The Question Mark Is Shaped Like A Hook: Question-Driven Plotting

I’m about to blow your mind.

I’m about to bake your lasagna.

I’m about to tweak your mind-nipples until the milk of enlightenment sprays you in the eye and eradicates all illusion, which is pretty much exactly what happened to Saul on the Road to Damascus, if I read my Bible correctly (which is to say, while drunk at 3 AM). You ready?

Are you?

Really?

Here comes the boom:

CAT BEARDS.

*waits for applause*

*checks notes*

Wait, that wasn’t it.

Shit shit shit shit.

All right. Let me compose myself.

Okay, here we go again.

I gift unto you: A BRAND NEW WAY OF PLOTTING, PLANNING, AND SCHEMING YOUR STORY.

*thundering timpani drums*

In storytelling, you have all these disparate components. Over here are the characters. Over there is theme. Plot is everywhere. You’ve got mood and pacing and POV and so on and so forth. Ah, but what if I told you that instead of sitting down and deciding all of these separately — taking copious notes and making head-asploding outlines — you could instead sit down and create a single organic document that addressed all of these things and it addressed them using the same technique, which is to say, by asking questions and sometimes answering them?

In this theory, everything cleaves toward mystery.

Mystery is a genre, but it’s also a subtextual element that drives every great story. Every unanswered question is the rung of a ladder; every question mark is a bread crumb in a very long trail winding through the dark forest of the narrative. This is why we withhold information in stories: readers (and writers, who should also be readers) seek answers big and small. They want to know about all the big cosmic shit and all the little fiddly bits, too.

The question mark looks like a hook for a reason.

Readers are driven by the need to know. They are hooked. Compelled. Dragged toward the tale.

Which means you have a new way of charting your story: you can identify those questions that will drive both you the writer (thus preserving that sense of magic and mystery that compels us as storytellers) and the reader swept away by a great narrative.

And that’s what we want: for all of us to be swept away by the story.

Now, I admit I’ve maybe oversold this a little bit: this is by no means some great revolution in outlining, but it hopefully ends up as an interesting way to dissect any story you hope to tell. Let’s take a look at the whole process and what it means for your story.

Not An Outline, Exactly

In plotting your story it’s not about “Plot Point A to B to F to R to X” (note that this spells: ABFRX, name of the LORD OF MIDNIGHT CUPCAKE BINGES).

An outline tends to be “Here’s what happens, then what happens next, now the ending.”

Except, y’know, pages of that.

This isn’t that.

This is you taking a notebook or a Word doc or a Scrivener file or your own little weird-ass Voynich Manuscript and filling it with questions and answers. Answers that often lead to new questions. It’s not an effort to help you have the plot-ducks all arranged in a tidy little row (the duck poop alone ensures it will not be truly tidy), but rather, an effort to help you know so very much about your story, the characters, and the conflicts that when writing the manuscript you’ll never be far from figuring out where to go next.

This may actually help you diminish that dreaded goblin, writer’s block.

(A note on writer’s block: I find that writer’s block, that mythical demon, can come from a place where you’re not confident or knowledgeable enough about your own material. I don’t mean knowledgeable enough in the research sense, but in the “I intimately know these characters, their problems, and their secrets” way. Sometimes writer’s block is simply a case of not knowing where to jump to next. So: try this Q&A thing. See if it flies.)

Character Questions

These are questions you might ask about individual characters related only to those characters. And, by the way, the reason I put this first before anything else is because to my mind, a story is nothing without its characters. We ride them, piggy-back, through the tale.

You might say, “Ah, but isn’t plot first?” Yeah, no. Plot is either a thing you see built out of a series of characters pushing and pulling against each other and against the world via a series of desires and fears or it’s a thing that you the storyteller lay externally over the proceeding. As I’ve noted many-a-time, the former is like the bones inside a skeleton (hidden but animating), while the latter is like bones duct-taped to a boneless body (obvious and mechanical). Plot is not a thing for you to slot characters into; it is the thing created as a result of their words and actions.

Put differently, characters are not wandering through a maze of your creation.

Characters are creating the maze as they go. Each path born of a decision made.

That’s not to say we cannot have event-driven moments in a story; certainly the storyteller’s job is to sometimes challenge the characters with external tests. But those events should always reflect the character’s choices and the story’s themes in some way, otherwise you’re basically just writing the plot of an early Atari-era video game (YOU’RE FLOATING ALONG EATING DOTS AND OH SHIT NOW THERE ARE GHOSTS TRYING TO FUCK UP YOUR SHIT NO I DON’T KNOW WHY SHIT JUST HAPPENS, MAN, WHATEVER JEEZ, ARE WE ENTERTAINED?).

So, if we are to assume that Plot is Soylent Green (it’s made out of people), then our stories are best-served by us talking to and asking about our characters first.

Character questions might look like the obvious and expected:

What does she want? What is she afraid of?

But we can get deeper, too. More specific. Answers we find are likely to lead to more questions (and I am wary of answers that don’t), which is awesome.

Why does she hate her mother? Why as an adult does she carry around that stuffed rabbit? Where did she get that pistol? Why is she obsessed with that orangutan? Where are her pants?

We ask the questions that interest us.

We ask the questions whose answers yield new questions.

Be sure to ask questions related to your protagonist, antagonist, and supporting characters.

On The Subject Of Killing Snakes

For you, the author, there exists value in asking as many questions as you can — letting those motherfuckers come fast and furious, each punctuated with a Scooby Doo ruhhhh? But it’s important to know the value too in limiting the questions that reach readers.

This is the problem of “letting more snakes out of the bag than you’re able to kill.”

Questions are good, as noted. They keep a reader reading. But they can also overwhelm. Every unanswered variable is a hole, and too many holes means the reader is going to break their poor foot in all that broken ground. A few big questions and twice as many little questions are always good to keep juggling at any given time; any more than that you threaten to confuse the reader and leave them thinking you don’t know your plot from your pee-hole.

So: ask yourself lots of questions.

But make sure the reader isn’t left bewildered by them.

Relationship Questions

From asking individual character questions we can then move to the relationship questions — we want to take the questions and answers we’ve drummed up for particular characters and find those links between those individuals. How they fit together. How they dwell in shared emotional space. What conflicts are common between them — and what stakes they share, too.

Does Eddie love Jenny? Does she know about his betrayal? Does he know about her orangutan? Why does the orangutan want revenge on Pim-Pim the giant panda? Why did Pim-Pim kill that meth dealer in Fresno? And on and on.

The questions we ask and the answers we get are like the rungs of a ladder. As noted earlier: we use this sense of mystery climb through the story.

These questions further allow us to climb through the characters of the story. We wind through their hearts and minds, through the tangled skeins of love and hate, through all the betrayals and desires and uncertainties and fears and orangutans and pandas.

We want questions that stir up conflict and drama.

We do not want to quash conflict and drama.

Plotty Questions

As suggested, I believe the best plots occur by the hands of the characters, not by the hands of the storyteller. As such, a lot of plot questions might seem answered (or answerable) while looking closer at characters, but here it’s at least worth considering the mechanics of what the characters intend. The schemes of the terrorists in DIE HARD — or the on-the-fly attempts of John McClane to undo their schemes — have to actually work in the eyes of the audience. (Complaint: too many Big Budget Films nowadays conjure plots that don’t have plotholes so much as they have plotcaverns that common sense falls into, shattering its sad body into a thousand bony bits.)

You ask questions and create answers that help you to understand the mechanics. Imagine dissecting a heist this way. Okay, so, they want the jewels. Why? What are they going to do with the jewels once they have them? How will they break into the museum? What tools will they need? Will Emmett and Pike put aside their differences? What if they don’t? What if the jewels are moved? What happens when the guards show up? And so on, so forth.

What if? is always a great question to ask.

As is why?

Also worth asking the simple questions of either therefore? or but?

Great quote from the South Park guys, Matt and Trey, on storytelling:

“We found out this really simple rule… we can take… the beats of your outline, and if the words “and then’ belong between those beats, you’re f**ked, basically. You’ve got something pretty boring. What should happen between every beat you’ve written down is the word ‘therefore’ or ‘but.’

“So you come up with an idea and it’s like ‘this happens… and then, this happens.’ No, no, no! It should be ‘this happens… and therefore, this happens.’ [or] ‘this happens… but this happens.'”

Think about logic. Consequence. Clarity. Simplicity. Elegance.

Ask questions that lead you toward these things, not away from them.

Worldbuilding Questions

This is a rabbit hole, admittedly — one where the rabbit’s about the size of a Cadillac Escalade. You start asking questions about the world, you can fill an actual book with the answers and follow-up questions. And maybe that’s okay — if what helps you get to the novel is first writing 300 pages of a WORLD BIBLE, hey, whatever makes your grapefruit squirt. But if you want to control that, then the Q&A should be focused solely on things that seem to matter to the characters and their experiences, not digressions that seem out of pocket for the tale you’re hoping to tell.

Regardless, questions in the worldbuilding vein can go toward… well, anything in the world. Religion. Plant life. Sexual customs. Food. Politics. Architecture. The religiously architectural sexual customs of plant life at political dinners. And so on, so forth.

Again, the goal here is to create a deeper knowledge base and confidence when telling stories in this particular world — it’s not about chasing down every side dish or religious hymn.

(See earlier note: “on the subject of killing snakes.”)

Thematic Questions

Theme: the argument your work is trying to make.

More succinctly: what the fuck are you trying to say with your story?

That can be question number one, but other questions might follow after: What does the scene in Dubai say? What does the interaction between Thrax and Dongweather tell us? Who best represents the argument I’m trying to make in terms of characters? What does it all mean, man? Where are my pants? WHO PUT THIS CATBEARD ON ME.

May have gotten carried away there, but I think you get my drift.

Point is: ask questions that help you dissect the core ideas behind your story.

Do they stand up? How are they represented? Are you really saying something else?

Other Lines Of Inquiry

Mood questions. Metaphysical questions. Big story questions versus little story questions. Subplot (B-Plot, C-Plot, Z-Plot). Questions about sequels and backstories.

Lots of options. Lots of avenues to explore.

Find those that are critical to enhance your understanding your own story before you write it.

Ask. Then answer.

Look At It Another Way

Think of it like this: this is a Q&A where you’re interviewing yourself about the story. Or hell, maybe it’s an interrogation — you demanding the best of yourself, sniffing out plotholes, motivations, problems, conflicts, a bona fide dramahound on the case for good story. This is less about a cold, inert outline and more about a dynamic, flowing document that peels back the skin of the tale you want to tell one layer at a time.

Curious to see if anyone tries this, and how it works for them.

Drop your thoughts in the comments below.

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