Wednesday, August 13, 2014

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.

Here’s how the Question Technique worked for me in writing a short story.

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 (at the time) 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 in Australia, where she mothers by day and transforms into a fearless blogger by night. Her popular creative home-making blog, A house full of sunshine, reaches over 20,000 readers a month. She's a Genesis finalist for women's fiction and is represented by Rachel Kent of Books & Such. Find her on TwitterGoogle+, and Pinterest.


Julia M. Reffner said...

Love looking at pictures for ideas! You have the best ideas for capturing stories, Karen!

Jeanne Takenaka said...

What a great post, Karen! I love the questions you asked. Thanks for sharing this. I think I'm going to have to do this when I revise my WIP. LOVED THIS!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Thank you, ladies! So glad this was helpful!

Amy Leigh Simpson said...

I've got a sick baby so my brain is zapped on the creativity front, thus I'll spare you an incoherent response in picking a photo. But this post is great! Just thought you should know :) Thanks, K.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Thanks Amy - hope your little princess will be on the mend soon!!