Interrogate the Story

Interrogate the Story

I’m currently redoing my WIP’s outline once again, which means that I’m also busy filling in worldbuilding holes, catching up on overdue character development, and creating timeline spreadsheets. But I’ve realized that a lot of the process is actually polishing my original ideas. For instance, one of my protagonist’s jobs is tutoring her teenage cousin. This detail plays an important part in later events, but the original reasons I had for why my protagonist tutors her cousin were not as strong as they could have been. I only recognized those weak spots when I had to rework the chapter where the tutoring is first introduced due to an unrelated characterization change. The solution was also simple: all I needed to do was do a little worldbuilding about school systems (which I had neglected before) and a better reason emerged.

Realizing that I had overlooked a minor weakness in my WIP’s outline made me wonder, what other weaknesses were lurking in my WIP? And why do those weaknesses fly under the radar for so long? Perhaps I’m noticing these issues so early in the writing process because I outline extensively; finding errors in logic or missing story elements is usually associated with editing, not drafting, and certainly not pre-writing planning. Nevertheless I think the solution I discovered to the above question applies to any stage of story development: the weaknesses exist because I haven’t asked enough questions.

Allow me to explain with a metaphor. An English teacher of mine, when discussing stylistics, once said something to this effect—any given sentence has multiple ways to write it; some are very bad, some are just bad, some are fine but not great, some are good, and only a few are truly exceptional, and the goal of editing and honing a sentence is to make it exceptional. Going off of that, it’s easy to recognize the very bad sentences and usually easy to see the poor ones. Sometimes, we pick out the fine sentences and see how they could be improved. But it’s the good sentences that are hardest to polish because the flaws are less apparent. That’s how story ideas are—the worst explanations for, say, a character’s motivation are (usually) easy to spot, but the more nuanced issues that are still present in our average or even good ideas might never be spotted and thus fixed. But our goal, through editing and re-writing and planning and editing and re-writing, is to make our story as excellent as we can. Moving a story from good to great is the tricky part. That’s precisely the problem I had with the tutoring issue I described. The first idea I had was fine and even had some good things about it, which is why I didn’t realize it didn’t quite make sense until I had to change an adjacent event.

How does one detect and fix those subtle issues, then? By continuing to ask questions—or, as I like to call it, interrogating the story. The first step is recognizing that the first, second, even third idea is rarely if ever the best one—it may not be horrible, but it’s likely mediocre, an easy way out, or overly simplistic/convenient. When faced with a plot point, detail, or character that needs improvement, start asking questions: why does the city have such high taxes? Would this character really choose to leave on their journey because they loved justice so much, or do they need a different motivation?  What would happen if the crew couldn’t fix the engine in time? Does that create better conflict later on? Don’t stop with just one round of questioning either—question a single issue multiple times. For example:

Why does the city have such high taxes? The city needs to rebuild their architectural infrastructure.
Why do they need to rebuild their infrastructure? The city was bombed during a war.
Why was the city bombed during the war? The city produced most of the county’s military aircraft.
Who fought in the war? It was a conflict between [county] and the neighboring [country].
Why were they fighting a war? Both countries wanted the natural resources located in the mountains that separate them.
Does the city need those resources to rebuild its infrastructure? Yes, definitely.
Do they have access to those resources anymore? No, because they lost the war.

This is a poor example, but you can see how continuing to test the logic of your story choices can lead not only to finding mistakes but finding answers because you uncovered new worldbuilding details, character motivations, thematic parallels, or plot twist opportunities. Questions are the backbone of brainstorming as well as editing and can even be applied down to the smallest details of sentence structures and word choices (though, thank goodness, all those details don’t have to be considered until later). It is, I think, an intuitive part of the writing process, but it’s good to be reminded that interrogation can be used actively when we encounter story issues.

One last thought:

Pondering the story-polishing process and how to do it well also reminded me that often-separated parts of writing—outlining, drafting, editing—are all part of the same process and can’t truly be separated. Writing is less like the steps in a how-to-assemble manual and more like parts of an organism working together; you can analyze them separately, but they have to overlap and share in order for life to exist. If that’s the case, it’s not surprising that editing and outline might happen before drafting is finished, or that one might need to go through several drafts or outlines before the story nears completion. Writing is an art, after all.

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