Story Questions and Fiction

Two weeks ago, I completed the draft of a psychological thriller, word count 91,000.   I read through it, made some changes to the first eighteen chapters and was about to read it again when I decided to put the manuscript away for a while, as I realised I’m too close to the story to evaluate it properly. As I’m driven to write most evenings, I decided to start another novel and have done over 8,000 words since Monday.

In previous posts, I described some of the difficulties people face in novel writing (see  Driving Factors in Fiction, Different Camera Lenses: Viewpoint, Writer’s Block, Creative Writing Headaches ).  Normally, difficulties occur when there is a lack of structure.   Since I’m dealing with entirely fresh material this time rather than editing stuff I’ve already written,  I’m finding it much easier than before.  I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t put into the practice the writing tips I’ve posted on this blog, so here are a few of the things I’ve been doing to help the writing process:

  • Keeping a list of story question
  • Brainstorming
  • Circling in red ink sentences in the story summary that leap out
  • Working out the character driver questions – e.g. what does the character most want and what do they most fear?
  • Working on viewpoint character sources of inner conflicts

Like before, I’m rotating viewpoints, one per chapter.


Therapist Alone In a Cottage Overlooking the Sea

I’m having lot of fun working on this new novel, a psychological thriller told from the viewpoint of two characters – the psychotherapist who has no recollections of a recent murder that took place in her London flat and a childhood abduction that occurred twenty-three years earlier, and the therapist’s father (first person) who intends to clear her name. I’ve done just over five thousand words since Monday evening, but have yet to fully come to grips with the plot, which may be a lot more complicated than in the previous stories.  I’ve set the story on the English South Coast.

A New Novel

Not enough time has passed for me to make an objective decision on the novel draft I completed recently and I’m still waiting to hear back from an agent regarding my first novel, so I’ve begun a third, another psychological thriller.  I started last night and got about 2,600 words done in several hours. It’s a real challenge, but I feel the techniques I’ve described here are really helping.

Scribbling and Brainstorming

As I’ve said many times on this blog, most writers struggle with writer’s block at some point in their writing.  Sometimes, the problem shifts in a day or two.  At other times, the writer is forced to go back through the manuscript and see where they have gone wrong.  A bit like a motorist retracing a route to see what wrong turning they took. 

Elsewhere, I’ve posted on the factors that drive stories forward and the importance of keeping lists of story questions, along with a brief discussion on types of viewpoint and how the choice of VP might effect story telling.   In some of the recent revision and editing, I’ve relied heavily on lists of scribbled notes of story questions, particularly as I’m working in three viewpoints and dealing with present, past and sudden memory flashbacks.   But sometimes, none of these ideas help and writer’s block remains.  What happens then?

Apart from removing the troublesome section of writing from the manuscript, I can think of just two possible ways of solving the problem.   Take a break for a week or two before reading the story (this never works for me, as I’m driven to completing the novel). Alternatively, you could work away from the computer and try brainstorming.  Scribble down story ideas without really thinking about plot or logic.  Then, see if you can develop any of the ideas.   Check the new ideas against the list of story questions.  Is there scope for fresh development in the story?  Often, a new way forward will mean having to get rid of old material, sometimes cherished material, but occasionally writers find a way of bring back some of the old material at a later date.

St Patrick’s Day

Today is St Patrick’s Day.  It is also my birthday and I feel quite honoured to have been born on this special day.   I’m planning a small celebration later after work and another one tomorrow evening.   The last week has been particularly difficult with unexpected news of a family bereavement, so I’ve been kind of reeling a little and going through the various stages of disbelief. 

However, I’ve done a lot of creative writing and piano work since hearing the news and it was the music that really helped when the phone rang on Thursday lunchtime.   I went to work afterwards; I work as a musician.  I also forced myself to continue with the novel writing and have managed to complete the latest draft of a psychological thriller.   I finished it on Saturday evening and started making plans for another story.  Creativity truly helps.

Happy St Patrick’s Day to all my Irish friends.

Completed Draft

I’ve finally finished the draft of the psychological thriller I’m currently working on, having spent seven weeks revising and editing.  The story now stands at 91,000 words, slightly shorter than before.  I’ve more or less enjoyed the process, have experienced only the occasional bout of writer’s block this time round and feel I’ve really accomplished something of value.

As I posted elsewhere, I revised the manuscript with several points in mind:

  1. A different character driver.   In fiction, the character’s motives, desires, fears and conflicts drive the story forwards.   The central question of each story has to be – will the protagonist achieve the goal they have set out to achieve early on in the story?  There are three possible answers to the question – Yes, No or Maybe (open endings).  This central question shapes the story.   If there is no quest for the character to embark on, there really isn’t much of a story.
  2. The Importance of Story Questions.   Keeping a list of story questions helps keep the story focused.  In the past I had huge problems because of a failure to work on some type of structure.  Not surprisingly, I felt like giving up writing at times.   During the rewrite, I tried a new technique – I would write down the most recent story questions in reverse order from memory. 
  3. Viewpoint.  Many of the problems in the earlier drafts stemmed from the fact I was telling most of the story from the wrong viewpoint.   There are three viewpoint characters, a thirty-five year old guy, his sister and his best mate.  There are also sections of back story, including sudden flashbacks where the story is told from the perspectives of the (then) ten-year-old boys.  Previously, I concentrated on the relationship between the protagonist’s sister and his best friend, but members of a local novelist suggested that the relationship between the two didn’t really work.  This time,  I’ve paid more attention to the two male characters.
  4. Rotating Viewpoints.   With the exception of the final showdown scenes, each chapter is told only from the perspective of one character and the chapter viewpoints rotate.  I strongly believe that whilst this method of narration has its drawbacks, rotating viewpoints per chapter allows a greater level of psychological intensity and immediacy.  Anyway, I prefer working in this way.

Rotating Viewpoints:The Advantages and Disadvantages

Currently, I’m writing a psychological thriller about two guys who last met when they were ten.   A serious crime occurred in the woods near their home and the main character managed to escape, but he has no recollection of the events or the person he ran from.   Twenty-six years on, he is reconciled with his former best friend, also present at the crime scene.   Soon, however, a set of disturbances occur, triggering a set of flashbacks about what really happened twenty-six years ago.

The central character’s wife has recently run away with someone, leaving him with a vulnerable eight-year-old son who has become withdrawn after a stint of bullying at school. At the start of the novel, the central character moves to his sister’s country cottage.   The story is told from three viewpoints – the central character’s (first person), his sister’s (third person) and his best mate’s (third person).    Each chapter is limited to one viewpoint.   The viewpoints rotate.

The advantages of rotating viewpoints are:

  • Greater psychological intensity and immediacy;
  • The viewpoint characters might have different interpretations of the same events;
  • By introducing back story, the varying viewpoints and time shifts expands the story, giving it a fuller feel.

However, watch for the pitfalls:

  • Story runs the risk of becoming laboured and repetitive;
  • The constant moving between character viewpoints and past and present could prove confusing.

In all, I’m enjoying this form of narration and feel it best tells the story I’m writing.

New Story Questions

I’ve reached the 67,000 word point in my current psychological thriller and am trying to put into the practice the elements of creative writing techniques I’ve been posting about – namely, what to do when, or if, writer’s block occurs. In this particular story, I’ve rotated viewpoints so that each chapter is told from a distinct perspective. I feel the method of narration adds to the atmosphere and takes away the “samey” tone so apparent in previous drafts.

So what next? Now that I’ve reached the final stage of the story, I’m considering looking at two or three deleted scenes set originally at about fourteen thousand words. Sometimes, in fiction, a scene that doesn’t work in one place can be axed, then brought back at a later date and placed somewhere else in the story. That’s why backup copies are so important. Keeping a list of story questions really helps too, as these can bring meaning to scenes that previously appeared to lack purpose.  I’m quite confident about completing this novel draft soon.

Driving Factors in Fiction

Have you ever written something, thought it was brilliant, then read through the text, only to discover a piece of rambly waffle?   I have, although fortunately it doesn’t happen often anymore.   These are several of the reasons why my earlier attempts at novel writing often left me feeling drained and frustrated.

1) Failure to understand viewpoint (POV).  Initially, I took a cinematic approach looking in on the characters.  That’s fine in itself, but I had no real understand of what to recapture, so I often concentrated on the mundane details, like the dust on the telephone handset.  It made scene setting a nightmare.   I also referred a lot to character movements, such as running a finger through their hair, smiling, frowning, grinning.  This gave the text a screen writing feel.   I still can’t define viewpoint in a single sentence – I think it’s too elusive for that – but I like to think of a character coming on stage (the page) and announcing “this is my story”.   Everything that follows is told from the perspective of that particular character.   The character is free to interpret events in any way they like.   Great for memory flashbacks or muddled memories.

2) A lack of understanding of structure and plot.    Originally, I had no real idea of what I was doing.  I was trying to write a psychological thriller, but getting hopelessly lost and no one from the local novelist group was impressed.   Stories pass through eight stages, one of which was missing from mine:
The starting point (“stasis”);
An inciting event (“trigger”);
The central character’s search for an answer, an object or a person (“quest”);
A succession of obstacles preventing the character from achieving their aim (“surprise”);
Decisions the character makes (“critical choice”);
The consequences of the choices (“climax”);
Consequences of climax (“reversal”);
Aftermath/New Stasis (“resolution”).

My story fell flat at the critical choice stage because the main character was too passive and failed to decide on decisive action to solve their problems.   In the previous post, I  mentioned character factors that drive the story.   What does the character in question want most?  What does the character fear most?   I wasn’t able to answer the questions for a long time.  Eventually, I had to restructure the story entirely, taking into account the driving character questions, along with basic  forensics/procedural and an entirely new viewpoint character.  Interestingly, the rewrite was far easier this time round. 

3) Hanging on to problematic  material.  Some creative writing tutors talk about “murdering your darlings” – i.e. getting rid of your favourite parts of the story.   This doesn’t always help.  In fact, writers should mark the sections that have received praise from others.   However, stories develop over time and sometimes the original ideas lose their importance (or perhaps were never credible in the first place).  Hanging on to an idea that clearly isn’t working will prevent the story from flourishing.  I made some pretty bad mistakes at first, but I’ve murdered most of the darlings since then.