Questions: take two. by Bill Kirton

Last month, I suggested that would-be fiction writers might consider using questions as the point de départ for their stories. I concentrated on ‘who’ and ‘where’ and surmised that, with just those two, it’s possible to create quite a complex, detailed structure. I did, however, begin the blog with comments about a few linguistic tics such as rising terminals and that seemed to exercise the minds of those who responded more than the question of questions. Perhaps the point is so obvious that it’s not worth making.

Nonetheless, I shall persist and suggest that this month’s interrogatives, ‘what’ and ‘how’, can take the complexity even further. So here’s Writing 101, part 2.

What's going on here?
In order to illustrate the flexibility of ‘who’, I stressed that the answer might not be the expected human but an animal or even an inanimate object brought to life for the purposes of a story. The example I chose was a hapless mop and a bucket. Asking ‘who’ gave each of them a distinct identity with its associated characteristics which, in turn, might be developed further by answers to the other question, ‘where’. But if a bucket, mop or spittoon can be introduced as ‘who’, doesn’t that render ‘what’ superfluous?

Emphatically not.

‘What’ is priceless. For a start, it’s the key word in ‘What happened next?’ and ‘What if?’, both essential for writers desperate to hold the reader’s attention, but it also has its own mystery. ‘Who’ is inseparably linked with identity, ‘where’ with location. But ‘what’ can do anything. It’s unrestricted, free, a friend to turn to when the ink stops flowing (or the binaries stop doing whatever they do). Your mop hero hears a sound – what is it? The bucket sees an indistinct shape in the gloom – what is it? What’s the source of the mysterious glow under the sink? What’s in the head-shaped bundle of rags with that brownish stain on them? A tiny spaceship lands in the broom cupboard – what emerges from it? In the Vatican, the Scottish batsman (see link above) says to the Mother Superior ‘If the ball pitches outside the line of the leg stump or the contact between pad and ball is outside the line of either stump, then the batsman (or batsnun) is not out LBW even if the ball would have gone on to hit the stumps’. Her reply, inevitably, is a baffled ‘What?’.

When all the other questions fail to produce answers which nudge the story forward, ‘what’ will do the job.

How did that happen?
We could say that the three previous interrogatives have generated content for the story: characters, locations, objects and/or phenomena, but ‘how’ begins to draw them together, investigate their interactions. ‘How’ is where plots are born. When you have to explain how Chardonnay discovered that Henry was cheating on her sister’s room-mate’s best friend with a Latvian he’d met in the library, and how he reacted when the best friend told her publisher father how the dose of rohypnol got into the Latvian’s martini, you’re animating the characters and objects.

Better than that, you’re having to make them perform actions which are then interpreted by others around them (and the reader), and those interpretations give substance both to the character being observed and the one doing the observing. And, of course, if the character’s self-image and the observer’s perceptions of her are at odds, the plot spontaneously thickens.

Crime novels are particularly dependent on ‘how’ since, to put it crudely, they’re about how the killing happened and how it gets solved. But my guess is that anyone familiar with other popular genres could ‘reduce’ them to similar formulations. (NB Remember that this is Writing 101. More advanced students should consult the ever-relevant Principles of Literary Criticism by I. A. Richards or, perhaps, heed the words of Dr Seuss ‘No matter what you do, somebody always imputes meaning into your books’.)

That’s it for now, class. For your writing exercise this month I offer you a torque wrench, a newly-retired female banker, a black stain on the wall of her spare bedroom, a part-time fireman and a sealed casket. Attack them with who, where, what and how. You might even produce a story for Flash in the Pen 2.


Wendy H. Jones said…
Great advice Bill. I am up for the challenge of the story
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks, Wendy. Maybe another idea for a Cliff Cottage meet then?
Jan Needle said…
Please sir, I've never met a detective who knows what a torque wrench is. Torque wench?
Susan Price said…
Or maybe a separate anthology, Bill - 29 variations on 'a torque wrench, a newly-retired female banker, a black stain on the wall of her spare bedroom, a part-time fireman and a sealed casket.'
Chris Longmuir said…
The newly retired female banker grasped the torque wrench the fireman had brought along to spice up their affair, and waving it in a threatening manner chased him out of her bedroom. It wasn't the wrench she'd minded, it was the black oily stain on the wall he'd left behind when he threw his boots across the room. The more she looked at the stain, the more it annoyed her, so she attacked it with the wrench until she'd made a gaping hole in the wall. As the last chunk of plaster fell from the wall it revealed a casket, 6 feet long and 4 feet wide, and secured with a massive padlock.

And now dear reader, what do you suppose is in the casket? The reward for the correct answer is the never to be missed opportunity of providing an Authors Electric Blog Post for the first vacant guest slot.
glitter noir said…
Lovely, Bill. You'll have to assemble your five W's into the form of a chap book. All I ask in return for that suggestion is a gander at the hidden gams of the above woman in red.
Bill Kirton said…
Inspired, Chris, but if the next Kirsty Campbell novel is called The Fireman, the Torque Wrench, the Stain and Mrs McCafferty's Casket, I'll want a percentage.

Susan, it would be an interesting collection.

Jan Needle, stand in the corner and stop thinking of wenches. You'll go blind.
Bill Kirton said…
Reb, female bankers don't have 'gams'. They have index-linked certificates of deposit and ratios of loan principals to appraised values.
Lydia Bennet said…
More helpful questions from Bill, and some fun comments responding to his challenge - I'd like to know more about 'what' the fireman got up to in the bedroom, Chris...
Umberto Tosi said…
Well! That was fun - especially the comments. Now I'm thinking who, or what is Chris' casket, and why?
Bill Kirton said…
Over to you, Chris. What was the fireman doing, and to or with whom? Who or what is the casket? And are they related to the bucket and mop?
Chris Longmuir said…
Ah, now, if I tell you (even if I knew) that would spoil the competitive element. I'm disappointed no one has entered the competition yet, unless the bucket and mop is your contribution, Bill. As for what the female banker and the fireman were doing - whatever happened to imagination? I thought writers were supposed to have loads of that. Oh, and I didn't even mention the handcuffs! And it's amazing how much fun you can have with oily boots!

Popular posts

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

A writer's guide to Christmas newsletters - Roz Morris

Margery Allingham and ... knitting? Casting on a summer’s mystery -- by Julia Jones

Irresistably Drawn to the Faustian Pact: Griselda Heppel Channels her Inner Witch for World Book Day 2024.

Got Some Book Tokens? -- by Susan Price