When my son was small and not overly-verbal, he went through a phase where he’d point at something (or at nothing) and ask one of journalism’s Five W’s (plus one H). Just the one, single word. “Which?” he’d say, jabbing a stubby finger at the sky. Or he’d point in the direction of a worm wriggling blindly on the sidewalk and ask, “When?” While we’d be driving along I-5, he’d spot a 747 in the clouds and chirp, “How?”
The sky and the worm questions were tough to answer, but the airplane one? Pshaw. Piece of cake.
“Hold on,” I would say. I’d slam on the brakes, pull the car over to the I-5 shoulder, hand him a container of Goldfish crackers and a latte, and begin my lecture-length explanation of how a 747 can fly, using my vast knowledge of physics, plus scientific terms like “magical powers” and “caffeinated rocket boosters” and “millions of invisible dragons.”
My husband and I got a kick out of his vague, minimalist desire to make sense of his world, and I miss the innocence of his one-word questions; these days my kids ask about AIDS and war and homelessness. Sex and mean-girlness and legalized marijuana. September 11th. How a 747 gets off the ground without the help of invisible dragons.[pullquote]But why do we enjoy reading the questions of strangers? First, we are voyeurs. Second, we want to understand our world.[/pullquote]
We humans do make sense of the world through the asking and considering of questions. And it seems we have for quite some time. Take a look at this article from The Atlantic, in which we see quaint questions taken from an advice column in a 17th century British periodical:
Q: Why is thunder more terrible in the night time?
Q: If I [am thinking of committing] any great and enormous crime and sin (as adultery), but do not personally and actually commit it, am I guilty of the crime and sin?
Q: What is the cause of the winds, and whence do they come, and whither do they go?
The genre of the advice column was alive and kicking in the 1600s, and it has flourished ever since. But why do we enjoy reading the questions of strangers?
1) We are voyeurs.
2) We want to understand our world.
I think we read fiction (in part) for those very reasons.
And, I think we writers write fiction for those very reasons. There is no better way to comprehend something than writing our way to a greater understanding. So without further ado, let’s look at the power of questions in our fiction.
I consider two types of questions when I am writing a novel. First, there’s the all-important Dramatic Question.
In Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn reeled me in with that creepy first sentence (“When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.”) What?, I wondered. You think of her head? Not her face or her eyes or her tush? That wondering led me to ask what the fancy-pants literati call a Dramatic Question: What weirdness is taking place in this couple’s marriage? The search for an answer to that Dramatic Question urged me (and apparently sixteen zillion others) to keep reading until I arrived at the next in a chain of additional Dramatic Questions. Did he do it, and if so, why? From there, I found myself asking, Hold on. Who is the real bad guy here and what is his/her goal? and then, Wait a minute. Who on earth am I rooting for? Notice that the Dramatic Question isn’t, “What’s going to happen next?” It is much more specific, and it relates to how things will turn out, which of course relates to whether the protagonist will make the right choice, get the girl, catch the fish, outsmart the bully, find redemption, find forgiveness, find the missing clue, have an affair, have a baby, have courage, have a chance at survival. From the conflict that generates these Dramatic Questions, suspense is born.[pullquote]While the Dramatic Question must be obvious in the story, the Meat Hooks Question may or may not be. [/pullquote]
More examples? Yes. Shakespeare, like Gillian Flynn, was pretty good at creating suspense through his Dramatic Questions: Will Hamlet find his father’s murderer? Will Romeo and Juliet make it as a couple? Will Lady Macbeth go nuts imagining imaginary blood on her hands, or will she get away with her evil machinations?
The Dramatic Question keeps the reader glued to the story (as does the Dramatic Situation, a topic for next month). But what keeps us writers glued to our works-in-progress? For me, it’s not the Dramatic Question of my story but what I call the Meat Hooks Question. Meat Hooks Question is not a fancy-pants literati term, but for me, it’s an essential element of writing a novel because it keeps me tethered to my story in sickness and in health, and let’s face it, when the going gets tough in novel-writing, and it will, it’s easy to give up on a writing project. But if the story has its Meat Hooks Question stuck in me? It still may feel uncomfy to stay, but it will be impossible to go.
While the Dramatic Question must be obvious in the story, the Meat Hooks Question may or may not be. Apparent or not, I must find my Meat Hooks Question so compelling that I cannot give up the writing until I come to some sort of satisfying answer (or at least a few possible answers) to the question.
What does a Meat Hooks Question look like? For my first novel, it was a question that terrified me: What happens when a mother realizes she does not or cannot love her child? A mother’s love for a child is supposed to be automatic and eternal. But what, I wondered, if it wasn’t automatic and eternal for me?
Book #2’s Meat Hooks Question: What happens to our identity when we lose our memory? I have been watching my grandmother live with Alzheimer’s for nearly 20 years. She can occasionally hum Frank Sinatra’s songs, but she has no idea who she is, who her family is, who she was, who she wanted to be, who she was in relation to others. Is she still who she was, even now that she has no idea who she is?
Book #3 (my WIP) hooked me with the question: What happens to someone when she has lived her entire life in a constant state of war? I wonder this any time I hear stories of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, of Syria, of Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia, Iraq. What does war to do a person’s values and to the society’s collective consciousness?
Often, when I arrive at the end of a writing project, I realize the Meat Hooks Question isn’t apparent in the text, not even to me, but I know it has worked because it has kept my tush in my writer’s chair, searching for a way to feel less unsettled about the ambiguity and uncertainty that surrounds me.
Now you! Will you share your story’s Dramatic Question and/or your story’s Meat Hooks Question? Or, feel free to ask (or answer) a Dear Abby question that relates to you as a writer or to your WIP. Or, feel free to provide a vegetarian-friendly alternative to “Meat Hooks.” And thank you, as always, for reading.
Hook photo compliments of Flickr’s Nevile Nel.