Category Archives: Inspiration

Story Questions and “Plights”: Which Did You Leave Out?

Who cares if you get who/whom wrong?In my own writing and in my various writing groups, I’ve often focused on the need for a “story question.” Basically, if you don’t have a story question, you don’t have a story. You may have a diary, or a set of episodes, or a journal, but you don’t have a story.

I discovered, though, that I was conflating “story question” with a related term, “plight.” I’ve twice posted—my own thoughts and those pilfered from other bloggers—about this mystery word, “plight.”

Magic book“Plight” is what Donald Maass calls “the story beneath the surface.” An important difference between the two: You must have a story question to have a story. A plight is that extra something that elevates your story out of the realm of the mundane.

Basics first, then: what is a story question?

The story question is generally the immediate and concrete problem or goal or issue demanding resolution. Will they escape the marauding hordes? Will they escape the flood? Will the detective find the murderer? Will the evil bully get his or her comeuppance?

A story question does not have to be this simple or easily solvable, but it must be there. Will she stay in the unsatisfying job or leave it? Will he reach his goal of becoming a great rap star? This is where the classic “rising action>crisis>climax>denouement” structure comes into play. The plot rises through all the character’s efforts with obstacles at every turn, to finally reach an answer: “yes or no.”

Mysterious park alley

In a multistory serial, like, for example, Lord of the Rings (a great source of examples), each of the books is built around a story question: will the troop survive the obstacles posed by the various segments of their journey? Each book ends with a “yes” (for most), and each of the first two sets up the question to drive the next.

Even the most supposedly literary of novels/stories (I suppose with a few really outlying exceptions, but I can’t name any offhand), poses this type of “will they or won’t they” question. The “what will happen to them next?” is the page-turning element.

A story can function quite well on this simple principle. If readers are interested enough in the will-they-or-won’t-they, they’ll keep reading. And it doesn’t take a lot of “literary skill,” whatever that is, to build a story like this. All you need is someone about to fall off a cliff or a ravenous lion leaping out of the brush. A story hook is like strange headlights coming at you out of the dark on a lonely road. What lies ahead?

Of course, even with a strong story question, pace and the empathy of characters can affect whether readers keep reading; for my part, I’ve now abandoned two John Grisham novels and won’t try a third because they were sooooo darn slow and didn’t offer me particularly interesting or engaging characters to fill in the slow spots. But most of us have favorite stories based simply on a “what will happen next?” or “what is the answer to the puzzle?” question. (See. e.g., Agatha Christie’s enduring popularity.)

So what is this other thing, “plight”?

Question mark in the clouds: What is "'No' Dialogue"?

Plight comes into play when the entire “what-will-happen” plot asks a second-level question. In my view, such plots almost always ask of the character(s), “Who am I?” Or more precisely, what kind of person do I want to be? What kind of person can I become—or fail to become?

My ideal novel has both these elements: a “will-they-overcome-the obstacles?” story question, and a plight question: “If they do (or don’t), so what?” A story that engages on both levels uses the plot question, the simpler one, to confront the main character with the larger one. Here you are in this demanding concrete situation. How you respond will tell you (and us) something about who you are.

Let’s look again at Lord of the Rings, in which the story question repeatedly puts the characters in a position where they must answer a larger question: whether or not they can resist the temptations offered by the various detours they can choose—detours involving character and heart. For Frodo in particular, the story events ask, “Are you Gollum? Will you give in like Gollum did?” This is the characters’ plight, their struggles to see where they stand in relation to these larger questions of identity and choice, which loom over the whole trilogy and bind it together. It’s not just a story of kids in the woods who have to escape the latest tiger. It’s about a tiger who asks, “Are you ready to show me who you are?”

Open book with butterflies from paperI’d argue that most stories, maybe especially those written for younger audiences, work to create such a story-behind-the-story: the
response to the tiger defines character and teaches how to confront fear. That all sounds so simple and self-evident, but of course it can be monstrously hard to achieve.

But I’ve begun to think more and more in terms of these issues when thinking about future books. As a pantser (really don’t like that word, but it does capture the mindset), I often find that the plight takes shape slowly. I’m thinking about a new book in which thinking through the plight before beginning to write seems to be helping. As I work out the immediate problem my developing character must solve, I also find myself thinking, “Okay, he solves that problem, but so what? How will his success change him? What does it matter to his confrontations with the world he has to negotiate every day?”

An important difference between story question and plight is that plight questions can remain open-ended whereas story questions cannot. People can reach turning points in their understanding of who they are, but still have more work to do. Not all tests are as definitive as Frodo’s. Not everybody just retires to a nice hobbit life.

cresock deserted peer sea

But that’s one thing that makes a character memorable: the sense that they have a life after the book, they’re part of an unfinished journey where we might meet them again—maybe, in fact, not in a book.

So my do-as-I-say-and-I-hope-as-I-do rule: Look first to see if you have a story question that plots the sequence of events in the rising-action-crisis-denouement structure. If not, no story. But then step back and ask, “Once that question is answered, so what?”

That’s where you might discover the element that makes all the difference, your character(s)’s plight.

Image of earth planet on hand

Do you have favorite books in which the “yes/no” story question asks characters to confront a larger plight?

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Filed under genres, Inspiration, novels, Plot Development, Writing

Review: Every Writer Should Read Dorothy Sayers’s *Gaudy Night*

First Edition of Dorothy Sayers's Gaudy NightMaybe I should say, every female writer. The book I’m recommending is about women, yes. But was it written for women only? I’ll hold to the faith that my literary male friends might find some familiar sentiments in this story—timeless to my mind—of a woman struggling to balance romance and intellectual rigor with a successful writing career.

As a young woman scribbling away on various unworthy projects, I loved Dorothy Sayers’s whimsical accounts of the escapades of her patrician hero, Lord Peter Wimsey. At a time when the puzzle mysteries of Agatha Christie seemed to be the fashion, I much preferred the slower, character-driven, comedies of manners in Sayers’s accounts of aristocratic England between the wars.

Of course this world was completely exotic to me. A quintessential baby-boomer, I knew no English lords and thus tended to take her depiction as truth. I also knew little about Europe at that time, and skimmed over the occasional reference to world events, most of which were used more or less to demonstrate that Wimsey was not just a chatty dilettante but a behind-the-scenes actor on the veiled world stage. Social commentary in Sayers’s books gently speared the kinds of people who, forty years earlier, would have been the inhabitants of Downton Abbey.

Recently, though, looking for some relatively mindless pleasure while I recovered from surgery, I retrieved some old favorites for bedtime reading. I had always remembered Sayers’s earlier novel, The Nine Tailors, as haunting and original; I was surprised at how slowly it read on new acquaintance, how it relied on stereotypes (I’m now guessing) of inhabitants of the fen country. But I’d also remembered Gaudy Night as more lively—comic, actually—and decided to revisit it as well.

It is indeed lively, comic, sometimes even brutal in its depictions of British social types of the era. But it is more than social comedy. It is about an intelligent independent woman trying to decide whether such a woman can achieve love and marriage on her own terms, especially to a personality as overwhelming as Wimsey’s. It is about a woman exploring what it means to be an intellectual when combining “intellectual” and “woman” in the same breath was both oxymoronic and somehow unclean.

But above all—and hence this invitation to my colleagues—it is about writing. Harriet Vane, the protagonist, grapples not just with how to bring characters to life in the latest of her best-selling mystery novels, but also with writing as a vocation. As a way of touching the heavens, mentally and emotionally. In Gaudy Night, she writes both as a novelist and as a scholar, parsing the definitions of excellence in writing, of finding one’s voice in a fine, close piece of work that requires, and reflects, one’s best self. Watching these three themes—romance, intellectual rigor, and writing—converge is one of the pleasures of this book.

Harriet appears as foil to Wimsey in four of the Lord Peter novels; Gaudy Night is the third. The novel takes place in a fantasy world: Shrewsbury College, a woman’s college in Oxford at a time when there was no such thing! Female administrators, scholars, and students pursue deep, arcane questions just as their male counterparts did and do. But this devotion to academic excellence sets them up for attack from a world that is not ready for them.

Harriet returns to Shrewsbury for a “Gaudy,” which is sort of a homecoming/class reunion, and, seeking surcease from the emotional conflicts created by Lord Peter’s determination to marry her, finds herself drawn into the narrow-focused but fine-tuned academic life—and into a terrifying mystery as well. A “Poison Pen” berates, threatens, and ultimately injures the scholars as punishment for not recognizing a woman’s proper place in the world.

Yes, Harriet must partner with Lord Peter to solve the puzzle. But I suggest looking for a subtle comparison with the relationship we may, all of us, be so lucky as to experience with a superb editor whose fierce intelligence we combine with our own skills to produce something whole and deserving. And again, there’s that lovely convergence of themes: solving a difficult puzzle with high stakes, finding a way to love without surrendering oneself, and turning it all into a work of art.

These are themes that resonate for me. I don’t know a Lord Peter, so I don’t share that precise challenge. But here’s a Harriet I do know, returned to Shrewsbury to escape the publishing circus, and perhaps you know this person, too. This is from Chapter XI:

. . . In that melodious silence, something came back to her that had lain dumb and dead ever since the old innocent undergraduate days. The singing voice, stifled long ago by the pressure of the struggle for existence, and throttled into dumbness by that queer, unhappy contact with physical passion, began to stammer a few uncertain notes. Great golden phrases, rising from nothing and leading to nothing, swam up out of her dreaming mind like the huge, sluggish carp in the cool waters of Mercury. One day she climbed up Shotover and sat looking over the spires of the city, deep-down, fathom-drowned, striking from the round bowl of the river-basin, improbably remote and lovely as the towers of Tirnan-Og beneath the green sea-rollers. She held on her knee the looseleaf notebook that contained her notes upon the Shrewsbury scandal; but her heart was not in that sordid inquiry. A detached pentameter, echoing out of nowhere, was beating in her ears—seven marching feet—a pentameter and half:—

To that still center where the spinning world

Sleeps on its axis—

Had she made it or remembered it? It sounded familiar, but in her heart she knew certainly that it was her own, and seemed familiar only because it was inevitable and right.

To all our moments like this.

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Great New Post from Chuck Wendig (a writer you want to meet if you haven’t)

KnowledgeI’m back from knee surgery and scanning my blogs. Not surprisingly, here’s a keeper. Chuck is a lively writer, so there may be some bad words. Well worth it. Here he tells us what I had to learn the hard way; that character, not plot, creates story. My favorite line from this piece–“Plot is the thing that characters poop.”

 

I learned this in My Failed Novel (here’s one of several posts on How Not to Write a Failed Novel, all of which I’m sure will help you become the Next Big Thing). I forced my characters to do something they most certainly did not want to do. The single good thing about that moment was that I had clearly created characters with lives of their own. I shoved them into action, and they rebelled, and a whole lot of important reviewers saw them rebelling. And said so in the highest venues. The End.

Sad Editing!

Chuck says “give your characters something to do.” I’d add that, if they have come to life, often what they do will not be what just anyone would do. It will often be a choice specific to them, to who they have become as you watched them and listened to them. Not all your readers will admire their choices. But those choices—motivated, yes, by who they are and the context, but at the same time personal, heartfelt, unique—will trigger the next cascade of actions that we think of as plot. So don’t settle for what the latest TV hero would have done. Set loose a character with the voice to tell you what SHE is going to do. Then get out of her way. Plot will be what ensues.

Book open to the stars

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Filed under Editing, indie publishing, Inspiration, Learning to write, Myths and Truths, novels, Plot Development, self editing, Self-publishing, What Not To Do in Writing Novels, Writing

Stupid Advice about Writing? Check This Out!

Figuring out if you're a writer: A drive into the dark!

Dodging the glare of negative advice!

Louie Cronin writes for Writer Unboxed: an inspirational tale for all of us who’ve wondered if we’re kidding ourselves about being writers. I especially love her list of things she recommends we deliberately ignore! Enjoy!

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Filed under Inspiration, Myths and Truths, novels, Writing, Writing and Learning