31 May, 2014

Story Question


Recently on Facebook I commented that my new kitten is helping with my novel by eating the corners of my plot outline. A friend said that so long as he didn't eat the "main story question" I'd be okay.

He hasn't eaten any really vital plot points, and has perhaps helped put things into perspective a little bit. All the same, the phrase "story question" brought back memories.

I remember doing the Creative Writing Home Study Course, reading books like "The Creative Writing Course Book" and "Cracking the Short Story Market". I'm not knocking those books. That wouldn't be my place. But they certainly weren't for me. I remember reading, somewhere, about the "story question" and being annoyed, yet not really being able to articulate why. It just seemed pedestrian to me, like I was being told to think in a very shallow way. I thought I was probably wrong to feel that way, and that I needed to just shut up and learn.

The thing is, I was right. Hearing that friend, who's a ravenous absorber of books on writing, mention "story questions" brought the memories back. I remembered how the phrase angered me, and now, with hindsight, I can see why.

I hope she reads this, because I've offered her help in the past and, while she hasn't accepted my offer, I'd like to help her anyway.

The trouble is, what the hell does it mean? Nothing. That's what. My story isn't a question. It has a purpose, a road from beginning to end in which people, if I've done my job, change in interesting ways. But that's it. Good writing comes down to simple concepts. For instance:

POV. That means understanding whose story it is and why the reader should give a damn. 

Narrative Time. That means not boring the reader with crap that has nothing to do with the story. It also, in a more subtle way, means understanding pace, and being sympathetic (having a good "ear") to how your reader is feeling, when you need to speed up, heighten the emotions of your words, or chill out. Every good story will have such combinations, and if I've done my job, they'll be artful in mine.

Man I hope I've done my job.

POV and Narrative Time aren't necessarily the end of the road, and certainly aren't the only way of looking at things, but they are concepts worth thinking about.

Story "question" implies there's something my reader doesn't know, and I want to make them want to know it, and when they do, they'll be fulfilled. I can see that, but it's a purely intellectual response.  The reader does not sit there thinking, "If only I knew what the hell was going on, this would be GREAT! And for some reason I still want to know what's going on!" The reader is sitting there thinking, "Why should I give a shit?" Or, you've done your job, they're not thinking at all.  Their just following you on the journey. They'll think about what you've written later, or when they pause for a thoughtful look out the window. If you've done your job, they're absorbed. For the time being they're through thinking.

Most vitally, NOT EVERY STORY WILL HAVE A QUESTION OF ANY KIND! These charlatans who teach writing in terms of "story questions" are telling you not only that your story must have some element that the reader wants further revealed, but that it's the MAIN thing, among the most vital elements of your story. This is simply not the case, largely because it's a purely intellectual response. Those are great. I'm not knocking them, but it isn't why we read. What a story must attempt to garner in order to not be an academic essay is an EMOTIONAL RESPONSE. Books can make you think, but questions about the narrative are not what makes a good plot.

Questions come into it when the story has a mystery, and most stories will, at some point, have a mystery, but that's not the most important thing. Basically, if what the proponents of this way of looking at things are referring to is unanswered questions within the narrative, little mysteries and cliff-hangers, what the hell is a "Main" Story Question? They don't mean any of that stuff. That stuff would make sense, but it isn't what they mean.

But these people are also saying that Story Questions are one big difference between books that sell and books that don't. People who try to peddle those kinds of easy answers make me sick. Why? Because they're taking advantage of people's hopes and anxieties. Because I was an aspirant author. I know how frustrating it is trying to learn the craft. I'm still trying to learn the craft, and any artist worth their weight in goop would say the same.

What these people mean is plot. What's the "Main Plot Thread?" is what they're trying to say, but they're trying to simplify it into this WAY OF LOOKING AT THINGS that constitutes a  holy grail of narrative technique. Again, good writing comes down to simple concepts. That means there's no shortcut or buzzword that will make you understand. All that will help is an understanding of reader psychology, and that comes with patience. There's a plethora of writing advice on this blog. I did an MFA in Creative Writing and am thankful for every second I spent learning, and I've tried to share much of my experience. If you've noticed a general theme, it's that there are no shortcuts. What it boils down to is writing is something you have to teach yourself. A good teacher is, as with any subject worth studying at grad school, just a guide, and one who claims to have an easy answer is full of shit. 

Same goes for books on writing. If you're thinking of buying one, if you want my advice, have a quick gander at the contents and the back of the book. If the author tells you there's a series of steps that will take you from aspirant to best seller, or if they say that they've unlocked some kind of secret, or they guarantee all authors think about things "like this!" and if only you knew, or any of that crap, throw the book down and save your money.  If you already own it, build a camp fire.  Roast some marshmallows. Make yourself some new shelf space. Letting people tell you the solutions are simple will only hurt you in the end, as will agonising over the wrong things.

If you're looking for something to agonise over, ask yourself if you've written anything in the last week. If the answer is no, stop reading this stupid blog and start writing a story. Practise makes perfect.

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