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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Forget Answers – Writers Need Questions!

Dont know? Dont worry.

Don’t know? Don’t worry.

One of the more common sources of writing resistance and block is the lament “I don’t know what to write!”

As if “real” writers wake up every day with a clearly defined writing plan that details exactly where to start and how to progress at every moment.

Western education sets us up for the belief that if we don’t know the correct answers, we’re stupid, wrong, not working hard enough, not paying attention, missing the boat. And it’ll go on our permanent record.

Knowing the answers is rewarding – it makes us feel smart, important, sometimes even morally superior. Really real writers recognize the value of not knowing. (more about uncertainty)

Answers are easy, but early in the creative process, finding questions is far more fruitful and often harder to clarify.

The Joy of Pondering Impossible Questions

from question marks to exclamation points

Pondering questions leads to…

Last spring or was it last fall –  time gets fuzzy for me when ideas and story images are evolving – I knew that my protagonist’s younger sister, let’s call her Alice, shows up where she shouldn’t and inadvertently contributes to her mother’s death.

But why she there in the middle of the night? Who would let a 15-year-old wander around in the dark where deadly predators prowl?

I pondered thatf until, finally, an answer came. “No one. No reasonable parent would let her daughter do something so dangerous.”

Not the answer I was looking for, really. I considered ditching that idea and making something or someone else responsible for the mother’s death. But my instincts insisted that Alice being there would create intense external conflict between the sisters and internal conflict for each of them.

I also thought about who I was when I was 15 and another answer came: “A 15-year-old girl with a righteous sense of purpose would sneak out.”

That led to “Teenagers think they’re invincible and Alice had no way of knowing what would happen, but what specially would make a 15-year-old girl risk getting into serious trouble?”

I dreamstormed scene alternatives for days. I just couldn’t quite get it. I let it go and explored other story events.

Inspiration comes from unexpected sources

Sometime later, while I was just hanging out watching The Incredible Dr. Pol on Nat Geo Wild, the veterinarian made an off-hand comment that sparked an unexpected possibility for my story. A slew of interesting connections and unintended consequences fell into place.

I won’t write that as a scene until I know more about the whole story. Drafting scenes prematurely is a pitfall I’ve learned to avoid. (Read more here first, second and third.)

I trust the pages of notes generated with my 20 Answers, 20 Questions exercise will bring what I need when I do start drafting.

20 Answers, 20 Questions

Start with what you have… ©CanStockPhoto / stuartmiles

Because questions are so vital, asking ourselves a bunch of questions is an obvious way to open our minds to a variety of story possibilities. But as I said before, questions are usually harder to find than answers.

I start with what I have. If I have an answer or an assumption, I challenge myself to write 20 questions that arise from that assumption. Conversely, if I have a question I’m pondering (Why is Alice there that night?”), I challenge myself to find 20 diverse answers.

The 20 questions or 20 answers you challenge yourself to write don’t have to make sense in your fictional world (or in the real world if you’re writing nonfiction). Just keep writing even when the only thing you can come up with is crazy, impractical or outrageous.

My throw-away response is something along the lines of “abducted by aliens.” It’s so improbable and so ridiculous, that after writing that, my mind opens to even crazier ideas. Some of those outrageous ideas might work. All of them engage my creative imagination more than my first five or six ho-hum, ordinary answers.

Repeat as Needed

The trick is to keep going past your first twenty responses. If I started with an answer or assumption and wrote 20 questions, next I write 20 answers for each question.

If I started with a question and wrote 20 answers, next I write 20 questions for each possible or probable answer.

Questions lead to answers, which lead to more questions, which lead…

I usually start with the most intriguing questions or answers and usually push myself to come up with 20 responses. I continue the 20 Answers, 20 Questions exercise until a response grabs my attention.

I play with the intriguing response for a couple of writing sessions to see what promise it holds. I don’t make final decisions about what will definitely happen in the story at this point; I identify a couple of possible story events and move on.

For example, I assumed, that after her mother is killed, Alice and her 14-year-old friend disappear, apparently without a trace, from a lightly populated, forested and mountainous area. One of the 20 questions this assumption gave me was, how would their family and neighbors account for their disappearance?

Before you read my list, you might want to make your own list of ways family and neighbors could account for two girls going missing. I’d love to hear your ideas – one might better than what I’m working with now.

Family and neighbors might think the girls were:

  1. Mystery is the best part of the journey

    Killed and eaten by predators

  2. Killed and buried by the military occupation force patrolling the area
  3. Killed by exposure to rain, wind, hypothermia
  4. Lost in thick brush, panic and eventually die of starvation
  5. Crippled or trapped by a mud slide
  6. Bitten by poisonous snakes
  7. Arrested by military and held in detainment
  8. Kidnapped by their family’s competitors/enemies
  9. Kidnapped by a serial killer
  10. Kidnapped by crazy, hermit survivalists
  11. Kidnapped by smugglers
  12. Kidnapped by a group of military protesters
  13. Abducted by aliens
  14. Taken in by a religious cult
  15. Assumed new identifications after running away to a city
  16. Drowned in a lake or river
  17. Sick with a virus and lost while feverish
  18. Taken by locals who collaborate with the military
  19. Taken to a hidden location in secret by a family member
  20. At the bottom of a ravine after throwing themselves off a cliff, committing suicide because of grief and guilt

I selected #14 “the girls are taken in by a religious cult” as an intriguing response and dared myself to write 20 questions that might follow from this assumption. I won’t list all 20 here because some are so specific to my novel they won’t make sense to you. (Email me Rosanne at rosannebane.com if you’re dying to read the whole list.)

  1. What questions can propel your writing?

    Why would the religious cult, known as Guardians in my world, take them in and let them stay?

  2. Might the Guardians accept one girl as worthy/needy enough and send the other away?
  3. If Guardians find them lost or injured, would they let the girls stay with them or try to take them back to their homes?
  4. How would the girls find the Guardians, who are a secret order and experts at staying hidden?
  5. Would Guardians have a rule that if someone finds them, that person must stay so they can’t reveal Guardians’ secrets?
  6. Do any of these secret Guardians live and work in plain sight as farmers, retailers, doctors, teachers, etc.?
  7. Is the uncle of one of the girls a secret Guardian?

I’ll stop here because question 7 opened up intriguing possibilities that I hadn’t entertained before. Until I wrote that throw-away, general question 6, it never occurred to me that one of the family members could be a secret Guardian and possibly have split loyalties. Although I haven’t committed to any single story line yet, things just got very interesting.

Post a comment or send me an email to let me know how the 20 Answers, 20 Questions exercise works for you.

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