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Christine DeSmet on Questions and Writing

Christine DeSmet is the author of the Fudge Shop Mystery Series set in Door County, and the Mischief in Moonstone Series set in northwest Wisconsin. You can find out more about her here, see her books here, and see her last blog post here.

Valentine’s Day candy hearts say “Be mine.”  

That’s an implied question:  Will you be mine? It’s akin to Mister Rogers asking: “Won’t you be my neighbor?” Will you be my neighbor? 

In writing, authors often begin plotting—and steer our stories and protagonist—with the “Will” question. We call it the story’s “Central Question.” In my forthcoming Fudge Shop Mystery book, Undercover Fudge, the plot’s question is this:  Will Ava’s act of going undercover for the sheriff end in success? If you’re familiar with Ava and Grandpa you realize the answer is up for grabs.  

Standard questions we use to create stories—and that journalists use, too—start with: Who, What, When, Where, Why, How?  

Using questions to write a story is a mainstay of another form of writing—television sitcoms. I’m also a scriptwriter, having written sitcoms and been in the Warner Bros. Sitcom Workshop in Chicago. (No sale yet.) The current crop of CBS situation comedies are particularly well-written. Have you checked out “The Neighborhood,” “Bob (Hearts) Abishola,” “Young Sheldon,” and “Mom”? If you can ask questions, you have the ability to write a sitcom like those.  

Sitcoms—and mystery novels—often rely on the “question/answer” format to build scenes and tension. In a sitcom or mystery novel, notice how questions push the story forward: “What happened? How? Why? Who did it? Where did she go?”  

The famous Abbott and Costello comedy routine of “Who’s On First?” illustrates fun dialogue using questions. The original 8-minute broadcast is available on YouTube.

I came to my love of dialogue and questions through reading suspense books by authors including Elmore Leonard. He was the keynote speaker at the Writers’ Institute conference I directed at University of Wisconsin-Madison many years ago.  

Another admirer of Leonard is Tim Chapman, a fellow Blackbird Writers Discussion Group member and the author of the recent mystery set in New Orleans, The Blue Silence

Tim admired Leonard’s concision in his descriptions as well as dialogue. “That’s probably the thing my writing has most in common with his.”  

Using dialogue and questions to push a plot requires interesting characters. Tim and I like oddball characters, which Elmore Leonard created in book after book. In my series, Grandpa and Mercy Fogg are the oddballs—which means their dialogue doesn’t “beat around the bush” and they take actions we probably wouldn’t take ourselves.  

Oddball characters spout entertaining questions and often are loveable. For example, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was considered oddball among his fellow reindeer until Santa asked:  “Rudolph, with your nose so bright, won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?” That’s a “Will” question that shaped the story! 

The next time you read a mystery novel, note:  How do questions push the plot along? What is the “Central Question” driving the sleuth? 

Activity for adults or kids:  Try your hand at writing a flash fiction story (1,000 words or fewer) or poem that uses questions to start it and drive it. Turn “Be mine” into your own sweet writing success.  

Christine DeSmet

Christine DeSmet is the author of the Fudge Shop Mystery Series set in Door County, and the Mischief in Moonstone Series set in northwest Wisconsin. You can find out more about her on her website, christinedesmet.com, or follow her on Facebook.

This Post Has 21 Comments

  1. I love that old Abbott and Costello question routine! And hooray for oddball characters! New and additional story questions make for great scene endings in a mystery plot. Thanks for an interesting post, Christine!

    1. Christine DeSmet

      Thanks, Margaret! Best wishes with your questions and writing!

  2. Joy Ann Ribar

    Christine: Such a great fundamental reminder about writing mysteries! In Journalism School at UW-Madison, they drilled the 5 W’s and H into our skulls, yet I still need to think about them during the writing process. Your article has much to offer in terms of thinking, exploring new sit-coms and even engaging in a question activity. Thanks for continuing to teach me!

    1. Christine DeSmet

      Joy Ann, thanks for that comment. It was fun for me to think about those fundamentals, too. I’m currently working through a couple of chapters in my new novel that are causing me fits because there’s almost too much going on, but I think the questions will get me back to the simplicity my characters need. Yup, I was in the UW-Madison School of Journalism as well. What fun memories!

  3. I have to admit I got a good giggle out of this one. And it also reminded me of the times I got to hear Mary Higgins Clark talk. Both times, she said that the job of the author is to ask “What if…?” A very useful question.

    1. Christine DeSmet

      Anne, you are so right about that question. Thanks for the reminder. That’s a great one for plotting.

  4. Laurie Buchanan

    Christine — Whew! This post came just in the nick of time! In the current chapter I’m writing, your sage advice—”Ask questions like, What happened? How? Why? Who did it? Where did s/he go? What is the ‘Central Question’ driving the sleuth?”—will help me move the story forward. Thank you!

    1. Christine DeSmet

      So glad to hear that! I’m humbled. And I can’t wait to buy that new book coming out this spring!

    1. Christine DeSmet

      Yeah, he’s funny. I wasn’t sure about that concept at first because I liked the other show about Sheldon as the grownup, but “Young Sheldon” has turned out to be well-written and fun.

  5. Larry F. Sommers

    I’ve been thinking about one of the greatest opening sentences in literature: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” That’s a great start because it plants a question in the reader’s mind: “What’s a hobbit?” And, by implication, “What is a hobbit all about? What makes him tick?” Which is of course the entree to the whole book. Also of note is that Tolkien did not foolishly give an immediate answer to the question he had raised. Instead, he goes off on a tangent about the characteristics of the hobbit’s hole–features which help characterize the hobbit while establishing the setting and maintain our interest even while we don’t know just what a hobbit is.
    Great column, Chris.

    1. Christine DeSmet

      You are so right, Larry. Part of the art of writing is having the patience to ask a question at the start of a scene or chapter and then not answer it until the end. Of course we don’t want to do that all the time, but the right question and circumstance makes that technique sublime for creating pacing and tension. I’m so glad you found that example. It’s wonderful! Thank you!

  6. I always learn something new from you, Christine. I’m learning to ask a lot of questions about my characters before I bring them to life. It makes my job much easier.

    1. Christine DeSmet

      Barbara, thank you. It’s good to hear from you. I know you’re a very busy author with highly acclaimed books. Congratulations to you! Best wishes for your next novel and the next.

  7. Sheila Lowe

    Maybe I should start watching sitcoms! Thanks for the good info.

    1. Christine DeSmet

      Thanks for your message, Sheila. There are many good ones out there on streaming channels, too. Sitcoms have had a recent renaissance.

  8. Sharon Lynn

    I like your interpretation of Be Mine, Christine! Because, what if it were a command? Suddenly it becomes co-dependent or dark.
    My favorite sitcom opening is from The Good Place: Elenor opens her eyes to a sign that says “Welcome! Everything is fine.” All kinds of questions pop up when you see that line. Why wouldn’t it be fine. Why do we need that assurance? Where are we? Curiosity pulls us in.

    1. Christine DeSmet

      I love that idea of misinterpretation or hidden meaning or sarcasm perhaps in the way things are said or worded. All tools for writing! Curiosity and the need for clarification pull us in, indeed. Thanks for that insight.

  9. Sherrill Joseph

    Thanks, Christine, for the master class in writing mystery. When I’m writing dialogue for my detectives, my head gets filled with questions for them to ask, many of which they do. It’s sometimes difficult for me to cull those questions to present the best. Any tips?

    Thanks, also, for the classic Abbott and Costello clip. They are two of my favorite comedians!

    1. Christine DeSmet

      Yes, I do have a tip, but you seem to be on top of the answer to your own question. This question thing happens to me, too, but culling questions goes back to what the scene is about. It’s about “control” of the scene, as you indicate. Sometimes our characters are too eager, and you’re right in that you have to control them. One question at a time is best. And I ask myself: Does this question push this scene forward? Or is it just cute chatter? Can the question drive the next scene instead of being asked within this scene? …If characters constantly ask 2 or 3 questions at once, it begins to get irritating and it stops the story. Readers don’t want to sit around waiting for all the answers, though remember this notion can be broken if the questions are dead-on valuable and need answers. I’m reading your middle-grade mystery adventure right now called NUTMEG STREET/EGYPTIAN SECRETS and it’s a lot of fun! The questions are one at a time mostly and push the novel forward at a great pace. I’m learning a lot about poisonous snakes and luckily have not dreamed about them thus far.

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