5 Powerful Questions to Help as You Write Your Novel

    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 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

    About the author

      C.S. Lakin

      C. S. Lakin is a writing coach, copyeditor, award-winning blogger at Live Write Thrive and novelist of thirty fiction and nonfiction books. Her Writer's Toolbox series helps novelists master the craft of fiction writing. Want to nail your genre to ensure the best path to success with your novels? Get HALF OFF Lakin's popular Targeting Genre for Big Sales online video course by clicking THIS LINK (good until the end of 2018).

    • The setting thing really resonates with me! I know some people naturally include it, but I often find inrevision that I’ve written scores of scenes that feature disembodied heads talking to each other who knows where.

    • I am a story teller who is aspiring to be a writer. My first Novel Shoot First Ask Questions Never was recently published and as I write Book 2 I find myself asking myself the purpose questions. What’s the purpose of this character at this point in this scene, what’s the purpose of this scene is it necessary to the flow of the book etc. I talk to myself a lot now a days haaaaaaaaa.. thank you for this site….Moon

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    • Some sound advice. I enjoy the help you dish out.

      You go girl. Where were you when I started my first novel?

    • What is the point of this scene? I never really thought about asking this question. But it’s excellent advice, thanks

    • Ian Miller says:

      There are exceptions to rules. The “Where” – rule 1 – may be one. In my book “Troubles” I left the location completely out at the macro level, other than it had to be somewhere near a coast, because I wanted to give the impression that the setting was generic, i.e., this was happening many times, all over the planet. However, it is important to ensure that each scene makes sense in terms of a location in the frame of reference of the other scenes. If you do not have a real location to fall back on, it helps to draw a fictional map before you start writing.

    • It is almost like writing a scene and entering the details before that. On a deeper look, writing a novel is more like writing a screenplay, just that in a novel, a third person (that is, you) relates the story. Very nice article! Since I am already looking to write something on my own, it will be of great help to me. Thanks. – Ron.

    • Christina North says:

      This is wonderful! The truth is, these are the questions my editor asked me. And they are also the questions that when answered, gave my character’s thier fictional souls.

    • Useful questions to keep in mind. I always make sure I get friends and family (as well as an editor), to look over my novel, as they often finds things that I know the answer too, but forgot to include in the novel. I find it worth having a few people do this, as different people focus on different parts of the story.

    • I think for me, the question which drives all of my scenes is “How does this scene work?” It isn’t enough for me just to know the particulars, but what avenues those particulars are taking through the twisting confines of my narrative and off the page to my reader’s perception. Is the perspective shifting in this scene? Who is telling the story and why? What do I gain by shifting to the dog’s POV, as say the masters? What else is possible because of those choices?

      Great tips! Questions are a vital part of writing, I’d say the most vital.

    • Bob Storck says:

      I edit and do glossaries and indexes for historical accounts, and while episodic accounts have a natural flow, that’s no excuse for turgid writing. I encourage first time writers to rearrange their accounts, a trick that I learned to develop a more interesting flow.

      I often do that with my fictional accounts, just to test them out and find holes in the story telling.

      I work hard on managing tension and an interesting story flow, interspersing characters and sub plots as needed. I do get concerned that my characters get somewhat type cast, and want to build a better variety. I’d appreciate help and guidance in developing better dialogue.

      Cheers, Bob

    • Colin Hayvice says:

      Thank you for these words of wisdom. I am in the final editing stage of my Children’s Novel and in the last chapter I see I have some what I now can call page filling prose which doesn’t add anything to the plot or even support it in any way. So even though it is around 800 words I will delete it. (that will hurt my pride as it probably took me quite a few hours of creative and frustrating time)
      Thanks again Colin

    • Hi,
      I think the main area of Conflict in the story is of primary importance for the writer to focus on while constructing the novel. What is the moment or nature of conflict in the story?
      Thanks for this great article.

    • Superb. Thank a lot for taking the time. I’ll return back to see what’s new and tell my friends about this site.

    • Boyd Lemon says:

      Susanne: This is an excellent article. I have written and published 7 books, but I am in the beginning states of my first novel, and this is so helpful. Thank you.

      Boyd Lemon-Author of Retirement: A Memoir and Guide; Eat, Walk, Write: An American Senior’s Year of Adventure in Paris and Tuscany; Digging Deep: A Writer Uncovers His Marriages; and 4 other books. Information, reviews and excerpts: http://www.BoydLemon-Writer.com. Amazon Author Page: http://www.Amazon.com/author/boydlemon

    • Nila says:

      I’ve learned something like this from my professor in college, but I’ve forgotten most of it already. Thank you for this refresher. I will bookmark your article so I won’t forget anymore.

    • Thank you for putting this all so succinctly. I especially like the stages you define regarding feelings— “First viscerally, then emotionally, then physically and finally, intellectually” — although I might interchange the ones in the middle on occasion. You have a new follower and I will check out your other links :–) —Ceejae Devine

    • I’m glad someone sent me this. I’m going to nail them to my screen!

    • Beth Havey says:

      Sometimes as we write we get carried away. We know stuff in our heads but are we actually putting it on the page? The reader doesn’t need to know the end of the trail we are on, but he or she certainly needs signposts along the way. THANKS for this post.

    • Jevon says:

      Great questions. I also ask what is the point of this character. If a character does not help to drive the story forward, or has no point, then the story would probably do better without him.

    • Brenda says:

      Timely post. I need to review one of these as I edit. I’ll keep an eye on the others, but I believe I nailed them. Good advice. Thanks!

    • I always go back and ask if the dialogue really matches my character, the scene, and situation. I’ve watched many a movie and read many a book where a character makes some off-hand comment while the world is exploding around him. It works for Bruce Willis, but most of the time it just sounds ridiculous.

    • John Ryan says:

      Do you have advice for those who specialize in writing poetry ?

      • I don’t! Poetry stretches across such a diverse landscape that there really are no structural rules that apply across the board. But maybe for your own style of poetry you could come up with some questions that would help you refine your ideas.

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