Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Drafting a Story's First Sentence - Slipping into the world of imagination

When it comes to getting started on a new story, lots of people get stuck on the first sentence. There's a lot of pressure to get it right. Should I set the scene? How can I include a hook? Oh, I have to remember to give it just the right tone.

Agents, editors, and readers do you need to be drawn in by a story's initial sentence, but not the draft version. The draft version just has to get you, as a writer, started. I think of it as the tool that cracks the door open so you can enter a new world. Now, if you already have a starting point and the words are flowing as soon as you sit down, go ahead and use a battering ram. Don't worry about the suggestions below. Just write.

But if bits of the story are floating around in your brain and it's just getting started that's the problem, getting a good enough sentence – for you – is fine. Objectively, you're even allowed to write a bad sentence. You have my permission. It can be fixed in the rewrite.

I actually went through the first sentence exercise recently for a story I'm writing about people in an assisted living facility who have computer access taken away after one of them falls for an Internet scam. I'll use the sentences that came up (and sometimes the words that followed right away) as examples here.

    ⁃    What your character sees and why it matters. If you can see something that catches a character’s interest and bring meaning to it, the is likely to lead to more… Coins and dollar signs floated across Gus’s iPad screen. They twisted and danced to the clink of coins tuned to one enticing song: greed.
    ⁃    Some piece in your head is already creating a strong emotion (for the character or for you). This is often a reaction to something that just happened but isn’t described, a response that is deep and visceral. For instance, it may be a moment of wonder or of sense of injustice… It was an amputation: His phone and iPad and the computer power cord seized as he sat helplessly looking on.
    ⁃    A telling quote (and note that it does not need to have subtext). When characters speak, they do so for a reason. Usually, it’s to get something or to change someone’s behavior. That’s powerful. While on-the-nose dialogue probably shouldn’t appear in the final version, it is acceptable (even valuable) here in a draft… “From now on, we can’t permit unsupervised computer time.”
    ⁃    A character doing something visual. Characters in action define themselves and usually create images that include setting. Other characters might show themselves, too, giving you a lot to work with… As Gus clung to his iPad, struggling to stop Nurse Daniels from seizing it, Betsy rolled her wheelchair behind them — to the cart, to her phone, to the only connection she had with Nina.
    ⁃    A character’s deep realization. If you already have a strong reason for writing the story or the theme is vivid, this can be great. If not, this might challenge your muse to provide real treasure… With her phone locked away, Betsy knew she would not be there when Nina called, perhaps for the last time, crying, cursing, and gasping for breath.
    ⁃    Reader orientation. This is classic, establishing the time and space. And including the props needed to play out the scene. And all of these can help you get immersed in your story, bit by bit… The recreation room, its four round worktables set with paper and crayons and flooded with afternoon sunshine, was filling up with high-end carbon fiber wheelchairs pressed forward by the elders who rolled them in.
    ⁃    A sentence that raises a key question. This can be something that needs further explanation, sucking you further into the story. Or it can be a statement of principles or ideas that imply more… If a man who had served his country, buried his wife, raised four children and gotten them through college, and put aside enough for retirement could not buy a mint,1936 buffalo nickel was he still a free man — or just waiting to die?
    ⁃    A reversal of expectations. I like this one a lot. When cold facts or a familiar experience  suggest a conclusion, and the opposite closes the sentence, interest is created. It’s a great way to flow into more explanation or illustration… Elderly people lose three billion dollars a year to scam artists because they are confused or scared… or having the time of their lives.
    ⁃    A description of a striking image. This can be poetic, and usually is. Something is rendered, usually visually, in a specific way. When done well, it gives readers confidence that they are in good hands. And, in a draft, a halfway decent image can give you as a writer the feeling that this story is going to work… Uncle Henry tossed little Gus a shiny buffalo nickel — Liberty, 1936, with a D from the Denver mint.

Note: Nine approaches are listed, but there's nothing canonical about these. You can add to this list as much as you want. And, if you come to this post as an exercise, don't feel like you need to create first sentences to match each example. In all probability, by the time you get to your third or fourth sentence, the door will be cracked open, and you can get down to the business of storytelling.

Of course, first sentences don't need to just be first sentences for the whole work. They can be first sentences for chapters or scenes. Also, my experience in creating a lot of first sentences using different approaches is that the exploration itself tells me more than I knew about the story and its characters. I did this for one story, and I found myself using what I've learned to put together a complete outline in about an hour. That was a nice additional pay off for the work I've done.

Once you're well into storytelling, it won't matter which sentence opened the door. Once you see what you have, some of the ways to make it work better in revision will be obvious. One of these, may be cutting the sentence or even the first pages. Beginning a draft with a perfect first sentence really, really, really isn't necessary. So don't let that get in your way.

I think one reason people get stuck on first sentences – and in other parts of the stories, such as ending scenes – is because of a lack of confidence in in their rewriting skills. So next week, I'll explore building confidence in revision.

This week, a bonus blog entry to promote my SavvyAuthors class...

Story Whispers – An odd sort of exaggeration writers can put to work

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Courage That Stands Out — Thrilling your readers

Courage may be David facing Goliath, a mountain of a man, just one sword length away. Or a shy man asking for a date. Or an honest judge choosing to dismiss charges against the most hated man in town. When courage is part of your story, and you presented this with skill and heart, your readers will be moved.

I was taught that courage was morally optional but socially essential. Since writing is a social activity (providing you care about readers), courage isn’t optional for authors. This means stories need to have someone who faces a test of courage that matters to readers and that test must get the attention it deserves.

Courage must be a challenge.

For the hero or heroine (an apt way to designate such a protagonist), the choice and the action involved must be difficult. The more difficult it is, the more courage is required. Superman, facing a hail of bullets that will bounce off him, has it easy. For someone to stand at the wrong end of a firing range (as Gen. Patton purportedly did to overcome his fear) with no shield or superpowers, would be a challenge. Someone who has slipped through life telling lies may face an insurmountable obstacle if he has to confess to serious wrongdoing. He certainly would need to be highly motivated. So there can be physical courage or it could be more personal. Readers may need to know a lot about the character to understand how brave his or her choices and actions are.

Courage occurs in context.

In most stories, the character must expect to pay a price for a courageous act. The bigger the price is, the more courage is required… And the more readers will worry about the character. The level of risk must be clear and this tangible as possible. For clarity, repetition or an explicit warning is often necessary. "If we take on the enemy, most of us will be dead by morning." "If you disclose the true earnings in the meeting, the boss will fire you."

Often, the context is demonstrated. It may be that the protagonist did something similar earlier in the story and failed miserably, suffering a substantial loss. Or there may be an immediate example, where another character attempts to do what must be done and faces a horrible fate.

There are ways to heighten the risk and increase reader worry. In The Karate Kid, Daniel faces a formidable opponent… After having received a severe injury. In Jerry Maguire, Jerry must declare his love not privately, but in the midst of a hostile crowd.

The hero or heroine cannot act secretly or in an altered state in most circumstances. The courageous act must be attributable and performed soberly with consideration. Having someone get drunk and blurt out critical information, even if it's a great risk, does not demonstrate agency and ownership.

Normally, the consequences of the courageous act should be presented. There are times when the loss that will be suffered is so obvious that it works (and perhaps works better given the cruelty of imagination) when it is implied. But there should be no doubts about whether a character pays a price.

Of course, it's fine to have anticipated a disastrous turn (fairly), so that the courageous act is rewarded. There even can be bittersweet circumstances where the act is both punished and rewarded.

A word about failure. Not all courageous acts lead to success. It's okay to have things take a tragic turn. In addition, the mission might succeed, and the results might still be horrible. Intentions matter, but they don't guarantee happy endings. It's a chancy thing to show readers an act of courage that fails or leads to painful results. They may the story or hate you. But if the emotional response is genuine, the work may succeed artistically.

Note: many of these points may be reversed in a comedy. In fact, considering these and turning them upside down can be a great way to add humor, often humorous that has an underlying point.

The courageous act must draw attention.

If you have all the elements, it's important to make sure that the writing is clear and whatever matters gets attention. Repetition, including examples, was mentioned above. It’s also valuable to look for the possibility of contrasts. Sharp contrasts tend to be noticed. Physical differences (Laurel and Hardy), differences in attitude (The Odd Couple), differences in power (master and slave), etc.

All eyes are on the protagonist, so a courageous act by a secondary character may be wasted. In addition, it's good to consider how far they hero or heroine might fall if he or she fails. One reason so much classical literature is populated by royalty, aristocrats, and military leaders is because their disasters have major ramifications. If Hamlet had been a shepherd instead of a prince, much of the impact of his story would have been reduced.

One more thing about courage… It comes across with more power if the writing of it requires something of the author. Giving readers exactly what they hope for and expect, when it sacrifices truth and authenticity, may be easier. It may please editors and fans. It can be more lucrative. But, if the more courageous choice is made by the author, something wonderful might be possible. Potentially, real human insight might reach people in ways that can support them when they are discouraged, inspire them when they see new possibilities, or even bring more meaning into their lives.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Casting Your Stories 8: A test of characters

I’ve been told that the best way to remember what someone looks like is to think of them in action, doing something. This may be completely unnecessary for others, but, as someone who is very bad at names and faces, this advice has been invaluable to me.

Similarly, while writers I admire do fine with what might be termed characterization by resume, those kinds of questions (eye color, family place, economic background, education, religion, etc.), even answered well, can’t lock a character in my head. That’s explains a lot of what I’ve been doing in this series.

This entry is designed to make the process more accessible for you by taking the 6,000 words that came before and reducing the lessons to a short list you can use over and over again. (Of course, you may need to reread some of the earlier posts from time to time to get full value, but this will be a quick prompt even for those who master the rest.)

In planning
  • Find the right character for your premise.
  • Include a character who knows things or experiences life in ways you don’t. (Write what you don’t want to know.)
  • Base your character on someone real, with an emphasis on the contrary. Hitler painted roses.
  • Put a character in context (including community) - conflict, contrast, cooperation, perspective.
  • Interview characters.
  • Give each character a secret… and someone who knows it.
  • Write to “I am” statements from each key character. Make sure one of them is painfully true and the other one is a lie (possibly a lie the character tells him/herself).
  • Give each key character traits that can’t be missed or forgotten. (Will be repeated. May be changed to show growth or changed in rewrite to highlight theme.)
  • Have each character answer an important (probably rude) question. Attach a question to each you can’t answer and hope to answer by the end of the story.
  • Create at least one character who is inspired by a real person.
  • Create at least one reach character. Someone who feels strange to you or makes you uncomfortable or is outside your experience.
  • Do a quick check for contrasts between characters.
  • For key characters, write down a 70% component that rules behavior and an unexpected 30% component that points to hidden skills or needs.
As you write
  • Honor each character with how they are introduced to the reader (through action, reputation, statements, choices, traits, and/or descriptions).
  • Withhold something about each character until the right moment comes. Don’t fully expose them right away.
  • Keep track of who is in the scene and what they want. Include scenes where characters contrast. See if the identity of one can be challenged.
  • Play with variations on the traits you’ve created for the characters.
  • Be open to “aha” moments that answer questions suggested by your planning or invite probing or further scrutiny.
  • Include scenes where the 30% component is displayed.
  • Reveal the secrets you assigned to characters early for irony, late for plot turns, and/or at the worst possible moment for the character.
  • Motivate characters to form alliances or betray allies.
  • Make pursuit of goals so obsessive they invite parody.
  • Allow the characters to surprise you (even if it screws up your plans).
  • Explore something (difficult) that’s revealing (family, relationships, secrets).
  • Allow characters to hesitate. Don’t make them respond immediately to provocations and challenges.
  • Keep all your characters in view (perhaps by collecting pictures or making sketches of them). Make full use of them.
  • Never make things easy for your characters (unless you’re making it easy for them to make a blunder).
  • For tomorrow’s first scene, review the planning notes and write down what they might suggest.
When you rewrite
  • See if you can answer unanswered questions about your characters.
  • List out, character by character, the questions they ask. Note who they go to for answers.
  • Note, character by character, any identity statements (I am… ) or other expressions of who they are (or think they are).
  • Note moments when characters surprised you.
  • See if you can map your characters against archetypes and/or pantheons. Explore how do your characters fit in with relationships found in genres and myths.
  • Note your pivot scenes and see if the right characters are included. Also, determine how vulnerabilities, growth, and flaws are illuminated.
  • Make sure you have included at least one character who still makes you uneasy.
  • Describe the relationships between characters. Who are their allies? Who are their antagonists? How do they depend on each other? Do any of these relationships change?
  • Brainstorm how you might test your characters in different ways? In more extreme ways?
  • Review tags and traits and think about better alternatives.
  • Make sure tests — of the characters, of the relationships of the team — are included during or around scenes of major plot points.
That’s it. Most of what’s in the previous entries in this series is included, and I hope this provides you with a practical (and slightly different) approach to characters and their relationships.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Twenty 20-Minute Projects for Writers

Many writers waste the spare change of time. They can’t see blocs smaller than an hour, and that’s a loss.

In the classes I’ve taught, I’ve found that almost everyone can get about 200 words drafted in 15 minutes, provided they have an idea (usually describing a scene in one sentence the day before). In that spirit, let’s get the new year started right with twenty 20-minute projects.

    1.    Set a timer, turn off the editor in your head, and write a page. If my students can do it, so can you. (Or create a prep sentence for tomorrow.)
    2.    Challenge yourself with a prompt. Look for a writing prompt online and get to work. (There are many sites providing these. Here’s a fun one.)
    3.    Read something that does not appeal to you. Search engines and online suggestions are geared toward providing more of the same, so break free. Read a local story from another state or an article from a different decade. Find an obituary in a major newspaper for someone you never heard of. Go to the library and look at the books next to the one you want to take out.
    4.    Ask a character three questions. It can be a rude question or one your intuition tells you will be revealing. Don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions, but keep at it for the full twenty minutes.
    5.    Describe someone you know in motion, either in memory or in real time. Attempt to include a fresh observation.
    6.    Create a list of story titles. Strive for twenty or more. If you get stuck, come up with a title to replace that of a favorite book or movie.
    7.    Make detailed observations of something in nature. Include as many senses as you can. If there is movement or change during the time period, note it.
    8.    Choose a strong emotion and write a letter to someone who you’d like to share it with. Have a purpose to the letter — e.g., changing behavior, wanting to be heard, engendering guilt feelings, or drawing closer.
    9.    Write five first sentences. These can be for a title you created, a scene you are about to write, or a story you are beginning. But choose only one of these so you’re forced to take a variety of approaches.
    10.    Write a poem.
    11.    Steal a style. Create a page of prose in someone else’s voice. This can be a short speech for a well-known person or a pastiche of an author you know well. Feel free to write Hemingway’s version of “This Little Piggy.”
    12.    List five new endings in full sentences. These can be for something you’re working on, a story that disappointed you, or just a story you know nearly by heart.
    13.    Write a list of twenty different ways to accomplish something you do almost every day. Novelty counts.
    14.    If you can see a large space, outside (a tall building) or inside (a cathedral), imagine how you might climb as high as possible without using available stairs or ladders.
    15.    Brainstorm how you would explore the relationship between two people through questions, challenges, tests, or surprises.
    16.    Imagine the space you are in from the perspective of a two-year-old or your pet.
    17.    Write a sentence about each strength you have as a writer.
    18.    Write out your strategy for convincing someone you know well to do something they’d never volunteer to do. You may express this as a monologue.
    19.    Create a compelling excuse (or list of excuses) for arriving late for (or missing) an important event (like a wedding) in which you were expected to play a key role.
    20.    Write your own obituary, from the perspective of someone who wants revenge on you.

The expectation of these projects is that will get you involved and learning. It is not that something definite or practical will be accomplished. Don't expect you'll create high art in twenty minutes. Instead, you'll take a small step toward being a better writer. And spend twenty minutes having more fun that you would scanning through social network posts.

Do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of. 
-- Benjamin Franklin

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Casting Your Stories 7: A web of lies and secrets

Want to hear a secret? Of course you do. And the more vulnerable the information makes someone, the more exclusively it is provided to you, the more power it holds. From near the top of Maslow's pyramid (reputation) to the bottom (survival), what people disclose or hide has consequences. That's why lies and secrets are about more than power. They are about trust. Often, they are also about what is deepest – who people (or characters) believe they are.

This makes lies and secrets essential to storytelling (something I explored elsewhere). It also makes them critical to characterizations as well as the plot. And critical to the connections with characters. What characters lie about her hold secret tells us what matters to them and who they share the truth with (or don't) tells us about their relationships.

It's easy to find examples in mysteries and thrillers and spy stories. The whole point in those tales is to hold back, revealing small things that could add up to a larger truth. As readers, we follow along with police and private detectives and reporters and masters of espionage as they penetrate webs of lies and secrets to find the answers they need. Romantic comedies are also sure bets as far as looking at patterns of lies. Almost all depend upon a central secret or deception by one of the lovers that must be faced before the happily ever after. In Sleepless in Seattle, Annie must tell her fiancé she's fallen in love with someone else. In Tootsie, Michael must disclose that the female persona he has inhabited hides a key part of his identity (being male).

As I sought out examples, mysteries and romances seemed too obvious. Also thought about using The Graduate, but that's so packed with lies, I got overwhelmed. So I went to my list of scripts on hand and cross-referenced against movies I had seen in a while that I could stream, and I came up with Almost Famous. (Hey, it begins with in A.) I had remembered how packed it was with deception. In fact, honesty is a major theme of that movie.

From the beginning, the setting is presented with the San Diego Santa Claus – a dude in a winter–free landscape wearing shorts. fantasy is piled upon fantasy, without the slightest nod and anything authentic. But in no time, the hero, William, is faced with a deeply personal lie. His mother (his mother!) has been deceiving him about his age his whole life. He is actually two years younger than he has always presumed. Scene after scene teeters between truth and deception. William’s sister, Anita, sneaks home with a forbidden rock 'n roll album (and gets busted). She lies about having kissed her boyfriend, but her mother uncovers the truth. And when she leaves, she whispers to William that his future is hidden under his bed. His future is a collection of rock music albums, and the secret is shared between his sister and himself, excluding their mother.

My favorite scene about deception and truth is between William and Penny Lane. Like a reverse auction, they both claim to be 18 years old, and they reveal lower numbers until they get to the truth — William is 15, Penny is 16. That scene also shows there is a limit to the truth that shared. Penny Lane does not reveal her real name. Later, who she reveals it to and who she doesn't says everything about key relationships.

William's mother, Elaine, despite her lie to her son is almost sacrificially a truth–telling character. It gives her amazing power over other people, often nudging them toward more authentic and responsible behavior. There is also an amazing scene where William and the band are on a plane that seems certain to crash and one character after another reveals his or her secrets.

In addition, the powerful dĂ©nouement is completely dependent upon revealing and confirming the truth — the deeply human truth — about the band. This is something that has consequences for all the main characters.

Interestingly enough, a benevolent and consequential lie that Penny Lane tells – a lie that she knows will be quickly uncovered – restores one of the most important personal connections in the story.

Almost Famous is a course in using lies and secrets to present truth about the human experience, defined characters, and illustrate the value of authenticity in relationships. It includes betrayals, exaggerations, misdirections, pseudonyms, gaslighting, excuses, selective truth, and hypocrisy. Cameron Crowe doesn't hide this. His characters mention telling secrets. They discuss finding what's real and "the real world." One character only means half of what he says, and William asks, "which half?"

Looking at Almost Famous through the lens of how lies and secrets are used had surprises for me even though this is not the first time I've done such an analysis on a film. One of the notes I made was, the more lies, the more truth matters.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Casting Your Stories 6: Characters tell you who they are

In The Shawshank Redemption, Andy speaks less than Red, but he says a lot about himself. “I’m a rockhound.” (A truth that hides his motives.) “I have no enemies here.” (A belief that shows his vulnerability.)

My favorite Andy quote is, “I think a man working outdoors feels more like a man if he can have a bottle of suds. That's only my opinion.” This is after he has taken a chance that nearly ended his life. It also is tied to a request that is not for himself, but for the men around him. It marks a turning point in his adjustment to imprisonment. It provides a demonstration of generosity and common humanity. It expresses freedom is a way that is both homely and magnificent. In a movie filled with violence and shame and greed and injustice that can make you ache, it is a starburst of hope.

When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time. - Maya Angelou

Believe, pay attention and, as a storyteller, take note. The magic words of character dialogue are I, me, my, we, us, and our. With these words characters tell us who they are, and we should pay attention to them. They tell you what they think, what they’ve accomplished, how they’ve been cheated, why they did something, whom they trust, what they believe, and even, directly, who they are.

When they tell the truth, we have basic information about who they are or who they believe they are. And it is selected information. They'll only share it because they believe it's important that others (people who need to know) have that information.

Of course, at times, the characters are lying. Once that becomes clear, we know even more about them.

Choices, values, and motivation are all intertwined with identity. The “I” of the character sacrifices, battles, and makes alliances in service of identity — mostly maintaining identity. The action of great stories moves inexorably toward a change that touches identity and therefore is resisted. A character learns and grows in essential ways that confront, contradict, and/or confirm the “I” statements.

In Shawshank, Red’s friendship and care for Andy over the years creates this change.

Screenplay page 8, parole hearing:
“I’ve learned my lesson. I can honestly say I'm a changed man. I'm no longer a danger to society.”

Screenplay page 119, parole hearing:
“Not a day goes by I don't feel regret, and not because I'm in here or because you think I should. I look back on myself the way I was...stupid kid who did that terrible crime...wish I could talk sense to him. Tell him how things are. But I can't. That kid's long gone, this old man is all that's left, and I have to live with that.”

Amadeus also has a before and after, in this case, for Salieri:

page 1 “Show mercy to a guilty man!”
page 2 “I confess what I  did! I'm guilty! I killed you!”
page 7 “I was the most famous composer in Europe… I wrote forty operas alone.”

page 156 “I’ll speak for you. I speak for all mediocrities in the  world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint.”

To me, this change represents Salieri coming to terms with his true self and sharing that as a blessing for others. It’s ironic and fascinating and filled with insight. But still tragic for me because I remember another “I” statement:

"Everybody liked me. I liked myself."

This is what he lost. The price he paid.

Of course monologues, especially those that explode out of taciturn characters as they seek to be understood, justified, and, possibly, forgiven, are difficult to miss. And they are difficult to write well. It is too easy to write one like Red’s before statement to the parole board. It takes heart and painful honesty to write one like his after statement to the parole board.

But monologues are not required. Small, almost unnoticed “I” statements fill the pages of great writers. They are worth your attention as you reread your favorites. The craft of including such statements at the right times, directed at the right characters, with the right level of honesty or deceit, is worth mastering.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Casting Your Stories 5: Questions characters ask

In the past, I’ve advocated interviewing characters. And a lot can be revealed if the questions you ask are rude. But paying attention to what characters ask about and whom they ask can reveal a lot.

For some characters, asking questions is their business. Policemen need to find out what happened. Doctors, including psychiatrists, need to find out where it hurts. Reporters have to get the story. And detectives need to find out who done it. When each of these are doing their jobs, their goals are more or less obvious to readers and the value is collecting clues that can be assembled to form a more complete picture (story for readers).

But things get interesting when these inquisitors ask questions of their own friends, families, and peers. Presumably, in most of these cases, the information is less important than the relationships. However, it's revealing when the style of questioning is a bit too close to how they work professionally. Those are moments to pay attention to. Equally a value is when there is a sharp contrast between professional personas and personal personas – often revealed when questions are asked. Surprising gentleness, emotion, deference, impatience, or concern may say a great deal about how the other people (non-interviewees) fit into their lives and what deep needs they fulfill.

Now there are some characters who rarely ask questions. They may be besieged by life and constantly in reaction mode. Or, they might be narcissists who lack curiosity or think they already know everything. They might also be full of questions, but reluctant to ask them because the people asked might not react kindly or the answers might be things they prefer not to know. If such characters do ask questions, pay close attention. What are they hoping for? What do they need? Why did they take the risk? How much courage was required? Whom did they ask, and what does that say about their relationships?

Of course, these questions might be applied to any characters soliciting answers, but those who rarely show this side of themselves usually expose secrets when they do.

Many characters have questions tied to their goals. By definition, these are important to their stories. They usually expect answers from helpers and difficulty with those who oppose them or have costly answers (often, explicitly requesting a gift or a favor in return). Answers in these cases lead to (or destroy) trust and cooperation. The answers also set up expectations for characters and for readers. The higher the stakes are for the question, the more important the person giving answers must be. The more that’s put at risk, the more a response should be delayed, incomplete, ambiguous, or difficult (except, in most cases, when the answer resolves the story).

Of course, all questions are not vital. Many of the smaller questions may still help define characters and how they fit in with everyone else in the story.

For instance, what if the character is a knight who needs to find the path to the cursed castle?

Who to ask? A peer (say, another knight). An underling. A princess (his superior, and also a female). A wizard. The village idiot. A warrior.

How to ask? Politely. As the demand. Through an intermediary. From a kneeling position. Grasping a protective charm. After getting the other character drunk. With open hands or a raised sword. After making an appointment. With an army at his back.

Sometimes characters ask questions of enormous importance, both in personal and in story terms. Do you love me? Who shot the gun? Who is my real father? Which side are you on? How long have you been cheating on me?

That kind of question always gets attention, and it's worth exploring works you admire to see the contexts (who is asked, when, where, how) of such questions, especially how they might be set up, delayed, or blurted out. It makes a difference if someone is pointing a gun when they ask a question.

But even asking directions can be revealing of character and of relationships. These moments in stories are worth closer looks, too. Seeing how other authors manage questions to do more than get information — to reveal needs, styles, emotions, connections, and power — can provide hints on when, where, and how to use questions and your own work, especially as a means to exposing hierarchies, values, and dependencies in characters. Mastering the use of questions in stories opens up important ways to expose characters and build deeper connections with readers.