Elements of Scene Beginnings: Scene Question

Before we get to the scene question, we have a bit of an interlude. I considered making the interlude its own post, because story questions probably most properly belong in the Plot bucket, but in the end, there wasn’t enough material for a separate post and, big or small, story questions are story questions.

So, an interlude . . .

Story Questions: In general

“Story questions are those questions that readers will ask themselves as they read a story,” says Paula Munier, “It’s your job as a storyteller to pose these questions throughout your story in such a way that you encourage the reader to keep reading to discover the answers.”

“Questions . . . move us through a narrative,” says Chuck Wendig, “The audience is a junkie, we as storytellers are the dealers, and our product is mystery. . . . we can’t help but want to know answers.”

“A dramatic question is a question with something at stake and an action implied,” says Karen Pearlman. “Dramatic questions raise tension by making us worry about the stakes and the actions they imply. The tension of these questions is the energy that propels the viewer’s interest forward.”

“The challenge,” says Ms. Munier, “is to write a story that plants questions in the reader’s mind, questions critical enough to propel the reader to keep reading until you answer them.”

Story Questions: Several Kinds

Ms. Munier says, “There are three basic kinds of story questions: the leading question, the big story questions, and the little story questions. The most riveting stories are those that mix big and little story questions throughout the narrative and are driven by a leading question.”

1. The Main Story Question

The main story question may also be called the narrative question, the dramatic question, or the leading question. (Note the specific article the–it’s the main story question, not one of the many questions nested beneath it).

Put simply: “Leading questions are the ones you don’t answer until the end of the story,” says Ms. Munier.

“Your ‘narrative question’ lays out the promise of the story,” says Jane K. Cleland, “It alerts readers to the underlying question that will be answered by the end of the story.”

“The plots of big novels may at first glance seem highly complicated,” says Albert Zuckerman. “A closer and more careful look, though, would reveal that the book’s spine–the ongoing central conflict around which its major characters interact, the main issue which drives and unites its myriad scenes–couldn’t be more basic and clear-cut. This novelistic foundation is its suspense factor which I call the dramatic question.”

“A film built around dramatic action often has a dramatic question being raised soon after the story-world is established,” says Ms. Pearlman, a film editor, “Once we know where we are and who we care about in the story, the plots will get us to ask: Will something particular happen? Will someone get what they need? Will the problems resolve? Plots are then designed to complicate, escalate, and ultimately resolve these questions, and the editor’s [writer’s] job is to parse events out so that the plots do their job–they give us some resolution, but also keep asking.”

What should your main story question be?

In general: “The narrative question throughout your book is usually, “Will he get this? Will she get that? Will they ever get what they want?” says Peter Rubie and Gary Provost.

“Selecting a narrative question that captivates readers and creates suspense requires that you know, on a deep and thematic level, what your story is truly about. From this one pivot point come all plot twists,” says Ms. Cleland.

She also “note[s] that narrative questions are a crucial element in all genres.”

In fact, the ‘dramatic’ or ‘leading’ question is often a convention of the genre:  Will the detective catch the killer? Will the main characters fall in love?  Will they win the war?  Will they get through this trial as a family or break apart? So, if you’re having trouble figuring out your story’s main question, look to your story’s genre conventions for guidance.

Now . . . “Leading questions . . . drive the main plot, but it’s a long way from page 1 to the end–and that’s why you need to pepper your prose with big and little story questions every step of the way,” says Ms. Munier, “Just as every main plot has a leading story questions, every subplot has a big story question as well. Similarly, every big scene has a big story question, every smaller scene has smaller story questions, and every page has multiple little story questions.”

2. Big Story Questions

Big Story Questions would include Act questions, Sequence questions, subplot questions (including long-spanning questions about characters, places, and things), and scene questions. These story questions drive the story forward. They also nest; they’re just different sized versions of the same thing (a story question), and their size is determined primarily by the span of pages between question and answer. So while this post will eventually focus on scene questions, pretty much everything said about scene questions applies to whatever question level you’re working with.

3. Small Story Questions

Small story questions include the questions raised and answered within a scene, whether at the beat level, the MRU level, the sentence level, or however else. To me, big questions, as Ms. Pearlman says above, imply something at stake and an action that must be taken. Small questions, on the other hand, don’t necessarily imply these things. Small questions may just create a sense of momentary mystery about what something means, that kind of thing.

Another way to look at Question Types

Mr. Wendig says, “Two kinds of overarching questions drive a story:

  1. The questions that drive the characters.
  2. The questions that drive the audience.

In one sense they are linked–the questions that drive the characters should also drive the audience. [But] The reverse is not necessarily true: The questions that drive the audience are not necessarily the same ones that the characters need answers for, nor are they questions the characters may even be aware of.”

4. Character Questions

“These are small story questions–they center upon the smaller story of the individuals that populate the tale . . . What is the character’s problem? How does that character intend to solve this problem?” says Mr. Wendig. They “begin with individuals, then move to questions about relationships–how those relationships begin, evolve, and conflict in the form of drama.”

(All said, I’m pretty sure he’s talking about what we’ve called Big Story Questions, mentioned above, the ones that drive the characters forward and thus drive the story forward.)

5. Audience Questions

“These are question that sort of…linger behind the scenes, that drive you, the storyteller, and that urge the audience onward, but that exist beyond the ken of the characters. These are detail-driven questions,” says Mr. Wendig. Further, “Audience-driven questions don’t necessarily apply to the characters because the characters ostensibly already know–or just don’t care about–the answers.”

Audience questions also include thematic questions. “Even if the theme begins its life in your [the author’s] mind as a question (which is totally fine), by the end of the tale, that question should be answered and the argument made, the narrative having proven the thematic assertion,” says Mr. Wendig.

Audience questions are great and should be included in your story, but, as Mr. Wendig says, they’re secondary to the story-driving questions: “Audience-driven questions are not the bread-and-butter, meat-and-potatoes of your narrative–they cannot sustain it. . . . [So don’t] forget to place at the force the questions that urge the characters to action. Just the same, [audience questions] are worth your consideration, more as a flavor component rather than the part that delivers the most nutritive value.”

Story Questions: Logistics

How many questions do I need?

Ms. Munier says, “Once you’ve plotted your story questions for your big scenes, make sure that you pose little story questions between the big questions. Aim for at least one story question every page (or around every 250-500 words).”

When do I reveal these questions and answers?

The main story question “needs to appear early on–it is the single most important factor in determining whether your story gets read.” says Ms. Cleland. So, “While the narrative question doesn’t have to be introduced in the first line, the earlier it appears, the better.”

This positioning recommendation goes for each level of story question: act, sequence, and scene questions should be raised at the beginning of the act, sequence, or scene.

As for when to answer questions . . .

“[Y]ou need to anticipate the questions readers may ask as they read your words, answer the ones that must be answered, and postpone the answering of the ones that can wait,” says Ms. Munier, “This is a delicate balancing act. You need to answer the question that, if left unanswered, will frustrate and distract the reader, and you must delay answering the questions that, if left unanswered, will keep them reading late into the night.”

The editor [or author] can arrange or re-arrange events to create or heighten dramatic questions and thus shape the rise and fall or tension and release. One tools the editor uses for this is timing (in the sense of when she puts events in relation to each other),” says Ms. Pearlman, “She can shift the timing of events around the sequence to shape the plot so that questions are posed by events and resolved in a satisfying flow.”

A good rule of thumb is: The bigger a question’s payoff and/or the more you can breadcrumb it (give a little more info here and a little more info there), the longer you can tease out its answer.

How do I reveal these questions and answers?

“This requires an attention to detail within the actual text,” says Ms. Munier.

Unfortunately, this is all the guidance I found. But, really, there are only a few ways to reveal anything in narration: 1. Action, 2. Dialogue, and 3. the point-of-view’s Interiority, which includes (a) emotion, (b) thoughts, including exposition and summary, and (c) perception, including description. I might’ve missed something, but off the top of my head, I think that’s it.

So, interlude over. Let’s get back to scenes . . .

Scene Questions: In Particular

“A great scene,” says Larry Brooks, “asks and, to some extent, answers a dramatic question.”

As you’ll recall from the last post, the beginning of a scene makes clear to the reader the character’s goal . . .

“At this point,” says Jack Bickham, “the reader sees clearly that this short-term goal relates importantly to the long-term story goal and the story question. So just as he formed a story question, the reader now forms a scene question.” 

How are Scene Questions raised?

A scene question is “a rewording of the goal statement,” says Mr. Bickham. “To put it another way, every scene starts with a goal, and the goal statement raises a question in the reader’s mind.” Will Character achieve his goal? In other words, once you make a character’s goal clear to the reader, “[t]he reader will immediately take the goal statement and turn it around into a story question and worry about it.”

Albert Zuckerman says, “In a blockbuster novel, a scene is almost always more than merely a well-written account in description and dialogue of an episode between characters. Popular authors intuitively or deliberately build their scenes. Somewhere in the first few lines or paragraphs (or carried over from an earlier scene) a question is subtly (or not so subtly) raised . . . By informing the reader early, either before the scene actually begins or just as it starts, of what a character wants and is trying to accomplish, or of what danger (or pleasure) lies ahead, about which the character involved knows little or nothing, the author sets up suspense for the oncoming scene.”

Two ways to raise questions:

The Sudden Shock Technique: “One method [to set up the dramatic question of a scene] is to begin with a sudden shock,” says Mr. Zuckerman, “Almost out of the blue, something happens that profoundly affects one or more of his characters. The question becomes, ‘How did, how could this terrible thing have happened?’ You then backtrack in time to show–and the reader reads to learn–how this came to be.

The Traditional Technique: A “second method [of setting up the dramatic question of a scene] is more traditional,” says Mr. Zuckerman. The writer [the writer] introduces the issue in question early in the scene through interior monologue, dialogue, or author narration.”

Or through action. As Dwight Swain says, “How does a scene provide interest? It pits your focal character against opposition. In so doing, it raises a question to intrigue your reader: Will this character win or won’t he?”

“There’s no one way to frame narrative questions–they can be delivered with a punch or woven gently into description or dialogue,” says Ms. Cleland, “Make your decision based on your voice, writing style, genre, and reader expectations.”

Scene Question Considerations

Mr. Bickham says, “Here is a note so important that I want to set it off typographically:  The scene question cannot be some vague, philosophical one such as, “Are bankers nice?” or What motivates Fred?” The question is specific, relates to a definite, immediate goal, and can be answered with a simple yes or no.”

“If your narrative question is weak, vague, unclear, muddied, boring, or delayed, you’ll lose your readers,” says Ms. Cleland, “If it’s vivid, clear, compelling, intriguing, and immediate, you’ll keep your readers.”

So, for each and every scene question (and for those questions at the levels above), make sure:

It Implies an Action and Stakes

A dramatic question almost always starts with the word: ‘will,’ ” says Ms. Pearlman, “Will someone do something, say something or get something.  For example: ‘Does Joe like Liz’ is not a dramatic question.  ‘Will Joe hook up with Liz?’ is a dramatic question because an action is implied (Joe hooking up with Liz, or not) and something is at stake: the relationship.

It is Specific and Immediate

“The scene question cannot be some vague, philosophical one,” says Mr. Bickham. “The question [must be one that is] specific, relates to a definite immediate goal, and can be answered with a simple yes or no.”

It is Clear

“This question is never vague, no more vague than the goal statement can be,” says Mr. Bickham.

It is Relevant

“The moment a reader can’t see the relevance to the [main] story question of whatever is stated as a scene goal, the reader almost surely will yawn and lose interest in that upcoming scene,” says Mr. Bickham.

It is Intriguing

With a strong enough dramatic question, the writer can add in some less-compelling but still important information before he gets around to showing the answer.

How do you know if you have an intriguing scene question?

To find out, Mr. Zuckerman says to look at your scene. “Does anything in the text of their first or second pages raise a question that sets up suspense that is then dealt with or resolved in the scene’s climax? Does the scene have a climax?  If your answer to these question is negative, then get back to work.  First, determine what your climax should be, write it, and then find a way to prepare for it.  If you already have a climax that pleases you, figure out which set-up strategy works better[,]” the sudden shock technique or the traditional technique.

What should the question’s answer be?

(In terms of the scene post series, this section, the Scene Question’s Answer, should probably be part of the Scene Ending Elements posts, but this post seemed incomplete without it. I’ll probably end up putting it in both places. Anyhoo . . .)

“This question must always be one which can be answered simply in terms of the goal,” says Mr. Bickham, “The only possible answer are: yes; no; yes, but; or no, and furthermore.”

Actually, I think there’s a fifth and a sixth option. We’ll get to that.

Option #1: YES.

“If a character enters a scene, has a big struggle, and comes out with exactly what he went in for, then he is happy . . . the reader is happy–and all story tension just went down the drain,” says Mr. Bickham. So, “while possible, the ‘yes’ answer destroys all reader tension and probably kills off your story.”

Steven James agrees: “If the answer is ‘Yes’ and the character gets what he wants, you don’t have a story, you have an event.”

So, as Mr. Bickham says, “[Y]ou cannot allow the answer to be a simple ‘yes!’ Whatever the character wanted–whatever the scene question–the answer must be negative.”

Option #2: NO.

“A simple ‘no!’ may suffice,” says Mr. Bickham. “At the very least, [Character] has lost one option.”

That said, and as Mr. James says, “If the answer is ‘No,’ the story goes nowhere.”

Option #3: YES, BUT…

“‘Yes, but‘ disasters are often better than a simple ‘No!’ because they put the hero on the horns of a moral dilemma, and in making an ethical choice to turn down the crummy deal, he in effect brings on his own disaster. (Of such stuff are heroes often made.)” says Mr. Bickham.

Mr. James agrees: “If the answer is ‘Yes, but,’ you have the introduction of a new struggle. . . . Things have just gotten much, much worse.”

Option #4: NO, AND FURTHERMORE…

“If the answer is ‘No, and furthermore,’ you have escalation of an existing struggle. That’s good,” says Mr. James.

“No, and furthermore!” says Mr. Bickham, “This kind of development not only tightens reader tension and increases reader worry, it also tends to build reader sympathy for the viewpoint character, who planned so well and fought so hard–only to be swatted down once more.”

Option #5: NO, BUT…

This is the silver linings option. No, the character didn’t achieve his goal, but for one reason or another, all is not lost. There’s another path. There’s still a chance. There’s a hook to hang your hopes on. There’s still something that comes out of this scene that moves the story forward.

I’m thinking specifically of the prologue to The Da Vinci Code. The curator’s goal is to escape the guy with the gun. The scene question is: Will the curator escape the guy with the gun? The answer is: No, he’s not going to escape. (And, furthermore, he’s gonna die.) But . . . he will have enough time to pass on his secret.

Option #6: YES, AND FURTHERMORE…

This one’s rare, and if it appears at all, it’s probably only once and it’s probably best placed just after the midpoint. Up until the midpoint, the characters have been running the gauntlet and, usually, they’ve just had a major blow. They and the reader could use a respite, and so the reader doesn’t mind so much that something goes well for the character.

I’m thinking of two examples, both of which happen just after the story’s midpoint. First, the Da Vinci Code. Leading up to the midpoint, Langdon and Sophie are held at gunpoint by the bank guy who was supposed to help them escape police surrounding the bank. They get away and seek help from the grail expert. This leads them to sequence 5, where the sequence question is: Will the grail expert help them with the grail? The answer is: Yes, he’ll tell them all about the grail. And, furthermore, he’ll help them escape the Paris police and fly them to London in his private jet. (This answer also includes a delayed “but”–but the grail expert is The Teacher, the bad guy–but in the moment, it doesn’t look like that. It looks like a “Yes and furthermore” answer.)

The second example is from Romancing the Stone. Have you seen that? It’s been a while since I watched this, so I hope I’m not screwing it up, but even if I am, I think the example is clear enough. So after the midpoint they show up at that one guy’s house. He’s expected to be very scary, very intimidating and unwelcoming. Kathleen Turner (Joan Wilder) and Michael Douglas are trying to get off the street, if I remember correctly. The scene question is: Will he let them in? The answer is: Yes, he’ll help them and, furthermore, because he likes Joan Wilder’s books, he helps them in other ways too. Like, I think he drives them somewhere or lets them take his car. Something like that. Anyway, you get the point. Yes, and furthermore. It’s rare. Its placement should be carefully considered. But it’s a viable option.

Scene Answer Considerations

Answers should raise more questions

“Questions have answer and answers lead to more questions,” says Mr. Wendig, “These chain together, ultimately, into a story. And they chain together in a way that is consequential . . .”

Said again, from Mr. Wendig: “Each answer creates more questions and problems. Put differently, every answer to every question–every solution to every problem–has consequences. Questions have answers, and answers lead to more questions. These chain together, ultimately, into a story. And they chain together in a way that is consequential–meaning, they’re not simply this happens, then this, then this, but rather, each effect is preceded by a cause.”

So if possible, give “an answer that just created more questions,” says Mr. Wendig. “[T]hose are the best kinds of questions to ask: questions that generate more question marks than periods or even exclamations.”

Answers should result from the scene’s conflict and include a disaster.

A scene’s “answer must be a development which grows logically yet to some degree unexpectedly out of the conflict,” says Mr. Bickham. “You can’t have [the characters] fight about one thing, and then just stick on a disaster which doesn’t fit.” “Whatever type of disaster you concoct for your scene ending, however, please note that it must answer the scene question and none other. . . . You have to play fair with your reader.  You stated a character goal, and the reader formed a scene question. Your disaster must answer the question that was posed.”

More on conflict and disasters in later posts.

Answers should be plausible but also surprising

A scene question’s “answer has to be logical but unanticipated,” says Mr. Bickham, “and it has to put the viewpoint character in a worse position.

More on how to do this in a later post.

Answers shouldn’t be revealed until after other questions are put into play

“Just as questions give the story forward momentum, answers to those questions halt that moment,” says Mr. Wendig, “A question draws us in, and a period forces us to stop . . . the question mark is the lure of continuation, the tantalizing mystery to be unraveled. The answer or the punch line always comes with a period–and that’s it. . . . The answer has completed the exchange.”

So . . . “Don’t answer dramatic questions without raising new ones,” says Ms. Pearlman, “In order to keep us wondering what happens next we need to know what action is implied and what is at stake. If Joe hooks up with Liz and they live happily ever after it had better be the end of the movie. If Joe hooks up with Liz but is then offered a job overseas we have a new question: Will Joe choose the job or the relationship? Action implied? Choosing. Stakes? Career and relationship.”

Exception

We touched on it in the previous quote . . .

“Eventually, of course, a story draws to a conclusion. It has to end. And that’s when you start introducing answers that don’t create more questions,” says Mr. Wendig.

The Ellipsis Tool

“If your script answers questions without raising new ones, trying using ellipsis,” says Ms. Pearlman, “If you have a scene in a bar where the question is ‘Will Joe hook up with Liz’ and at the end of the scene they leave the bar in each other’s arms, we know the answer. That’s fine, unless the next scene is one of them in bed together, and there is no new question. Try cutting off the end of the bar scene so we don’t know the answer. That way, seeing them in bed is a revelation, not a repetition. You may even be able to insert other scenes in between, keep us wondering about Joe and Liz while you raise a new question in another part of the story. Then, when you answer your first question, you have a second one open and in play.”

Said again, from Ms. Pearlman: “Editors can also employ the tool of the ellipsis. Will someone do something?  Cut out the bit of the scene where a character answers the question by saying “yes I will do it” and jump straight to the scene of them doing it.  This creative ellipsis on the part of the editor activates the viewer’s mind in piecing together the cause-and-effect chain, and this activation has an energizing effect.

Another way of using the ellipsis tool is to have the character receive and act on the answering information while withholding the specifics of the information from the reader for a few more pages. (See how Dan Brown uses this technique here.)

Deliberate Practice

A suggestion from Ms. Munier: “Examine one of your own scenes [or a storymaster’s!] and find the story questions within it. Identify the story question hierarchy in your scene, and ask yourself where and how you could pose additional questions.”

Best Books on Story and Scene Questions

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Up Next

Paula Munier uses Star Wars as an example of how the story question hierarchy works.  It was too long to quote, but it’s worth the read (Plot Perfect, p54-58).  Eventually, I’d like to do a story question hierarchy for the Da Vinci Code. (All those questions still plague me.) Next week, however, we’ll do the Beginnings Story Master post. I’m thinking I’m going to overlay it onto the Purpose Story Master post. We’ll see . . .

See you in two Wednesdays!

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