Analyzing your story, Part-5: questions and responses

From Rick:

This time I’m going to wrap up my advice on analyzing your story. I certainly haven’t covered everything, but I have tried to cover most of the essentials for ensuring your story has the right impact on your readers and that your readers know what’s going on.

In this part I will discuss providing appropriate responses and answers to story events and questions.

Every time you pose a question, directly or indirectly, you must answer it in some way. You don’t need to answer all questions immediately. In fact, if you write your story as just a series of questions and answers or problems and immediate solutions, you’re going to bore the reader.

A good example is a murder mystery. The big question is usually who committed the murder, and that typically won’t be answered until the end of the story, but along the way, you’ll probably have your detective asking questions and getting answers like the motive or how the killer got to the victim or how the victim died (if that’s not immediately obvious), how suspects are eliminated, and so forth.

But this principle of answers and responses applies not just to bigger story questions but to characters’ actions. If a character says something or acts in a certain way, what is the response of the other characters?

Consider the following scene that I’ve used in some previous blogs to illustrate various points. As you read this, pay attention to the questions in your mind (or even jot them down).

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Adrian knelt on the pavement of the Detroit RiverWalk, next to the railing and bars that separated him from the water, and poised the razor blade over his left wrist. Above him one of the overhead streetlights reflected off the blade. He shivered.

The empty bottle of cheap wine stood nearby. One of his sometime friends thought maybe he deserved a present today. He’d tasted better, but it was enough to give him a light buzz and relax him. Of course, the wine was probably stolen, like most of the things he got from anyone who gave a shit about him. He shivered again. He’d expected the wine would warm him up more than it had.

He stared down at the razor blade less than an inch above his wrist. “Is this a coward’s way out?”

No one answered him because no one, except stupid people who didn’t know any better, came out on the RiverWalk this late. Nobody around to watch him leave the world. “Lots of ways to die out here.” He tilted the blade and pressed the side of it against his wrist to feel the cool metal on his skin.

Across the river, the distant lights of Windsor, Canada, stared back at him. This was as good a place to die as any, more exciting than South Dakota had been—not that he particularly enjoyed living here with his loser cousin, the one who taught him how to gamble and run drugs to help pay the bills.

*****

Here are some of the questions you might have caught:

(1) Why does Adrian want to commit suicide?

(2) What time of day is it? (We assume night because of the streetlights, but we’re not told directly, and we don’t know how late it is.)

(3) Why did he shiver? (cold or nervousness)

(4) Why would his friend give him a present today?

(5) Why did the wine not have the effect he expected of warming him up?

(6) Why would no one (except stupid people) be out here at night? Was this a dangerous place, given his comment about other ways to die out here?

(7) Why was he asking if this was a coward’s way out (since we don’t know why he wants to commit suicide)?

(8) Why was he here in Detroit living with his cousin, especially since he claimed he didn’t like it here?

Maybe you came up with more questions. Because this is only a piece of a scene, we won’t expect to get all the answers here, but the reader does expect at least some answers now.

Let’s look at my rewritten version of this scene as it will likely appear in the novel’s revised form.

Are all of the questions answered? If not, then the reader would expect answers to those later. In addition to answering many of the questions, I’ve added more context for the scene, plus a few sensory details along with a better visual picture of the location, and I’ve shown some of Adrian’s thought processes.

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Shortly before midnight, on the Detroit RiverWalk, which just opened two years ago, Adrian found the perfect spot. He’d been walking for the past hour, waiting for all the people to clear out—the late-night walkers and joggers mostly. He’d watched one photographer spend more time setting up his camera than taking the pictures.

Most of the Riverwalk was wide concrete walkway with few trees along it—not a lot of isolated places where he wouldn’t be noticed or interrupted. This particular spot had a couple of bushes to sort of hide him, and the large empty parking lot behind him said nobody would likely come by.

Adrian stood at sturdy railing that separated him from the water lapping against the concrete wall below. He placed his hands on the cold metal pipe too big to wrap his hands completely around.

He shivered. Tonight was a little cool for his favorite “You’ve Mistaken Me For Someone Who Gives A Fuck” T-shirt.

A couple of feet away, the empty bottle of cheap wine lay on its side on walkway. One of his friends had given it to him that afternoon, today being his eighteenth birthday. Of course, the wine was probably stolen, like most of the things he got from anyone who pretended to give a shit about him.

He’d tasted better wine, but it had given him the light buzz he needed to relax him a bit.

From his jeans pocket he pulled out the new single-edge razor blade, with the cardboard still wrapped around it, and lowered himself to his knees on the pavement.

After unwrapping the blade, his shaking right hand poised it over his left wrist. Above him, one of the overhead streetlights reflected off the blade and gave the edge an orange glow.

He shivered again. The wine hadn’t warmed him up as much as he’d expected it to. And he wasn’t buzzed much, even after chugging the whole bottle. All those bets he’d won for being good at holding his liquor must’ve made him immune.

He stared down at the razor blade now less than an inch above his wrist, then tilted his head up at the sky. “Does anybody think my sucky life is worth living for?”

Nobody answered him.

“When my friends found out I had AIDS, they said, ‘It sucks to be you,’” he told the same nobodies.

He pressed the side of the cool metal blade against his wrist and looked across the wide Detroit River. The distant lights of Windsor, Canada, stared back at him. This was as good a place to die as any, more exciting than fucking South Dakota.

*****

Since I didn’t show him kneeling with the razor blade at first (as I did in the previous version), that question doesn’t come up immediately. Instead, I set up a bit of foreshadowing with him being out here late and scouting the location for a place for some reason to be revealed.

When he shivers, we know exactly why. In both versions, the scene does open with a date tag of April 15, but that may or may not be sufficient to indicate coolness in the air.

We know why his friend gave him a present, and we know why the wine might not have had the effect on him that he was hoping for.

I eliminated the remark about only stupid people coming out here this late, and I told why he wanted to commit suicide.

The only question not answered is why he’s in Detroit with his cousin. That’s fine because it leaves something for the reader to discover later.

As I always say, I make no claims to my writing being perfect. I’m always learning as well. I’ve tried to provide answers when needed for the reader without overexplaining, and I’ve tried to keep the pace moving.

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But there is another type of response or answer when it comes to your characters in situations. In the scene I gave above, only Adrian is present, and so far there is no one for him to interact with.

In the next chapter of the novel, we’re in another situation. In PART 4 I gave part of a scene in a hospital ER where an unconscious boy had been brought in. I’ve since revised that scene a lot, but here’s the lead-in to where the EMTs check the boy’s wallet. In case you didn’t read that post, the attending doctor is Dr. Bryan Ash. What I want you to notice in the following excerpt are the reactions of Bryan, both physical and verbal, to the information he receives. Imagine how much weaker this scene would be without all those reactions, if I had kept it to mostly dialogue.

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Bryan opened a drawer and pulled out the items to draw the blood samples. He looked up at Jeff and read the question on his face. “Why am I drawing the blood instead of letting a tech do it? Because I’m here. I was about to head home when you arrived, and maybe doing it myself gets me out of here sooner. If you’d come in ten minutes later, I’d have been gone.”

“Yeah, well… that’s why we rushed to get here, Doc,” Jeff said. “We know your hours. There’s a bit more to this story. Remember when I said this one had your name on it?” He pulled a folded piece of paper from his side coat pocket. “He did have your name on him—literally. When we pulled off the blanket covering him, a note was taped to his shirt.”

Holding the blood-drawing supplies, Bryan angled his head at Jeff. “A note? Not a suicide note, I hope.”

Jeff unfolded it and held it out for him to read. “Definitely not a suicide note.”

Bryan’s jaw dropped. “What… the… hell?” Printed neatly in fine-point magic marker, it read, Please take me to Detroit Receiving Hospital and have Dr. Bryan Ash attend to me. A debit card in my wallet will cover all expenses.

Mouth still open, Bryan looked up at them, stunned.

Jeff met his gaze. “Exactly.”

“We figured you might know who the kid is,” Noah said.

Bryan shook his head in bewilderment. “I have no idea who he is. Did you check his wallet?”

Nurse Ellen Gatford entered the room and pointed at the equipment in Bryan’s hand. “Do you want me to do that, Dr. Ash?”

Still shocked, Bryan handed her the items. “Uh, yes… please…” He swallowed and glanced at the guys. Jeff discreetly lowered the note then refolded it and slipped it back into his pocket.

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When you’re revising your writing, try to visualize your characters and their reactions and ask yourself how they’d be reacting. But be careful to stay IN THE HEAD AND PERSPECTIVE of your POV character for that scene and don’t shift into the thoughts of anyone else. Bryan Ash is the POV character for this scene, and I kept in his head, revealing only what he could observe and feel.

To summarize what I’ve covered,

Your reader, especially at the start of a scene, wants information and wants to be involved in your story. Don’t leave your reader out. Put yourself in your reader’s shoes and ask what you’d want to know right away. Be aware of any direct or implied questions you present to the and be sure you answer them and not leave the reader hanging. If you can’t or don’t want to answer a particular question at the moment, don’t wait too long or else somehow promise the reader that you WILL answer it at an appropriate time.

Be aware of how your characters would react in any given situation. This will be strongly tied to your characters’ personalities, which you should know as well. Remember this: If you don’t know who your characters are, how can you expect your reader to know them?

Go through your story line by line and make sure you’ve made your story and characters solid, consistent, and logical.

—Rick

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