Writers carry all sorts of tools in their toolboxes. One of the most important tools for me has been a set of keys. Each key is a question that unlocks a door into my story. At first glance, the keys look quite ordinary, because they are questions that most writers automatically ask: who, what, when, where, how, what if, why, and perhaps the more unusual so what? It’s fairly easy to unlock at least those first few doors, but the more I write, the more I’m convinced that the best novelists use those keys not once, but over and over and over again.
The thing is, the first answer – or what’s behind the first door – is often superficial. It may even be deceptive. A writer is wise not to cling too tightly to the first answer that pops into her head, because the first door leads to another. The writer goes deeper, using the same key to unlock door after door until she happens upon the skeleton in the closet or the secret passageway or the king’s treasure.
The WHO key leads to character, of course. But ask again. WHO is worth telling about? WHO has the most to lose or gain? WHO else joins/opposes that character and pushes her story forward?
The WHAT key leads to stakes. WHAT does the character want/need more than anything? WHAT are the challenges that stand in the way of achieving that want/need? WHAT happens if that goal is not met?
The WHEN and WHERE keys deal with the place and time of the setting. WHEN and WHERE serve the story best if they are necessary components of the story and/or they link with WHAT and become challenges or raise the stakes.
The HOW key links to WHO. HOW would the character try to overcome her challenges? HOW do the challenges obstruct her? And HOW does she change in the process?
The WHAT IF key takes a writer deeper. WHAT IF opens all sorts of doors. For example, WHAT IF the character is pressed to do something she’d never do otherwise? Or WHAT IF you replace two characters with one who can take on both roles, creating a surprising link or twist?
One of the most important keys is WHY? This key usually opens doors we find after using another key. For example: WHO is the main character? WHY? WHAT does he want/need? WHY? WHAT keeps him from getting it? WHY? WHY? WHY? This key leads to motive and undercurrent and the bedrock of the story. WHY is the continuing question a writer asks when working and reworking the story.
Then there’s a key more rarely used, because we often don’t want to see what’s behind that door. The SO WHAT? key. Does this scene matter? WHAT does the character want/need? SO WHAT? It is important? I assess what I just wrote. SO WHAT? Is it relevant, or am I just enjoying my cleverness? When I use the SO WHAT key, sometimes what I unlock is an empty room. But even that is good. It shows me that I need to go back and rethink, open more doors until I find the part of the story that really matters.
So if you’re a writer, slip those keys onto your key ring and use them. Every one of them. Over and over again. If you keep unlocking those doors, I can guarantee you that you will eventually unlock your story.
© 2012 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved. Photo courtesy morguefile.com