I’ve spent a couple weeks trying desperately to finish up Taming Fire for publication this month. But last time we talked, it was about the questions that keep people reading your stories, and the big story question that drives your story forward. I said offhand that well-designed story questions and scene questions make it much easier to write a story.
This week I’d like to follow up on that idea. I want to talk about story questions as structural storytelling elements. If you use them right, they define your story’s skeleton. They hold it up (keeping it believable), they fit together cleverly to allow your story to move around (keeping it focused on the plot), and they protect the softer, more vulnerable bits (keeping it interesting).
For that to work, you have to use story questions. You have to use them deliberately, and you have to string them together in all the right places. When I talk about “story questions,” you probably go straight to the big one — the spine — but you’ve got to build structure out into the extremities, too. That’s what I want to talk about today.
Points of View
I’ve talked a couple times about my novel-writing professor at the University of Oklahoma, Deborah Chester, and her deeply rules-based storytelling technique. It has been astonishing to me how often one of her students will ask a question that requires a vague, subjective answer, and without hesitation she’ll provide a concrete, objective rule concerning the situation.
It has been even more astonishing to learn, again and again, how accurate and effective those rules can be.
One example of that came when a classmate asked her about multiple points of view. She asked, “How many characters should have a point-of-view scene in a good novel? How do you know the right number? And how do you manage them all?”
I snickered from across the room and shook my head. “There’s no answer to that question,” I thought. “It’s a matter of style, of preference, of ability and experience.”
Deborah Chester shrugged and said, “The only characters who should get point-of-view scenes are the ones who are protagonists of subplots. And the only scenes from their points-of-view should be the ones most relevant to that subplot. If your scene is primarily about the protagonist’s story, that scene should always be from the protagonist’s point-of-view.”
Bam. Just like that. Hard and fast rule. And it makes perfect sense. The point-of-view character for any given scene should be the character most invested in that scene, the one who has the most to lose.
Of course, to really put that rule to use, you have to know your subplots. You have to know what every scene is doing, and which subplot it’s advancing. That’s basic story structure.
And the easiest way to design, understand, and manage your plots (as I said a couple weeks ago) is to build them around story questions. So the corollary to Professor Chester’s rule about points-of-view is this:
Every subplot needs to have a clear story question, and a clear resolution
You understand the main story question, the spine of your story. You understand the idea of a Big Event at the opening of your story that introduces conflict into your protagonist life and causes him to seek resolution. That becomes the story question (“Will the protagonist find resolution?”). It’s not necessarily conscious, but it’s natural and even instinctive to build your story around that central pillar.
The trick to strong writing, though, is to do it deliberately and effectively. And to extend that same level of care to your subplots as well. They’re the extremities of your story, but they need structure, too. If your protagonist is almost as concerned with paying his rent as he is with fighting off the army of attacking zombies, then you need to do the same things for the “Pay the rent” subplot that you do for the “Zombies” plot.
- Establish the story question early, and clearly
- Devote some scenes entirely to pursuing an answer to that story question (and encountering setbacks along the way)
- Wrap up the subplot with a clear, definite answer to the story question to provide a satisfying resolution
And if your subplot happens to belong to the love interest or the sidekick or the villain instead of the protagonist… well, you do precisely the same thing, but the subplot’s hero is the one who gets point-of-view.
I thought it might be handy to discuss all this in a real-life example (albeit a simple one). My sci-fi crime novel Gods Tomorrow is told almost entirely from my protagonist Katie’s point of view. The only exception is the very first scene of the book, which acts like a Law & Order-style prologue to introduce the scene of the crime that will drive Katie’s investigation.
That scene happens from the killer’s point of view. And, according to the technical definitions we’re using, it’s not a “scene.” It’s a sequel. The point-of-view character is reviewing the conflict-heavy scene that just took place (he strangled a young woman), considering the impact that’s going to have on him, and then planning how he’s going to handle it in the future.
Even in the sequel, it’s clear what the killer’s goal was in his scene. He wanted to get away with it. And instead of a major setback, the scene closes with a “yes” ending when the killer closes his eyes secure in the knowledge he’s safe.
We don’t see anything else from his point of view. We do see the resolution of his story question, though, when his identity is revealed in the climax and he gets the ultimate “no” ending to his story question.
Meanwhile, the whole rest of the book follows Katie’s goal, and the conclusion of the story is focused on answering her story question. That’s about as simple and straightforward as you can get with “multiple points of view.” Obviously many writers like to make it much more complicated.
I can’t tell you not to. I can tell you how to measure whether or not you’ve done it right.
- Every point-of-view character ought to be the protagonist of his own subplot, and he should only be the point-of-view character in scenes focusing on that subplot.
- Every subplot ought to have a clear story question, and that question should receive a clear, satisfying answer in the book’s conclusion.
- The most interesting protagonist should be the main protagonist, and the most interesting story question should be the main story question.
As long as you’re sticking to those rules, I can hardly quibble. I can just promise it’d be a lot easier to stick to them if there’s only one of each.