Many beginning writers struggle with doubt, uncertainty, and confusion about mastering their craft: how to build a plot, how to develop rich characters, how to make dialogue ring true or sparkle with wit and humor. If you’re one of those writers ... congratulations! Your worries, your insecurity, and your occasional bafflement do not represent weaknesses on your part – in fact, they are your greatest friends.
Why? Because writing is a process of discovery.
In school, we learn to write as a means of expressing ourselves – of capturing ideas in language in order to relay them to others. But fiction doesn’t work that way. Fiction is not about constructing the right phrases, clauses, sentences and paragraphs to say something. It’s about finding the world inside your head, the mystery and its solution, the key to the lovers’ hearts, the life-experiences that make a hero or a villain tick.
You can’t do any of that without doubting and wondering and repeatedly rethinking yourself. So here are some questions you may find useful in honing your doubt and uncertainty into tools of discovery.
1. Why am I doing this?
This question trumps all others. Do you have a deep need to turn one of your personal experiences into a narrative that could help others or help you achieve a sense of closure? Is your goal fame and fortune and occasional appearances on late-night talk shows? Does writing simply provide you an enjoyable means of escape from daily hum-drummery?
If you lack a clear understanding of your own motives for writing, you won’t know how hard to push yourself when answering the rest of these questions. And because your motives may change and flow over time –especially as your understanding of the writing process deepens – you can’t just ask this once and assume that a single sense of purpose will always carry you through.
2. Who are these people?
Stories are about human beings. (Or maybe aliens or elves or robots or personified animals – but even in those cases, they’re ultimately about human beings despite outward appearances to the contrary.) Without an understanding of where your characters come from, what drives them, and how their personalities and emotional reactions differ from one character to the next, you can’t create a personal focus to carry the reader through your story. No matter how intricate the plot, how shocking or awe-inspiring the concept, how beautiful your prose, if the characters don’t live and breathe for the reader, everything else suffers or even collapses.
3. What would he or she say next?
Once you know your characters and how they react to things, you must stay true to their personalities when they speak to one another. Sometimes I’ll skip ahead and write scenes out of sequence because I’ve come up with dialogue or a soliloquy that perfectly captures my intent. But when I get to those pre-written scenes, I often find that the characters have grown and shifted in the meantime. I understand them better or even just differently, and therefore I have to throw out words that were going to be the linchpin of the scene or even of the book’s climax because they no longer fit with how the characters have developed.
Just wanting a character to say something isn’t enough, regardless of how cleverly sarcastic or worldly wise or heart-warmingly romantic the words might be. Unless a line of dialogue arises naturally from the character’s response to events or to the words of others, the reader isn’t going to buy it, and you need to either change the character’s dialogue or rework the stimulus that provokes the line until they fit together seamlessly.
4. What is the logical repercussion of the action my character just took?
We perceive the world in terms of cause and effect, behavior and response, action and consequence. Fiction works and seems real only if it mirrors the patterns that we know occur in the real world. If a murder suspect flees from police, jumps in a car, and drives off, the police are going to immediately muster all available resources to pursue and halt the vehicle. Taking a couple of quick turns through an alleyway isn’t going to throw them off. If you want such a suspect to escape, you need to fully understand the resources available to the police – roadblocks, communications with dispatchers, helicopters, etc. – and then you need to figure out a genuinely plausible hole through which the killer (or alleged killer) can get away. People and organizations and objects react predictably to our interactions with them, and if your reader can make real-world predictions that your story overlooks or ignores, the result will be eye-rolling at best and the book being put down unfinished at worst.
5. Why did or didn’t my character anticipate that repercussion?
If your reader can spot the killer or predict the words needed to win the heart of the tall, dark-haired stranger, then you need to have a good explanation for the protagonist failing to do so. The creation of drama or conflict is never sufficient reason for a character to overlook the obvious – or even the not-so-obvious, if we’re supposed to believe the person is highly competent. When characters make bad decisions simply because a good decision wouldn’t move the plot in the direction you want, you risk alienating readers who have high standards for heroes (or villains).
6. What detail can I use to give this scene or setting its own reality?
Reality is composed of small things. If an artist paints a picture of a room and includes nothing smaller than a square yard, that room is not going to look like someone lives in it, or even like it’s a real room, since there won’t be any doorknobs or hinges or wood grain. When I pick up a wineglass, I can pick it up by the stem or by the bowl or by the rim. I can hold it between my thumb and fingers or cradle it with the stem hanging between my ring finger and middle finger. When I set the glass down and leave the room, it might be empty or it might have a finger’s breadth of wine left in the bottom. How I pick it up, how I hold it, and whether there’s any wine left when I set it down are all small atmospheric details that can be interspersed with dialogue or action to create a richer scene than simply writing, “He drank from a wineglass during the conversation, then set it on the table and left the room.”
7. What happened earlier in the story that I can use now?
The details with which you build your story’s moment-by-moment reality can easily play a larger role as well. If I drink wine in several scenes, holding the glass the same way each time, a sense of consistency is created. If I leave a half-inch of wine in the glass, that wine could be tested for DNA or for poison later. If I habitually hold the glass by the rim, a detective may be foiled in trying to get my fingerprints from the surface, since I’ll leave only partials at the very lip of the bowl. These things need not be pre-planned, as long as the writer is constantly mindful of details from previous scenes that can be exploited as the story evolves. Perhaps you need character X to communicate something wordlessly to character Y. You think back to earlier in the book and remember that characters X and Z exchanged business cards when they met. That means X has Z’s business card and could use it to write a note because there’s no other paper available. Later, you need character Y to be suspicious of character Z, or to connect Z to X. Voilá, character Y can happen across the business card when emptying her pockets at the end of the day.
8. Is now the right time to be asking these questions?
The answer to this one is usually going to be “Yes.” The worst writing occurs when a writer blazes heedlessly along under the assumption that everything they’re writing is terrific. However, that’s also the mode in which some people are most productive, and the last thing you want is to hit a roadblock because you don’t know the answer to a question. The answers to some questions may need to wait until the second draft (when you need to be asking even more questions!) so that you can get the first draft done. Don’t be afraid to write an unresolved question down in a word-processing comment and then push onward.
9. Why am I doing this, again?
Questions without answers may lead to frustration and to insecurity about whether the effort is even worth it. In those moments, take a deep breath, and remind yourself of your ultimate purpose. You’re a writer. The answers will come.