Tag Archive: story questions

How to Straighten Your Story’s Spine

Sometimes I write a story where lots of exciting stuff happens, my protagonist is proactive and has a goal, and I’m hitting all the right beats (if you don’t know what those are, check out this post on the 15 Story Beats), yet the story still feels flat. What’s wrong? What am I missing?

The truth of the matter is often I’m not missing anything. I spend a lot of time developing my stories and I know all the story parts that I need to make a story sing, but effectively implementing those parts into a manuscript is a whole other challenge. In a manuscript, those parts can get out of whack or lost or muddy. So how do you fix it?

By doing something we screenwriters often call “tracking the story’s spine.” A story’s spine is the character arc woven into the plot; the two should always go together just like your vertebrae and your spinal cord. Tracking a story’s spine means making sure the protagonist’s transformation (arc) is addressed in EVERY SCENE of the journey (plot). Because after all, as I’ve said before (specifically in this post about character journeys), every story is about change.

So let’s get started…

To track a story’s spine, you need to know these 3 Basic Story Parts:

  1. What’s the Character Change?

  2. What’s the Inner Conflict?

  3. What’s the Big Story Question?

Part 1: In order to have a character arc, the protagonist needs to change. They have to start out one way (flawed and not the best person they could be) and end up another (flaw overcome and better because of the journey – that is if the story follows a positive arc; negative arcs are the opposite). For example, in my WIP the heroine starts out doing bad things like using people to try to get ahead. By the end of the story she needs to change into someone who doesn’t do bad things to succeed.

Part 2: Because of their character flaw, the protagonist will have an Inner Conflict. For a detailed explanation of what that is, read this post. In general, Inner Conflict is a desire for two things the hero wants (one of which is their outer Goal), but the catch is the hero can’t have both. So the whole story the protagonist must constantly choose between these two wants. Back to my WIP example, the heroine wants to be a better person (stop doing bad things like using people) but also wants a better life (her Goal is to escape the cycle of poverty by getting a college scholarship), yet she believes she needs to do bad things to achieve that. So yeah, she’s conflicted.

Part 3: The Big Story Question is the will/won’t issue based on the Inner Conflict. Basically, in my story the question is: Will the heroine get a better life? The writer must make the protagonist face that question in every scene, and alternate between scenes that make us and the protagonist think they WILL succeed, followed by scenes that make us think they WON’T. And this question always pivots on the protagonist’s Inner Conflict.

Not lining up the story’s spine is an easy blunder for writers to make, mainly because though we may KNOW the character’s arc, we don’t SHOW it in the plot. Note that I said “show” it, not “tell” it. You can’t solve this problem with internal monologue alone. The character transformation (arc) must manifest itself through actions (plot).

In conclusion, to straighten your story’s spine, check each scene for these 3 things and make adjustments accordingly:

#1 – Change. How does this scene influence your character’s arc? It can be a step forward or a step back, as long as something changes.

#2 – Inner Conflict. Which “want” is your hero leaning towards in this scene? Make sure to alternate this from scene to scene. After all, a hero who favours one desire over the other isn’t very conflicted.

#3 – Big Story Question. Does this scene ask the big, overall question? If not, your story has probably veered off course. Either cut the scene or revise it to make it relevant.

You can test your own manuscript, or a book you’re reading. I bet a million smiley face emojis that books that aren’t very engaging don’t have straight spines! Let me know in the comments what you find out. 🙂 Now I’m off to straighten my story’s spine…

 

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5 Reasons to Track Questions & Answers in Your Novel

This week while flushing out my novel’s outline, I decided to track where I raised and answered questions in the story. Why? Because questions are crucial to a good story; they ensure it has enough intrigue and suspense to keep readers reading. Have you ever set down a book and not been compelled to pick it back up? That’s probably because you weren’t dying to know the answer to a question! Questions and their elusive answers keep us reading. For the A to Z Challenge, I blogged about big and little story questions and gave tips for how to make these questions engage readers all the way to The End. Check out the full post here. For today’s post, I will illustrate how tracking questions and answers can improve your story.

To start, I created a numbered list of questions raised and questions answered alongside my outline. I used Document Notes in Scrivener so that this list is in the Inspector right beside my outline and I can see both simultaneously. I numbered each question (Q1, Q2, Q3, etc.) and the corresponding answer (A1, A2, A3, etc.). Then I went through my outline, tracking where questions were raised and how quickly/slowly they were answered. As I did this, I came up with a bunch of reasons why this exercise is helpful…

questions-answers

1. To avoid info dumps. During the set up scenes of Act I, it’s easy to think you need to explain everything or the reader will be confused. However, when I sat down and asked myself, “What will readers be wondering in this opening scene?” it became clear that a lot of the stuff I thought I needed to tell readers wouldn’t even be on their radar yet! The takeaway? Don’t give away answers to questions your readers haven’t even asked! That’s a sure sign you’re info dumping.

2. To check story pacing. When I started tracking my questions, I noticed that the first few scenes, especially the opening scene, raised many more questions than other scenes. This is normal. After all, questions make for intrigue, and we all want intriguing question-laden openings! But all good things have limits. So I decided to delay asking some questions and added them to later scenes, and to answer some more quickly to get them out of the way and make room for new questions. That resulted in a more evenly paced story.

3. To make sure each scene has suspense. No matter what genre you write, stories need suspense in the form of questions to keep the reader wondering and engaged. So every scene should raise at least one new question. If a scene doesn’t have a question in it, you risk boring your readers. And don’t think that if you raised a question in the previous scene, you don’t need to include one the next scene. That’s hogwash! Every scene must ask a question to keep the story moving and the readers engaged.

4. To keep track of The Big Question. This is the overall question that the reader will wonder throughout the entire novel until the very end. The big question is fed by dozens of little questions that are brought up throughout the story. Here are some examples:

BOOK BIG QUESTION LITTLE QUESTIONS
The Hunger Games Will Katniss win the Games? In training, will Katniss get a low ranking? In the arena, will Katniss get her hands on the bow and arrow? Will Peeta betray her? Will Katniss find water or die of thirst? Will Haymitch send medicine?
Harry Potter Will Harry defeat Voldemort? In each book, the little questions of whether Harry will make the right decisions, or trust the wrong people, or get in trouble, etc., all connect to the big question of whether he has what it takes to defeat Voldemort.
Eleanor & Park Will their high school romance last? Will Park accept Eleanor’s weirdness? Will Eleanor learn to trust Park? Will Eleanor’s stepdad find out about Park and forbid her from seeing him?

Once you know your Big Question, you can track it and make sure each little question connects to it in some way. In other words, all the little questions must have the power to affect the big question. If you have a scene where a question is raised that doesn’t connect to the big question, you either need to make it relevant or cut it. Never lose sight of The Big Question, lest you veer off the goat path into boring territory (as I talked about in this post on Mushy Middles).

5. To make sure you don’t leave questions hanging. And finally… sometimes we lose track of all the little questions asked along the way. If you find out that you raised a question and never answered it, you have two options: 1) Answer it, or 2) Cut it. After all, if you forgot about it, maybe it’s not important and is just cluttering up your story.

So that’s what I’ve been up to this week. Do you track your story questions? I feel like this is something that mystery writers probably do all the time, but could be helpful for writers of all genres. Let me know in the comments!

PS – Next Monday I’ll have another Audiobook Pitfall post coming up.

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