Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Question Technique

Image 1 by chrisroll
In every picture, every line of information, every person’s face, is a story waiting to be discovered. How successful we are at unearthing that story – how deep and resonant and complex we are able to make it in the telling – depends largely on one thing: the questions we ask ourselves.

The principle is simple: start with an idea, or a picture, and ask yourself questions until you find your story.

Keep asking questions until you know your story.

This technique can be used to generate new story ideas; add twists or layers to your plot; or take you deeper into a scene you’ve already written. You may prefer to be methodical and work your way through a list of Who, What, When, Where and Why questions, in the vein of a newspaper reporter; or, like me, you may wish to ask yourself questions organically and with genuine curiosity, as they occur to you.

This week I’ve been writing a short story. Here’s how the Question Technique worked for me.

Image 2 by pixbox77

1. Generating a story idea
Ideas can come from anywhere – a picture, a newspaper clipping, a line from a song, a resonant memory, a scent, a feeling, a dream.

The idea for this short story came in the form of a status update on Facebook. Our region recently experienced severe and sudden flooding, and I began following a Flood Updates page to stay abreast of the news. One update mentioned that 20 people, including children, were stranded by floodwaters in the town hall of a tiny country community not far west of where we live. State Emergency Services knew of the situation, but no-one had yet been able to reach them.

I immediately began asking myself questions.

How would that feel, in this modern age, to be completely cut off from the outside world?

How would it feel to be a parent in that situation? With no food or clean water for your children, no toys to entertain them for those interminable cooped-up hours, no bedding to sleep on at night, and no idea of when rescue might come?

How would it feel if you had a baby who was bottle-fed – and you had no formula to feed her with?

Aaah. Suddenly, for me, the story had become personal. As the mother of three small children, including an 8-month-old baby, I’d hit a resonant note, one with which I had immediate emotional empathy.

I knew, at that point, I had the germ of a short story.

2. Add layers to your plot
There were more questions to be asked before my story could take shape. I had to start at the end and backtrack to know how my characters got to that point and who they were.

  • How did the people get from their homes to the town hall?
  • Which family would be central to my story? How many children did they have? What were their names? Whose POV should I write from?
  • How long had they lived in this small town? I knew instinctively I wanted them to be outsiders. So why had they moved there?
  • When did the flooding occur? During the night, I decided, for dramatic effect. So in my family, who discovered the rising waters and alerted the others?
  • How did it feel for them to find water in their house?
The questions continued as the story progressed, and the family found themselves in the hall. How long would they be stuck there? Who would rise up as a natural leader of the group? How would the children behave? With the constant screaming of a hungry baby, how long would it take for tempers to fray and people to turn on each other?

3. Add depth to a scene

My first drafts are usually fairly spare. I have to go back over them and flesh them out, adding concrete details. At this point I ask questions such as: What does it look like? Sound like? Smell like? How are the characters reacting to their situation?

In my first draft I wrote this line to describe the first night in the hall:

The wet flotsam of the tiny rural community huddles in small, miserable groupings, too exhausted and shocked to speak.

In my second draft, I tried to add visual and sensory details:

Bodies stretched out on the floor, heads pillowed awkwardly on a crooked elbow, a pair of shoes. It brings to mind an international airport, or perhaps the scene of a shooting. Someone is snoring. A child stirs and cries out in his sleep. Glass rattles, loose-jointed, in the windows. Rain drives without pause against the roof.

I’ll keep asking questions until the story is complete. Who are my characters? How do they feel? What are they doing? Why are they doing it? What do they see, hear, smell, taste and touch?

Your turn. Choose any photo from this post and ask yourself some questions. What story will you discover within?

Image 3 by Victor Habbick
Image 4 by africa

Image 5 by Ian Kahn

We’d love you to share with us in the comments. Just state the number of the photo you chose, and the germ of your story idea.

Images courtesy of

Karen Schravemade lives Downunder and likes to confuse her American friends by using weird Australian figures of speech. When she's not chasing after two small boys or cuddling her baby girl, she spends her spare minutes daydreaming about the intricate lives of characters who don't actually exist. Find her on her website and Twitter.


Lisa Jordan said...

What a fun and knowledgeable post, Karen! And your story sounds wonderful. I hope it has a happy ending.

I begin my story ideas with "what if" questions.

For example, I chose image 2 and wondered if...."What if a Book of Dreams allowed you to have the dream you always wanted but you had to give up everything else in your life?"

Julia M. Reffner said...

I love this, Karen!

I almost always begin my story ideas with what if questions, too.

And BTW, you always chose great pictures for your posts!

Carrie Fancett Pagels said...

I often find I add too many layers and subplots so I end up cutting or separating MSes into multiples. Love the pics! Thought-provoking!

Ruth Douthitt said...

Great post! Good idea to ask questions.

I heard a true story about the daughter of a Nazi commandant who never knew the evil her father did until years after the war ended and he was dead. She discovered the truth from a Jewish man who had survived Auschwitz.

My first thought was: what a terrific novel that would be!!

Now to ask the questions you recommend! Thanks.

Jessica R. Patch said...

Excellent post, Karen! And I loved Lisa's what if question. I've asked the "what if" question, but many times I see something and think, "How could that happen? How did that woman end up dressed like that in a corner like a marionette. She's a human puppet. Now I have a spiritual thread. The enemy trying to use us as puppets. And now I have a villain who kidnaps women for his own merriment. But someone needs to free them. So maybe my hero's sister is a victim. And that's how my brain works. :) (or doesn't)

Jeanne T said...

What a wonderful post, Karen! I love the questions you asked and how you shared your process with us! The man in the fifth image caught me. What if a man gardened by day to cover his real missions at night? What if he's trying to right a wrong he committed in his past. What if, as a result of his past behaviors, he lost those he loved the most--a wife and a daughter? What if growing flowers is the one thing that give him hope that he can learn to live and to love again?

Okay, that's where my mind went. I hadn't planned to write any questions just now. :) They just came.

This post is a keeper, Karen!

Susan Anne Mason said...

Great insight into the process! Thanks Karen!

Your writing is beautiful. I felt like I was in that building with them!


Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

YES, Lisa, I love the "what-if" question! Gives such license to dream and wonder and imagine. Brilliant!

Ooh, and I love your story idea! Apart from the supernatural aspect, that's exactly the theme of the novel I'm writing at the moment. Wouldn't "Book of Dreams" be the most awesome title for a novel?!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

JULIA, thank you!! I always enjoy browsing for pictures for my posts. Comes of being a very visual person, I think.

CARRIE, yes, that's something to be careful of. I don't think a novelist can ask too many questions (unless we feel like we have to know everything before we start, because then we'll never begin.) But I do think we can include too many answers in our story. Having the answer in our head doesn't mean we have to include every detail on the page. Sometimes it's the single, telling detail that speaks louder than pages of complex description or explanation.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

RUTH, wow, that is a powerful premise. I've just started reading "The Storyteller" by Jodi Picoult, which has a similar premise, except the ex-Nazi is the protagonist's well-liked neighbour instead of her father. Raises so many questions about how well we can ever really know someone, and the secrets people hide. I think the daughter discovering the truth about her father adds such an extra dimension of emotional intensity. You should write this story!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

JESSICA, I love that glimpse at your brainstorming process! Sounds like a great starting point for a story! Thanks for playing. :-)

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

JEANNE, your story idea has such emotional depth. I can feel this man's pain and identify with his struggle to win back those he loves. Isn't it cool how questions lead to more questions, and a story can just unfold right in front of your eyes?!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

SUSAN, what a lovely compliment. Thank you so much!