humanity. Respecting the character’s humanity and respecting the reader’s humanity requires allowing them freedom to read, and misread, and read for what they want, rather than what the author might want to force on them.

  • Laura,
    I think that the idea that stuff in your life affects your writing is both inevitable and healthy. As I reread my current WIP I find that–quite unexepcetdly–some quite personal family health stuff is finding its way in to the emotional life of the book. No one but me will spot it for what it is, but I see it, and I think it makes the story richer.

    Philip,
    thanks Philip. That’s a great way of thinking about it. For many of us, one of the great consuming journeys in our lives (full of wrong turnings and dead ends) is the one to getting (and staying) published. I think that the subtextual representation of author struggles and anxieties is one of the great themes of literature.

    Sarah,
    I didn’t know that about Dorothy Sayers. Fascinating. I confess to a similar aversion to some literary fiction for this very reason. It’s a comparatively recent trend, of course, since the great literature of the past was much more rooted in story, in genre even. But that’s OK. There’s plenty of stuff out there that doesn’t interest me, as my stuff won’t interest plenty of people. But I confess to a certain resentment of literary fiction sometimes, not least because those books get to do more of the stuff I have to handle so carefully in mine for fear of the editorial blue pencil. Still, I write what I love and wouldn’t change it to make the Booker list.

  • Having read this, I sat back for a bit and thought about the tales I’ve written, the WIPs, and those waiting in the queue, and I’ve discovered an interesting trend. Despite their differences, they’re all about self-acceptance. At the end of the road, after the challenges, threats, changes or obstacles I (omniscient ghoddess/author) throw at them, will my MCs be able to look in a mirror and say, “I like you,” to his/her reflection? Sometimes, the answer isn’t what you expect, but the question is always there.

  • Sounds intriguing, Lyn, and that’s certainly a recurrent theme in many books (and, of course, movies), though that certainly won’t hurt in finding a home for it. Best of luck with the WIP.

  • Lance Barron

    AJ, really good series. The identity question, particularly so. If we all think of ourselves as the hero of our own story, does this explain why the underdog MC is so appealing? We’re all trying to do the right thing, to succeed; but we also see ourselves struggly against seemingly insurmountable odds? Thanks.