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The Eternal Questions, Part 2

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Questions are the building blocks of writing. The answers to the questions that you ask are what builds your story, particularly the famous 5 Ws and an H — Who, What, Where, When, Why, How.

Earlier we discussed the character-centric questions, Who, What, Why. Now let’s consider the others.

Nothing takes place in a vacuum. Every single story has to happen somewhere in space, somewhen in time. For this, you will need details and continuity. You need the questions of WHEN and WHERE.

Your story will be very different if it is set in the Stone Age, in Italy during the Renaissance, in China during the Cultural Revolution, in the American South during the height of the Civil Rights movement, or on a 25th Century starship. All of these things require setting up, meticulously.

You may need to do research; you may need to do quite a lot of research. Some of the research may be difficult to the point of being impossible. If you are setting a story in an invented world of your own making but which is based on some particular historical time or place you may have a little more leeway with your details – but anything that’s remotely realistic has to be backed up with the best facts that you can come up with because it is a truth universally acknowledged that if you get some tiny detail wrong you WILL get the kind of reader who will notice and who will lose no time in gleefully pointing out your mistakes. Often loudly. In public.

For instance – do not have clocks in eras where clocks had yet to be invented. This runs deeper than you might think. You might have a character saying flippantly that things are as precise as clockwork… when that character couldn’t recognize clockwork if it smacked him on the nose. In a culture that measures time with hour-candles and sundials, the phrase ‘a few minutes’ may have no practical meaning at all. Do not have pieces of clothing turn up centuries before they were invented, or centuries after they were obsolete.

Continuity comes into play as you keep all of this straight, and you don’t suddenly introduce an anachronism simply because you forgot where or when you were.

These are also the questions that inform the HOW of your story. Murder weapons have to be consistent with your era and with the class or race of the people who are using them. You have to be aware of what your context is, of what your McGuffins can or cannot do under your circumstances, and have your characters behave accordingly.

If they know things, they will have to have come by that knowledge in a manner consistent with the story. You cannot simply have your protagonist reach into thin air and know something JUSTLIKETHAT, or know how to use something they’ve never seen before. This is particularly annoying when you have people transported from our flabby under-exercised world into a space where swords are the weapons of choice… and use said swords without a smidge of training.

Most stories can be deconstructed into those six arenas – and it’s sometimes helpful to pose these questions to your story or your characters if they have become mired. ‘Interview’ your story or your characters and find out where they’re at and what they intend to do next. Sometimes just writing down six lists can be helpful – under WHO, WHAT, WHY, WHERE, WHEN, HOW headings – and the lists can be as disjointed and disorganized as you want, nobody else ever has to see them, they’re stream-of-consciousness things where you write the first things that come into your head when you ask that question with your particular story or character in mind.

You can keep ’em or you can toss ’em, their value lies in unlocking your mind, not in their intrinsic content.

Happy interrogations.

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About AlmaAlexander

I am a novelist, short story writer and anthologist.

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