Wednesday, March 18, 2020

A question worth answering

I am having a difficult time motivating myself to write this blog. Actually to write anything. I suspect most of us are distracted and unfocused, flitting from one worry to another. This pandemic thing is very new, and information changes minute by minute. Images flit across the screen of struggles around the world, and the fateful numbers pile up at home. Turn off the news or social media for a few hours, and you return to astonishing changes.

On the firm advice of doctors, as a person over 70 with a couple of chronic health conditions (which I've always considered no big deal), I am mostly staying in my home. Even this has been a reality check. Since when did I become a "vulnerable" person who needed protection? I am not happy to have my adventurous wings clipped, but I accept it for my health and that of others.

Initially I thought okay, I'll have lots of time to write my work-in-progress. Not happening. The yellow pad of paper sits on my coffee table, open to the same scene as last week. I can't marshall the sustained concentration to create. I force myself to write a few sentences, but then come upon something that requires a quick internet fact-check, so I open my laptop, and I'm down the rabbit hole for half an hour.
My forlorn manuscript lost amid tax records
However, I have almost finished my taxes, so some good has come of this! And I am hoping that once I get into the rhythm of this self-isolation, my writing muse will come back. On my last blog, I said that over my next four blogs, I was going to discuss the four elements I consider key to successful stories. The first one was a character worth caring about. All this seems very distant now, but in the interests of trying to reestablish some normalcy in our lives, I'm going to take a stab at the second one. In my current brain-rambling state, I may not truly do it justice, so feel free to comment on the idea, and I may revisit it on the next blog in two weeks.

The second element is a question worth answering. This is basic Writing 101. Every story poses a question at the beginning, and that question sets the hero on their quest. The driving force of the story is the hero's pursuit of the answer. Will the guy get the girl? Will the climber reach the summit? And in the case of last week's dog photo, presented here again - Will someone let the poor things in?

Please let us in!
There can be, and indeed should be, smaller questions, both in each scene and in each subplot, and the challenge is to  layer them and knit them together to make a complex, compelling story. But the story as a whole rests on the power of that primary question.

Like the character worth caring about, the question has to be a worthy one. It has to contain enough meat and meaning to engage the reader's interest. The reader has to care about what the answer is, and care that the hero gets there. Shallow, silly, superficial questions leave readers thinking "so what?" And that will not keep them up at night. What gives a question meaning? An important struggle people can relate to. I believe this is one reason crime fiction is so successful. It is about human relationships and conflict, and our question involves literally life and death. Whodunit, howdunit, whydunit, or willhedoit? Whether it's a serial killer or a genteel tea party murder, the deliberate killing of one person by another is arguably the most primal thing one human being can do to another. It is intimate, it is raw, and it is extreme. People want to know what happened, and how and why it happened. We walk in the shoes of the hero, of the victim, and in the case of good writers, of the villain too.

But even within the mystery genre, not all questions have equal power. The murder may seem almost irrelevant, lost in a blaze of car chases and explosions, or trivial, lost in the clever chatter of the characters. It's still possible for the reader to think "so what?", especially if the victim is faceless. So a large part of making the question worthy lies not just in keeping the focus on the murder rather than the distractions, but also on creating characters who are genuine, believable and personally affected by the murder. In my opinion, if all characters, including victim and villain, are real and well rounded so that people can relate to them, the reader will care about what happens. So back to Element #1, a character worth caring about. If the writer has created a character you care about, then chances are you'll care about their struggle to achieve their quest.

A small note about the last word in that phrase, a question worth answering. I chose the word answering rather than asking because the momentum of a story lies not in the asking but in the answering. The answer is the goal at the end.

I'll sign off here and invite anyone to comment, improve, and add. Stay safe and sane, everyone.


Elinor Florence said...

Yes, the distraction factor is very prevalent just now! It’s so difficult even to read a book! Ottawa has been hard hit so I hope you are staying close to home, Barbara. Thanks for rising above the noise to write another excellent blog post.

Barbara Fradkin said...

Thanks, Elinor. Having discovered I'm labelled as an old-timer, I am mostly staying home. I hope you are as well.

Aline Templeton said...

I so agree, Barbara.This idea that being freed of all the other commitments will free me up to get a lot more written - horse feathers! there are so many otehr things to think about, and other worries, that they are elbowing out creative thought. I can only hope that will improve as I adapt to the 'new normal'.