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.