Popular podcast guest and author Roz Morris shares her best tips for asking the questions that will make outlining your novel easier and bring depth and reader resonance to your characters.
What is a story?
If you think about it, it’s a series of questions we plant in the reader's mind.
What’s about to happen? What trouble will it cause? How did it start? What does it feel like? How will it be resolved? Why is the situation not as simple as it seems?
All stories, from the intricately plotted procedural to the deep dive into character, are a nest of questions, one growing out of another, an evolving puzzle that the reader finds increasingly compelling.
And, in a neat reversal, questions are a great way for a writer to build a story.
The Big Picture
It starts with the big picture:
- Who the characters are
- What they’re doing
- Why they’re doing it
- Why it matters
- Why this will be interesting
- Where the story takes place geographically and why that is the perfect setting
- Where they are in time – the present, the future, the past (if so, what period or year?)
The more questions you ask, and the more thoroughly you ask them, the stronger the story will be.
Once we’ve established those basics, the questions go deeper.
- How will you ensure the scenario has enough range so that it will be satisfyingly long? You don't want to run out of steam within a couple of chapters.
- Why can’t the characters avoid doing what they do? Who will be affected or hurt? Who might be delighted and want to keep this new situation? Who will be provoked to retaliate? (There's your conflict.)
- What should the reader think of each person they read about? What are the stakes – what might the characters gain or lose if things go wrong? What might happen if they succeed?
Your story has a structural shape. It needs big surprises and reversals – what will those be?
Going In Circles
Some of the essential story building questions seem like maddening conundrums.
How will you take the plot in unexpected directions, yet at the same time hit the marks that readers are hungry for? How will you keep the surprises hidden and yet make the reader feel that they are fair?
The biggest conundrum, like a scenario from Catch-22 – how will you seed the end in the beginning and write the perfect beginning by knowing the end?
Beyond Plot And Characters
Consider the artistic questions.
Where are the layers of depth, resonance, insight, the surprising perceptions, the universal echoes that will grip the reader's heart and intellect?
If the story is set in an unusual world – such as a fantasy universe or an exciting corner of our actual here-and-now – how will you satisfy the reader’s special curiosity about this place?
Question Your Methods
So much for the content. What about your method?
Have you ever questioned what helps you work and what blocks you?
Do you work best if you give yourself wordcount targets? Or are targets a perverse incentive that stop you focusing on quality?
What about outlines? Do you like them or loathe them? Do you know it doesn't have to be either-or?
If an outline sucks the freshness and fun out of the writing but you'd still like a path to follow, could you find non-writing ways to muster your thoughts and capture their spontaneous brilliance? Could you take long walks with a dictation app?
What about music? Are you like me, building soundtracks that represent the most important scenes, characters, and themes? Play them and the emotion is there, fresh every time. What might work for you?
The Questions That Will Help You Get To The End
Are you a paper person or a digital spirit? What's your best way to make notes?
Some of us build the foundations in a piece of software, like Scrivener. Some of us love to collect a litter of paper notes, perhaps scavenged from envelopes lying around the kitchen table, or thieved from magazine pages in the dentist waiting room.
Some of us have rituals we always observe when conceptualising a book. Do you like to stick to a tried and tested habit? The magic realist author Isabel Allende has a particular date in January on which she begins the writing of a new manuscript.
Or do you like to start each book by inventing a new system, a new routine for a new neighbourhood?
[Note from Joanna: You can view my free tutorial on why creative routine is so important for authors here.]
So Many Questions
So many answers, but we're all, in our many-splendored ways, looking for the same thing. The right questions to ask, to get us by multiple routes to a common destination – the questions that will keep the reader enthralled.
What questions do you ask yourself when your planning and writing a novel? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Roz Morris is a bestselling ghostwriter turned contemporary novelist and author mentor.
Her latest release is a workbook version of her successful writing manual Nail Your Novel.
She has two published novels (My Memories of a Future Life and Lifeform Three, which was longlisted for the World Fantasy Award) and a collection of travel diaries Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction. Her books are available in paperback and all ebook formats. Find the Nail Your Novel workbook here and find out about Roz on her website. Tweet her at @Roz_Morris
Roz Morris says
Thanks for having me, Jo!
Tom Burkhalter says
Looks to me like you hit the most important questions! By way of amplification, I find it handy sometimes to think of myself as a reporter, and ask the same categories of questions a reporter does: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? And, sometimes, a question that seems superficially facetious: Huh?
“Huh? Where did THAT come from?” Since, after all, you aren’t a journalist, pay attention to the little nuggets that your subconscious is sometimes graciously pleased to dangle before you. The thing that doesn’t quite seem to fit. Maybe it doesn’t, not in the moment; maybe it does, but in the motivation of the character; maybe, somewhere else.
Roz Morris says
Hi Tom! I love that ‘huh’ question. And like you, I often find the thing that apparently doesn’t fit is the key to something deeper. Really nice point!
Tracy Hume says
Hi Roz! I love these questions. Asking good questions is possibly the most important skill I have as a nonfiction writer. I never thought about fiction in terms of asking the right questions! What an intriguing perspective! Thank you for sharing this.
Roz Morris says
Glad you enjoyed it, Tracy – thanks for reading!
The more I worry about outlining, the less I write, the less I want to write. Scrutiny, if premature, is paralyzing. I think I have let people hurry me, rush me, when I actually know more about where I am in my process than others do.
Katerina Wild says
Thanks so much for the great tips. These will help me better organize my writing because you have basically laid the blueprint for writing a great novel out.