Before You Start Writing, Ask: “What Is This About?”

I’ve talked about it in the past, but it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that one of the most important questions you need to ask (and then answer) about your story is, “What the hell is this about?”

I’m over here planning the novel (brief update: I’ve moved onto throwing together the loose structure of the thing, and I’ll talk about that next time), and first thing out of the gate I did was start planning out my characters. More specifically, I named them and then mind-mapped the ass out of them, because that gives me a good visual way of envisioning the characters together (and it’s fun! like playing with crayons! and drawing on somebody else’s wall!). For me, it felt most important to understand who these characters were and why I wanted to tell their story. That’s really a big part of planning for me — figuring out, hey, what do I like about this? What draws me into it? What’s my hook? In fact, the more hooks I get into the material, the more I’m likely to love writing it (and finding that the writing process is on par with reading a good book).

I had not, however, answered the question, “What is this about?”

And that’s okay. I don’t think you necessarily need to make it your first question.

But I think you damn sure better ask it before you start writing.

See, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum: as I mind-mapped the characters, I stumbled over the answer to that question: “What is this book about?”

Suddenly, I had that figured out. The characters emerged and grabbed me by the short and curlies and curb-stomped my dumb face with the truth. They told me what the book was about. (And yes, I realize that the reality is, I told me what the book was about. We pretend that our characters have all these special little lives, that they operate unbidden, but the truth is, the characters are always the writer. Some by few steps, some by many, but what the characters say and what the characters do is what you told them to do.)

Answering this question was for me a kind of revelation.

Why? What makes that question so juicy? So taste-a-licious? So… epiphanic?

The Epiphany Of The Revelation Of The Apocalypse Of The Answer Of St. Wendigslaus The Beard Of Wordlantis

Answering that question is going to do a handful of things for you and the writing of your newly-minted work-in-motherfucking-progress:

First, it’s going to tell you why you’re writing it. Every writer has something he wants to say. Something he believes in. This might be that. It might be some lesser thing than that. Either way, it’s something that interests you. Or, better still, it’s something that compels you. Maybe even a question that haunts you. Oh, that means this isn’t a clinical exercise. I’ll talk a little more about that below, but don’t let this be a dispassionate thing. You have to care about this question and, more importantly, care about the answer.

Second, it’s going to bind disparate elements together. Putting a story together isn’t just about writing it. I used to think it was, but I’ve since learned differently — it’s a kind of architecture, a barn-raising in the deepest pastures of your imagination. Bricks are just bricks, though, until you slap those sumbitches together with a little mortar, and the answer to this question is that mortar. It’s like Yoda says about the Force: “It binds us, it glues bricks together, it tickles our balls and gets us really high and dude.” I think that’s what Yoda said. I’m pretty sure that was it. Anyway. Point is, the web, the structure, the whole recipe comes together when you have this answer. You can look at the whole picture, nod, and just say, “Ohhhh.”

Third, it tells you how to jump. Listen, you can’t plan every step of a novel. As you’ll see when I get into structure, I don’t intend to beat this thing out page by page before writing it. So, between the plot points and important character moments and all that shit, you’ve got the Wild West. You’ve got the long stretch of Pine Barrens before you get to the Jersey Shore. You’re walking the dark side of the moon. And so you need a thread to follow. The answer to this question is that thread. You encounter lots of moments during writing where you have choices. Limitless choices. What does this character do here? What does she say? How’s this play out? Hold that answer in your hand. What is this story about? Use that to gauge what happens next. Armed with that answer, you’ll know.

The Vagaries Of Answering This Question

What is it about?

It might be an easy question. It might be hard.

When do you ask it, and when do you answer it? You ask it in the beginning. From day one. Put the question out there. You don’t need to address it. Not yet. It’s like a Komodo dragon. You loose it into the room, and as you write, that thing’s going to start stalking you. And those things have like, demon spit or some shit, so you know you don’t want him to bite you because that devil-sputum is some slow-acting evil. He’ll nip at your heel and that stuff will work its way through your body and as you write you’ll start to slow down and slow down and sloooow dooooown and things will start to feel mushy and the story will become this hazy shape with uncertain borders. The hazier that story gets, the harder it is.

What I’m saying is, you put the question out there. But then it’s a ticking clock. Before you actually start putting fingers to keys, my belief is, you better have an answer to that question.

In this latest novel, the answer only emerged once I started talking about the characters. I put the characters together in a mind-map, and as I juggled the bubbles and added or pruned information, I saw a pattern emerge. The pattern was there from the beginning, mind you; the only thing that’s new was my awareness of it. In that pattern waited the answer to what is this about?

I didn’t have to reach far for it.

You should never have to reach far for it.

Don’t force it. Put the pieces out there.

Really, it’s a conversation. A conversation with yourself (or with your loved ones if they’ll have you) (though, you could always take a hostage!) (okay, please don’t take a hostage) (and if you do, don’t blame it on me) (one day this website is going to get me into some deep shiznit) (these parentheticals are really addictive. once you start, you want to just keep going and going and you don’t know how to stop and SWEET BLISS I’m so high on parentheses I inject them straight into my eye sphincters OH GOD)

Okay, I’m better now.

What is this about? A question. A conversation.

The conversation is like… loosening the scree.

It’s story archaeology. You’re uncovering the answer that’s already in there. Brushing away the dirt with your mental toothbrush. Exposing the bones inch by inch until you have your answer.

You might feel pressure to make this answer conform to some… I dunno, some literary technique or some lofty notion. Fuck that. The question and subsequent answer of, “What is this about?” has no rules. It’s for you, not for the literary critics. Is it your theme? Maybe. If you need it to be. Really, all it is is your reason to write this thing. It’s what interests you. No, that’s too flimsy: it’s what drives you to write this.

The answer can be a couple words, or it can be a whole damn paragraph. As long as you get it? Who gives a shit? You’re not selling this to anybody but yourself. (Though eventually you’ll have to sell it to someone else when you write the query letter or pitch it. And this is another great reason to have this answer in mind, even if unrefined. Some day, someone is going to ask it. Be ready to answer it.)

“This is about how you can’t escape your past.”

“This is about just how fucked up people can be.”

“This is about how the education system fails its kids by adhering to antiquated ideals and stats that don’t mean anything and notions of ‘learning’ that remain separate from notions of ‘humanity.’”

“This is about the coming of age of MONKEY SQUID DEATH WOMBAT. Raaaaar!”

Whatever it is, answer it.

If you don’t love the answer, and that answer doesn’t get you all jizzity-jazzed about the process of writing this thing, then fuck it, that’s not your answer. The answer needs to engage you. It needs to excite you. It needs to give you purpose and be the lash on your ass-cheeks to spur you forward.

27 comments

  • So, I think this is one of the best posts you’ve ever written. Something about it was really engaging.

    I don’t have a lot of thoughts and stuff to share or add (it’s hard to be funny without coffee), but I’ll try to get back later when my brain has woke up.

  • One of the lucky things about adapting Clockworks from the home game, is I could let the “So, what’s this about, really?” develop naturally in the game, without forcing it down my players’ throats. Then, now that the game is almost over and I have several years of comic left, I can start focusing on the big themes of what the story is about. I lucked out in that I didn’t have to figure out ahead of time what the story was about, or figure it out as I was going.

    (For the record, if I had to say what Clockworks is about, I’d say it’s about bad decisions.)

    • @Shawn:

      It’s why I advocate getting the question out before you start writing. Writing without an answer to that question ends up a couple ways in my experience: you either muddle your way through and in writing expose the answer which means you have to go back and rewrite to refocus, or you find yourself lost somewhere in the middle. In the middle, you grow uncertain as to what you’re even doing out here in the fog.

      The home game is, for you, a kind of planning stage — and I totally think that’s bad-ass.

      – c.

  • I like to compare it to making a movie based on a book. You have to figure out what to keep, what to change based on the medium, what to focus on, how things should play out, etc etc. The advantage I have over someone making a film based on their own book is that really only a half dozen people know how things went down the first time, so I can’t piss off the fanbase. ;)

  • Well, that explains this sort of woozy, fuzzy feeling I’m having, and why that lizard in the corner is staring at me like it’s waiting for me to fall over.

    Guess I should look into an antidote for that. Now that I have characters and exposition mostly squared away, I need to make sure I’ve got a strong theme, and when I’m asked what it’s about, I don’t automatically launch into a plot synopsis.

    Fantastic post.

  • Like Rick said, this is one of your best posts. A well worded boot to the butt that entertains and educates. Speaking of -epiphanic-, you just slapped me with what was wrong with my current work in progress (that I was too dumb to see until now).

    A hearty thank you. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a question to ask and some puzzle pieces to rearrange.

  • You know we go about thing differently, Chuck — I’m still over in Mammon land winging it. But it is an interesting question — and it is one of the things that keeps me writing, trying to figure out what it’s about. I guess for you, what it’s about is a destination — it’s a place you have to know is there in order to chart your course. For me, the entire novel is terra incognito, and what it’s about is this cool surprise that’s revealed in bits and pieces along the way. I know more now than when I started, but I can’t answer that question yet, not entirely. For me, part of the process and part of the fun.

    So which of us is ying and which of us is yang?

    Dan

    • @Herr Doktor Daniel:

      To a degree, yes, you’re right — but I’m less concerned about the destination of the novel and more concerned about the, erm, “meta-destination,” which is to say the end result, which is to say the thing that goes to Stacia or an editor or ends up in the hands of readers. I’m still fascinated in the journey, but to me the journey isn’t, “Wander in the desert for three months and hope my meanderings ends up in a novel.” The journey is more, “I plan the journey from the get-go, and see how far the map gets me.” The map still takes me through a lot of HERE THERE BE DRAGONS areas of the map, but I personally need threads to feel my way through those dark places. Things like this post today are the things that help me find my way in the dark.

      Is just stepping off on a blank page fun?

      It is. It’s more fun.

      It’s more fun until I start to reap the results. It’s more fun until I stop in the middle, confused. It’s more fun until I realize that the writing is unfocused, that the story isn’t there to bolster the plot, that the characters don’t have a backbone. It’s more fun until I get to the end and realize, wow, if only I’d actually… thought this out, I wouldn’t have to go back and rewrite this from the beginning.

      There came a time — and clearly, your mileage can and perhaps should vary on this — when I realized that the “in-the-moment” enjoyment had to give way to a greater satisfaction over what I accomplish rather than the improvisational bliss of the day-to-day. Or, put differently, what was fun for me was not going to be a fun for the readers because ultimately I was churning out an inferior story — or, I was taking way too long to muddle through the middle to hack my way to the superior story.

      – c.

  • Great post Chuck.

    I don’t think the question haunting you is a “maybe.” A writer should need to tell a particular story. Need not want. With the countless hours we spend working on these novels, anything less than need is a poorly compensated waste.

    • I should make note that this whole issue really manifested itself clearly during the Sundance Lab. Seeing how the pros do it, and having them all ask us the question, “Well, what is this about?” really forced us to address some issues with the script.

      And those issues were, we mostly just ran with it. Let’s just write it! Let’s just get it on paper!

      The false assumption being that the “getting it on paper” is the hard part. Or, rather, that it’s the entire picture.

      It’s not. Writing is more than just writing. Writing is storytelling, and storytelling is not a simple machine. It’s a device with many moving parts. And it helps me to conceive of those parts in the beginning and ask, “What does it all mean? Why do I even want to do this? What is this about? At its core? Why do I care?”

      So, when we got on the phone yesterday to talk about the next project to which we’ll jump the very first question we addressed was, “What is this about?” What are we trying to say, or accomplish, or what about this is interesting to us? This (a film/TV project, potentially) was something we’d bandied about for a long time and couldn’t really find focus with, but then as soon as we asked and answered that question, it was like the goddamn clouds parted. Suddenly, pieces just started falling into place. “Oh this, then this, then that, oh, and this will totally work, and what if this, and what if that?”

      See, back to @Dan’s thing — I don’t think the planning of a journey reduces the impact of taking that journey. I used to feel that way. I used to think that outlining and planning somehow… stole the thunder from the work, that it removed what I really liked about the project. Turns out, that wasn’t true. It doesn’t steal the thunder. It gives it greater resonance: a louder boom. The journey is still there. The journey is in the planning and the “what ifs,” but it’s still in the day-to-day writing, too. Putting words on a page, even when you’re following a map, is still exciting. It’s still an uncharted territory because no story can be truly charted until it’s done — like, last draft done, like, on the shelves done.

      That’s the only destination that matters to me. The one where it’s in people’s hands.

      I should also make note (since I’m apparently writing a second blog post right here in the damn comments) that especially in genre fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, crime), having the pieces come together really matters. I’ve read or seen works where it just doesn’t come together, where it feels like… people were fumbling their way through it, and it works for a while but the last act is almost universally unsatisfying. Feels forced or unconfident or downright inconclusive. I don’t want that for the things I write. I’ve been there, done that, and it was awesome in the writing, and terrible in the end execution.

      – c.

  • Yeah, but…

    I always have the answer to this question in mind when I start, but realize as I begin the second draft the book isn’t about that at all (or is, but only peripherally), but it’s really about this, which kind of crept up on me while I was writing the first draft.

    Kind of like the old, “Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.” I could go back and force the story to be what the original plan was, but I almost always like subliminally conceived Plan B better.

    • @Dana:

      Oh, hell, nothing wrong with that. In fact, the way you start is rarely the way you finish, but I find it gives you focus in the beginning, even if the beast shows a different face by the end of it.

      Good stuff.

      And, again, I should note: everybody’s way is different. I just know this is something I struggle with, so I am left to assume that someone else struggles with the same.

      – c.

  • I actually answered that question yesterday when outlining the main character of my new story using your mindmap technique (I’m not that good at it, but I did get to sketch out tiny icons, so it’s all good) and then I realised that I have to, HAVE TO write this thing.

    I also realised that when I do, somebody is going to come out and say “oh, so lesbians would be better off turning into men? Is that what you’re saying, huh? HUH, mister heteronormative maximalist structuralist? I’m talking to you!” and then I am going to start walking away really fast and nervous like.

    Still, that’s why the question is good: it will allow me to stick what is really important and thus make the characters strong enough as to not look like orientation stand-ins that I am criticising.

    Maybe you can later post about how to make your characters not look sexist/racist/-ist?

    • Maybe you can later post about how to make your characters not look sexist/racist/-ist?

      Woo, not sure I can speak to that one. It’s a tricky line. Characters are characters, and certainly don’t have to all be good guys, but every character in some way needs to connect with the audience, especially if they’re protags.

      Tricky business, that.

      – c.

  • Chuck and I can go back and forth on this forever, and what it comes down to, I think, is the individual writer and what works for them. Chuck tried the writing as he went thing and got unsatisfactory results, so he tried the planned/outlined approach, and that works for him. Other way around for me. I’ve tried planning and not only didn’t it work, I always ended up abandoning the plan anyway. So I tried winging it, and that worked for the novel that got me an agent, it worked through an overhaul of that, and it’s working so far for my WIP.

    But I did ask myself Chuck’s question. What is this about? And it turns out I do know the answer. If I had to sum it up for my WIP, it would be this. The past doesn’t die. You have to kill it. So maybe I do have a plan, subconciously, and maybe writing is how I unearth it.

    All I know is, the more I think about the process, the more I screw up the execution. So I don’t think about it anymore.

    • All I know is, the more I think about the process, the more I screw up the execution. So I don’t think about it anymore.

      That’s some real Zen shiznit, Dan. Good stuff.

      Yeah, this is definitely down to the author. Never one way to do things. Possible that, one day, I’ll go back to doing it this way — after planning it so many times, I might get a better instinct for that kind of writing process — or, rather, lack of process.

      – c.

  • This is a great post but often leaves me confused on the value of theme versus plot.

    I’ve read many different opinions. Some writers/agents/editors/whoever advise to answer with the theme of your novel when asked “what’s this about?” Others, especially a lot of agent blogs I read, just want to know the plot. What’s the story?

    So which is more important? Perhaps it varies by what you’re writing.

    • @Michelle —

      This post is really meant to be a personal question. An agent or editor asks you that, I’d beg of them a half-second’s worth of clarity — “You mean, the story? Or the theme?” — and go from there. (Also, this post isn’t necessarily about theme, though theme is one way you can answer this question.)

      As to which is more important… well, important for whom? The story is paramount, the story is most important, at least for me. And I think for most. This question is subordinate to story and is intended to clarify your direction and purpose on that story.

      (Also, for me there’s the issue of conflating plot and story. Plot is a literal sequence of events. Story is a deeper, broader thing.)

      – c.

  • That’s what I always thought as well. I focus on my story and find that theme creeps in very quietly. Trying to focus on theme makes me feel like an pretentious ass.

    The story is what drives me and keeps me interested in my own writing as well as what I read.

  • Paul Schrader used to ask would be screenwriters what he called The Question (though it was really two questions).

    -Why do you *have* to write this?

    -What do you *really want* to *write about*?

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