Sunday Style: Question Everything

The last session I attended at the WOTS conference, Question Everything, was led by Seattle author, Jennie Shortridge. It was a fabulous session not only because of what I learned but because of the connection I made to this gifted author.

At the end of the session I told Jennie, “I hope I don’t become a stalker.” She assured me that if I was mentioning being a stalker, I wouldn’t be. Since then I’ve read all four of her published novels, friended her on Facebook and had the wonderful opportunity to interview her about her most recent release, When She Flew. (She might be reconsidering my stalking status!)

The basics behind this technique of asking questions is to question everything in your creation of a story. Question the characters, question yourself, question the narrator, question the place, the culture, the time to reveal more of the story to you as the writer. Jennie used this technique with her most recent novel, and it helped her uncover themes as well as to dig deeper into her characters.

Jennie designated four types of questions to ask your characters and yourself to reveal more of the story:

  1. Fact Finding: These are details you need to use in order to convince the reader that this character is real. Jennie’s example was if your main character is a plumber, you need to ask questions of that character so that you can reveal to the reader that he/she is really a plumber. Example: What kinds of wrenches does a plumber use?
  2. Emotional Depth: This is where you hook the reader with emotions. How would the character feel or act in this situation? Example: How do you feel about being a plumber? Why did you begin this work
  3. Relevance to the Human Condition: Get out of the personal and into the universal with this level of questions — what are you trying to convey by telling this story? Example: With whom or what does your loyalty lie?
  4. Metaphorical Revelation: This is where your subconscious comes into play and if you allow these questions to surface, you are able to more openly share your truth with readers. For example, Jennie’s most recent book captures a lot of metaphorical meaning around flight. She didn’t set out to put that metaphor in her work, but it came out through her writing process and through the asking of questions. Example: If you had to live alone for a month on a mountain, on the ocean or anywhere in a foreign country, where would you pick?

We broke into pairs mid-way through the session and interviewed our partner. We began by asking that person one question. I was partnered with a man named John who was probably in his sixties. I asked him a question, something about what was the most difficult thing he’d done in his life. It was a good start and I learned that I needed to keep digging to get to the full story. If I’d stopped with his first response I wouldn’t have learned nearly as much about him. That’s something to keep in mind when working with a character in a story or book as well.

I liked John’s first question for me, “What is your biggest secret that you don’t want anyone to hear?” I thought this would be a great place to start with the character in a novel. Some of the other questions that people shared after the activity were:

  • What makes you cry?
  • What haven’t I asked you that I should?
  • What makes you get out of bed?
  • Is there anything you believe that you wish you didn’t?
  • When did you fail? What did you learn?

I could go on — the list of questions you can ask your characters or yourself are endless. And, through this workshop I saw that questions as a writing tool are invaluable. Even if the question doesn’t directly link to a piece of writing, it will lead to greater depth in characters and in plot.

In January, I’ll be posting a Q&A with Jennie about writing and she’ll be dropping by Motherlogue to answer questions. Be sure to tune in for more details.

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4 Responses to Sunday Style: Question Everything

  1. Great post, Liz. I love to learn more ways to create and get to my know my characters and the Q&A is a favorite. I admire Jennie as an author also and look forward to her visit to your blog!

  2. Liz says:

    Thanks for stopping by, Mary Jo! Any great questions that you use for your characters?

  3. Tamara Kelly says:

    This was great. I interrogate some of my characters. So I can get the real answers. What are you afraid of ? Is a key question. Also if I’m stuck I have one character pull out a gun. I write down how the rest would react to it. It’s a great way to get to know them.

  4. Hooray! I love when two folks I like meet! Way to go, Liz.

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