Tip: Nonfiction is for answers. Fiction is for questions.
Certainly, fiction has much to teach, and not just about society or morality, but also about ornithology, teen pregnancy, Victoria’s reign, the Song of Songs, and so on. But if fiction accomplishes this teaching with a sound that’s overtly educational, most readers close the book. What’s the solution? Questions.
The questions that propel fiction originate in the writer’s own questions:
~ Who is the audience?
~ Why struggle through this when I might make more money at McDonald’s?
~ Does my plot deliver my theme?
~ Wait. Do I have a theme? If not, do I need one?
Start there. Then consider your writing lifestyle. Maybe, like many writers, you’re addicted to critique, conferences, coaching, and a canon composed of brilliant minds like John Truby’s, Robert McKee’s, Donald Maass’s, John Gardner’s, and so on. Great!
Yet instruction doesn’t necessarily pose questions the way that good feedback does. Do you let rules or explanations bury the fundamental questions?
Whether you struggle with your first or twenty-first draft, work alone or with a group, certain questions always apply:
- Is your scenario original and electric? Too good to ignore?
- Does at least one character evoke empathy?
- Do you capitalize on your point of view?
- Do you open the first chapter, and every chapter and scene thereafter, with a big bang?
- Do the details support the story, or mostly your own subjective interests?
- Do you dramatize what’s truly exciting, and summarize what isn’t?
- Does your plot keep readers turning pages?
- Is your story more important to you than your readers are? (Oh, oh.)
- Are too many of your sentences annoying?
- Does your novel ask more questions than it answers?
The best fiction leaves us with questions. Nathaniel Hawthorne wonders whether hypocrisy is more contemptible than adultery. F. Scott Fitzgerald invites us to decide what the past means. Harper Lee asks if we ever considered the connection between innocence versus racism or sexism. Tracy Chevalier questions whether we noticed how many women influenced a history peopled with men. Jonathan Franzen speculates on the meaning of “purity.”