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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46 comments

  • Timely. I am beginning a collaboration with an author whose crafting style is the antithesis of mine – I am a “well, I hope the characters tell me what the fuck is going on here, because I don’t fucking know,” and they are a “if I don’t know how this ends, I can’t write a word.”

    • LOL I hear ya. My characters own me too. I’m a slave. They cram stuff into my head and I pound the keyboard to relieve the pressure. Half the time I have no idea what’s going on. I think they might have me medicated, shackled to a desk somewhere out of the Matrix, generating more content in the form of fantasy novels *for* the Matrix to help keep the other humans subdued.

  • The Good: This article is insanely helpful.

    The Bad: Now I feel like my current novel needs to be completely reworked (not necessarily a bad thing, just…ARRRGGGHH!!! But at least this helped me realize a major flaw).

    The Revelation: I loved the part about the plot of a heist story…which made me realize why I usually hate most heist movies, but Inside Man is one of my favorites of all time. Most are just about trying to make obtain large amounts of money, but that story made you question everything about the how and why in relation to what the thieves were doing.

  • Excellent way of expanding the meager questions I have taped to my laptop, at this point (Who?, Why?, What if?, So then what?).
    As with 90% of the advice you write, I will try it. Absolutely nothing to loose.
    The other 10% – I don’t curse quite so much…
    Much respect!

  • This is kind of what I’ve done anyway. I start with a premise, some characters and maybe some things about that world that make it special. Then start asking questions. What I find difficult is deciding which of those questions I need to answer, and which I leave to tickle the testicles/ovaries/noneoftheabove of the reader.

    I’m not sure I’ve mastered that art yet, but once I started to look at things like this, I finished a first draft for the first time ever.

    I have a separate notebook full of questions for each story I’m working on, some utterly useless, but some very pertinent. I spend a lot of time on the train so I get some me-time to sit and mull them over. I think that’s another thing that people perhaps don’t realise: A lot of the writing is done in your head. You probably don’t even realise you’re doing it but I spend far too much of my day in these other worlds, tweaking and poking them. The questions help me guide that effort so I’m tending an ornamental garden, rather than trying to bonsai and entire Redwood forest.

  • I sort of work this way already, especially when I get a new shiny bouncing around in my brainpan, but this is a pretty concisely described methodology. It works well to get just enough down so that when I come back to a jotted down idea I’m not completely lost. I know motivations, I know personal details, and key points in the plot and world. It usually brings the original idea flooding back to get me writing on the next thing.

  • Great article! I use a similar premise I call the many roads path. After each scene, I list the unaswered questions so I don’t lose them and then go back and try to come up with every scenario that can happen after the scene I just wrote. All the buts and therefores. I try to exlore every path. Most will come to a dead end and some will be worth looking down. You end up with a tree with your main trunk as the story and these branches that may or may not have been fully explored. If you get into a situation where you are stuck on your next scene, then it becomes a dead end and you move up to another path and start again. You never know where it may lead.

  • Sir, you are a freaking genius. My normal plotting process just was not working for my new novella. I’ve started and deleted it at least a gajillion times. I blame the orangutan. But this question hook process produced what the other didn’t…something that makes sense. Thanks for blowing up the box so I could think outside it. You totally rock!

  • The way I do this, it’s integrated into the process.

    There’s usually a single file associated with a project that has all these sorts of questions, just one after another as I come up with them. Sometimes they have answers, and sometimes they don’t. And sometimes they’re followed by me screaming in all caps about something I then REALLY HAVE TO INCLUDE OMG EXCLAMATION MARK. It’s kind of a dump file, but it’s necessary to keep all my ideas together.

    And then, at the beginning of each Scrivener…doc? chapter? scene? (the smaller files for each section, whatever you want to call them) I put a bunch of these sorts of questions, and it gives me a more concise breakdown of the questions I want to raise and/or answer in that section. It helps me keep track of everything, and make sure I’m handling each question at the right time. Otherwise all the question-snakes fall on my head at the same time and it makes a right mess and I get confused because SNAKES.

    (I tend not to put it in with Document Notes because I like to sync Scrivener with Writeroom, and the .txt files don’t show the Document Notes. But I suppose if I didn’t do this, putting the questions in the Document Notes would be fine. How many times can I say Document Notes? Document Notes. Five.)

  • Questions. Hmm. Always knew there was something to them but never really put any thought into it. I just knew they were an important part of the process.

    As in, sometimes my characters do things that make me ask questions. Why does this guy go postal if someone calls him a liar? I don’t really know. So I put it aside. Then one day it comes to me, and whoa, I have another whole book to write.

    So yeah. Questions. It’s nice to have this explanation. Thanks.

  • I am not just bookmarking this– I am printing it out and tacking it up over my desk, because, 1. it’s really great, and 2). I am so old that I need a hard copy to really understand anything.

    Thanks.

  • All of the above post is exactly why Draft Two of my current novel-in-progress is taking so chuffin’ long! ;)

    Many thanks Chuck, for putting it all into proper, coherent sentences that *don’t* sound like an overwhelmed writer screaming at her computer whilst trying to cram medicinal-strength chocolate into her face (which is what the inside of my brain sounds like when it’s trying to figure all of this stuff out.) I shall be printing this out and referring to it when I make my daily pilgrimage to Draft-Two-Land.

    This is why re-writes are so hard! It’s all here, in blog-post form. I get it now – and I feel strangely much better for it. :)

  • There seem to be an inordinate amount of “Where are my pants?” questions here. Just saying.

    I love the wisdom of this post because it takes a simple process—asking questions—and applies it to a not-so-simple process (writing). I think too often we either get impatient with our own storylines because they aren’t headed where we want or we figure the story will “find its own way.” Sometimes it works out that way; sometimes the blind guy can make it across the busy intersection without ending up like Frogger, but you wouldn’t just stand by idly and watch this go down, right? You would intervene. And that’s probably what writers need to do more of: intervene on behalf of their stories. To use another crass metaphor, asking those questions is like providing therapy to someone who can’t figure out who the hell they are. Don’t do the therapy and you’re often just dealing with crazy talk—-your own.

    Love the quote from Stone and Parker. Those conjunctions and transitions keep the heart of the story pumping by keeping the plot moving in that sinusoidal pattern. Stuff like “and then” flatlines the story.

  • I have always thought about such questions, but only recently did I sit down and typed them out, and that seems to have helped clarify many things about the story I’m writing. It also clarified things for my co-author, because he’s more linear than I am — all those years of training in technical, just-the-facts writing — and doesn’t look for secondary plots and complications as much as I do. (You may think that collaborating on a novel with someone whose very DNA matches my own is easy, but NOOOO. We have very different ways of approaching a story, which can balance out, or it can cause all sorts of “traffic jams” in the writing process. Guess which one THIS had been.)

  • Oh, this is exactly how I tried to plot my last novel. In scapple I actually have three columns for my outline: 1. In the center are all the major plot beats; 2. to the right, I have the questions asked and/or answered in each section; and 3. to the left I have the character arc, what are they thinking, why did they just do that seemingly insane thing. Not that I’ve sold the damned thing, but it really helped me visualize rising stakes and making sure I didn’t have too many Chekhov’s guns dangling off the back of the book.

    Incidentally, “I’m about to tweak your mind-nipples until the milk of enlightenment sprays you in the eye and eradicates all illusion,” might be one of the most beautiful things ever written.

  • You just described my outlining process.. Or it WAS my outlining process. It’s not working on this current book, so I’m trying a more traditional thing. Although now I’m wondering if I’m not involving enough catbeards.

  • Crap. Now I will never be able to write “and then” again without soul-seeking, or at least minor guilt. This entry is spot-on, which means I have EVER SO MUCH more work to do…
    Thanks as always, Chuck.
    I think.

  • I see movie scenes in my head and I write them down. When I’m done seeing ready-made stuff, then I ask how these go together and write that. Then I look at my beat sheet and see what’s missing. Then I fill that in. I tried outlining before writing and after about 10 minutes of that was bored out of my mind. My brain refuses to play if it can’t have fun. Then I found this quote from E. L. Doctorow – “It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” And I thought “Good. There are two of us.” Now I do it my way.

  • I think Im’ma try this method out with my current WIP. My usual way of plotting – what you’ve outlined before as the “tentpole” method – is currently not working for me. I almost always start plotting with a very definite beginning, middle, and two to three major events (each one heralding a new “act” in the story) already in mind, and then fill in the plot around those game-changing moments. This is helpful for when I need to brainstorm how to keep the story moving with lower-level conflicts, mysteries, and revelations without it becoming either too episodic or stagnant.

    The problem with my WIP is that I have a glut of fun ideas to work with, but the story itself isn’t quite certain what it wants to be. (I think if I had any idea as to the genre I would be in better shape, because that would give me the the structure of genre conventions to play with. But it turns out that “Breaking Bad meets Twin Peaks only YA and set in the Texas border country” is kind of tricky to pin down, categorically speaking.) But there are several central Big Questions I’ve been butting my head up against in the course of outlining that I’ve been shying away from answering, always putting them off as things I’ll figure out once I have a better idea of where I’m going.

    Except, answering these questions are what will give my story a direction in the first place, because they are so important. Why Character A is initially attracted to Character B is actually a pretty big reveal. What’s in the briefcase Character C wants and who killed Character D are even bigger reveals. Figuring out what role the abandoned laboratory on the edge of town will play – creepy setting or actual plot point – helps me figure out if there’s a sci fi angle I’ve not yet considered.

    I think I haven’t answered these questions yet because I’m scared that once I do, I’ll be eliminating all these various possibilities I’ve had so much fun playing with. But you’ve made me realize that answering these central questions will give me more to work with, not less. Even if some of the ideas I had will have to be temporarily shelved, I should be getting lots of shiny, new ones to serve me in their stead, yes? Yes.

    Off to go do that now. Will resist the urge to start with ‘Question #1: Just what the hell is going on here?’

  • This was very helpful. I’m trying to start something new and feel as if my first attempt at a novel felt too orchestrated, like I was making things up instead of creating them, so I want to be more “in the moment” this time than plan-ny.

  • I specifically ask my beta readers to note their ‘why’, ‘huh?’ moments because these questions are not something I’ve asked myself (because some stupid monkey part of my brain has already pegged that apple as unimportant). But once those questions are put in front of me my mind starts galloping off to much better plot lines then I started with. I’m a problem solver at heart (must be that science degree) so questions make my writing better.

    While I write that like I’ve always known this, I haven’t. I never even REALISED this before until I made it through this post. Holy shit, this is how my brain works! And I never thought to actually USE this as a method to get my plot in the first place. This is how I’m going to do my plotting from now on, a whole manic sprawl across butchers paper with question marks EVERYWHERE.

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