5 Key Questions to Ask as You Write Your Novel

Key Questions to Ask

Key Questions to Ask

As a professional manuscript critiquer and copyeditor, I ask a lot of questions.

Sure, I also give a lot of suggestions and fix badly constructed sentences. But it’s the questions that get to the heart of the story.

Asking authors questions helps them think about what they’re writing and why.

So much important information seems to be missing in so many novels, especially first novels by aspiring authors.

Novel writing is tricky; there are countless essential components that need to mesh cohesively to reveal the heart of a story.

Questions Create Story

Starting a novel is asking a question. What if . . .? What would someone do if . . .? What if the world was like this, and this happened . . .? These initial questions lead to more questions, which shape and bring life to characters and story.

Questions are the key.

After thousands of hours of critiquing and editing hundreds of manuscripts, I’ve noticed there are some questions I seem to ask a lot.

These are five key questions you might need to ask as well, while writing or rewriting your novel.

  • Where is this scene taking place?

    I shouldn’t have to ask this, right?

The writer is thinking, “Isn’t it obvious? I know where this scene is taking place.”

It may surprise you to know that readers can’t read your mind. The biggest problem I see in novel scenes is the lack of sufficient information to help the reader “get” where a scene is taking place. Just a hint of setting, shown from the character’s point of view, can do wonders.

And what’s usually missing is not just the locale but the smells and sounds, a sense of the time of day and year, and exactly where in the world the action is taking place.

  • How much time has passed?

    So many scenes dive into dialog or action without telling the reader how much time has passed from the last scene.

Scenes need to flow and string together in cohesive time. It’s important to know if five minutes or five months have     passed, and it only takes a few words to make that clear. Don’t leave your reader in confusion.

  • What is your character feeling right now?

This is a biggie. It alternates with: How does your character react to this?

So many times I read bits of action or dialogue that should produce a reaction from the point-of-view (POV) character, but the scene just zooms ahead without an indication of what the character is feeling or thinking.

For every important moment, your character needs to react. First viscerally, then emotionally, then physically and finally, intellectually. Often a writer will show a character reacting with deep thought about a situation, when their first natural reactions are missing.

If you get hit by a car, you aren’t going to first think logically about what happened and what you need to do next. First, you scream or your body slams against the sidewalk and pain streaks through your back.

Keep this adage in mind: for every action, there should be an appropriate, immediate reaction. That’s how you reveal character.

  • What is the point of this scene?

This is a scary question. Not for me—for the author.

Because if there’s no point to a scene, it shouldn’t be in your novel. Really. Every scene has to have a point—to reveal character or plot. And every scene should build towards a “high moment”.

  • What is your protagonist’s goal in the book?

If she doesn’t have a goal, you don’t really have a story.

The reader wants to know your premise as soon as possible. This involves your main character having a need to get something or somewhere, do something or find something. Or some variation of that.

That goal should drive the story and be the underpinning for all your scenes. That goal is the glue that holds your novel together. It may not be a ‘huge’ goal, and in the end your character may even fail to reach that goal—you’re the writer; you decide. But have a goal.

I actually ask a whole lot more questions than these. And many are just as important to crafting a powerful novel. I’ve found when writing my own novels that if I just keep asking questions—the right ones—I’ll find the answers that are right for that story.

If you can get in the habit of continually asking questions as you delve into your novel, you may find it will lead you to the heart of your story.

What are the questions you ask? Please share in the comments.


About the Author:

C. S. Lakin is the author of thirteen novels and works as a professional copyeditor and writing coach. Her new websites are dedicated to critiquing fiction and instruction and encouragement to help you survive and thrive in your writing life. 

Image: Key Questions to Ask courtesy of Bigstockphoto.com

Character Emotion: Is It Written All Over Their Face?

How to convey emotions?

The face is the first thing we notice in real life, and the focal point during any conversation.

We connect to a person’s gaze, paying attention to how their eyes widen, squint, focus inward or dart. We also watch their mouth, noting lip presses, teeth flashes, frowns, smiles and pursed lips. Eyebrow lifts, the forehead crinkling and relaxing…each facial micro movement is a message, a clue to what the person is thinking and feeling.

So as writers, is it important to maintain a strong focus in this area when we set out to describe character emotion?

Actually, it’s more the opposite. While the face might offer hundreds of micro expressions in real life, these split-second gestures do not always translate into strong emotional description.

Don’t get me wrong…the face is important! When a new character enters the scene, facial description is often the first beat of connection a reader has with them. A woman’s soft grey eyes, her rounded face, how sunlight glints through her curly auburn hair as she moves…these details help readers form an image.

But while face-centered description helps to paint a physical picture, it should not be relied on to also provide an emotional one. Instead, more descriptive ‘weight’ needs to be given to what the character’s body is doing.

By sheer mass, the body can provide thousands of possible movements, gestures and actions that will show readers what the character is feeling. Why? Because all readers (all people!) are body language experts. Ninety-three percent of communication is nonverbal, so we are constantly being fed messages through body movement. What we sense as we interact with others will dictate how we feel ourselves, and our behavior toward the other person.

Readers naturally apply this skill to what they read, and recognize body language on the page. Often the way a gesture or movement is described reminds them of how they used a similar one themselves when experiencing an emotion. This ‘shared experience’ is what powers up that empathy link between the reader and the character. Add this to emotion-rich dialogue, and, if the POV allows, snippets of the character’s thoughts and internal sensations (visceral reactions), and we can convey a powerful emotional moment!

Why doesn’t this body language skill apply to reading micro expressions?

Interpreting facial and body language is largely visual, and our readers are not seeing emotion being expressed first-hand. Instead, they are relying on their own imagination to work in tandem with the writer’s ability to create vivid description. Micro facial shifts happen quickly, and often several at the same time. Trying to break down these movements and describe them accurately can create a mechanical feel and slow the pace. There are larger, more recognizable expressions that work well as emotional cues (frowning, smiling, etc.), but they are often overused. Because of this, describing the character’s facial expression to show how they are feeling is something that should be done in moderation.

So the next time you have to show your character’s emotion, think beyond the face.

Instead, look at what the body might be doing. Delve into your past, remembering when you experienced the same emotion. What did your body do? How did it express itself? What did you feel inside–a heaviness in the chest, pain twisting your throat? Light-headedness from a surge of adrenaline? Skin sensitivity? Recreate the emotional moment and allow your senses to take over. Then, write it down.

Observing people in real life and in movies is another great way to build up a ‘store’ of body language to draw upon. There are examples all around us of unique ways to express emotion, and all we have to do is look. :)

When you think about what body language movements to show, dig deep. The more work we put into crafting fresh body cues, the deeper the connection we forge with readers. Above all, readers read for the experience, so make sure to give it to them!

Your turn! Do you find yourself overusing facial cues to describe how your character feels? What do you struggle with when it comes to showing emotion? Let me know in the comments!


About the author:

Angela Ackerman is one half of The Bookshelf Muse blogging duo, and co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression. Listing the body language, visceral reactions and thoughts associated with seventy-five different emotions, this brainstorming guide is a valuable tool for showing, not telling, emotion. 
Image: Sad woman BigStockPhotos

Beyond the Cliché: How to Create Characters that Fascinate

By Becca Puglisi of  The Bookshelf Muse

How many characters have been created since the first story was told? Thousands? Gajillions?

With so many characters floating around out there, it’s not surprising that many of them have been recycled over time:

Merlin, Dumbledore, Obi-Wan Kenobi
Bilbo Baggins, Han Solo, Katniss Everdeen
Cinderella’s stepmother, The queen from Snow White, Maleficent

If you want to create characters that fascinate, make them likable, relatable, flawed - and unique.

How do we do it?

How do we recreate yet another mentor/reluctant hero/villain without playing into the cliché?

Give him quirks. What makes a person (and a character) individual are their unique little habits and mannerisms. One good method for coming up with fitting quirks is to look at the people around you. Here are a few true life examples from my inner circle (family therapy will probably follow):
My mother-in-law is an extremely fair person. When her kids were younger, there were always two stack of presents under the tree, one for each child, with the same number of presents in each. One of the stacks also contained an envelope with a random amount of cash–$3.48, or something, because she’d spent that much on the other child and wanted everything to come out fair. Quirky.

My husband’s defining character trait is efficiency, and much of his goofiness comes directly from this. If I’m cooking, he turns off the oven when five minutes are left to save electricity. In the winter, he cracks the oven door after I’ve removed the food so as not to waste the heat. Goofy.
My dad, though a highly intelligent and rational human being, is a complete conspiracy theorist. Wacky.

You don’t have to look far to find more idiosyncrasies than you could ever use in your fiction. But if real life fails you, look at lists for inspiration, such as this one, or this blog post on types of quirks. Regardless of where you find them, it’s usually best to choose a quirk that exemplifies and magnifies a trait of your character’s. Then, he’s not just doing some random weird thing–his habit makes sense, and it will ring true to the reader.

Show your character’s individuality by providing contrast.

Surround your character with people who are different from him, and you’ll emphasize his uniqueness. Take Cinna, for example, in The Hunger Games. The Capitol stylists were all superficial and flamboyant. Cinna was unassuming and deep. Subtle. By clearly showing the norm in his world, Collins highlights Cinna’s uniqueness and makes him stand out as individual.

Ensure uniqueness by giving your character conflicting traits.

We’ve all read about certain kinds of characters: the ambitious co-worker, the brainy honor student, the doting grandmother. To make these characters unique, give them conflicting traits that you don’t normally find in the stereotype.

Many grandmothers are doting, but what if they’re also manipulative and self-serving?

Ambitious co-workers are usually backstabbing and underhanded. How about creating one who’s loyal with a strong sense of right and wrong?

Create multi-dimensional characters by giving them traits that don’t usually go together, and you’ll have a fresh take on an old cliché. (For more ideas on this, check out the character trait thesaurus at The Bookshelf Muse.)

Surprise readers by not giving them what they expect.

As much as we try not to stereotype, we all do it to some degree. We see someone who looks a certain way and we already have an idea what kind of person he is, and how he’ll act. Readers do the same thing. Capitalize on this tendency by making your character look one way but act another.

This technique is used brilliantly in Daughter of Smoke and Bone. In this story, Brimstone is a big-time demon with one foot in the human world. His appearance is as evil and frightening as you’d expect, but Taylor avoids the cliché by making the demon a good guy. Unexpected and intriguing, this twist makes the reader want to read on to find out what the character, and the author, are up to.

The bottom line is that readers like the unexpected–in plot lines, in endings, and in characters.

Surprise them by giving them a brand new, never-before-seen hero or villain, and you’ll gain the reader’s interest and maybe even their attention all the way to your final page.

Becca Puglisi is a YA fantasy and historical fiction writer, SCBWI member, and co-host of The Bookshelf Muse, an on-line resource for writers. She also has a number of magazine publications under her belt. Her book, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression is scheduled for release in the spring of 2012.