Asking the Right Questions
Holly Lisle’s Create A Plot Clinic
By Holly Lisle
Copyright © 2007 by Holly Lisle, All Rights Reserved
(Holly Lisle Create
a Plot Clinic is available for sale
here. If you like this, you'll love the book! -- Zette)
Holly Lisle’s Create A Plot Clinic
starts by introducing what plotting is and what it isn’t, gives you to
twenty tools to use to plot your novel, includes structures to use with
your novel and how-to guides for creating and revising your plot before
you write, while you’re writing, and while you’re revising. Every
section includes an explanation, a demonstration of how to use each tool
or technique, and an exercise to move your plot forward. If you work
your way through the book, you’ll have a working start-to-finish plot by
the time you’re finished.
Tool 1: Question
Developing characters, building worlds, creating languages, and building
plots are always more about asking the right questions than they are
about getting the right answers.
The starter questions for plot can be simple and story-related:
What happens first?
Why does that happen?
Who made it happen?
What went wrong?
You can direct questions at your characters:
Who are my characters?
What are their needs?
What are their problems?
Who are their enemies?
Your questions can be more personal:
What scares me?
How can I use that?
Who would be more afraid of that than I am?
Where could I put this person to drive that fear to its worst possible
Your questions can be romantic:
Why is the hero alone?
Who would be the heroine he would be most attracted to?
How could I keep him from being able to reach her?
What could make him do crazy things to catch her attention?
Or they can be historical, or suspenseful, or mysterious, or wacky, or
whatever it takes for you to get answers that lead you toward the book
you want to write.
The trick with asking questions is to start with a good one, and the
trick to starting with a good question is to figure out what makes a
was always pretty good at asking questions—it was a technique I refined
in childhood, much to the chagrin of my parents. But nursing was where I
learned how to do patient interviews, and discovered why my childhood
questions had gotten such good results…sometimes. (I’ll bet cops are
taught to ask the same sorts of questions nurses are.)
The Good Question
good question is always open-ended,
and can never be answered with a “yes” or “no.”
You want to get your subconscious talking. You want it to get involved,
to spill all sorts of interesting bits of information into your hands.
You don’t want to ask it “Is Bob my hero?” and have it tell you, “No.”
No is not a helpful answer. So you rephrase the question to,
“What does Bob do in the first part of the story?”
Then your subconscious is forced to think of useful answers like, “Maybe
he could start fires. Or if you don’t like that, he could be the guy who
steals the heroine’s purse in the first scene. Only maybe she could have
seen him first, and think he’s really cute, and then when she isn’t
looking, he steals her purse.”
didn’t have any idea for a story—any story—until I asked that question.
Didn’t know who Bob was, either. But I let myself answer that question,
and now I have the stirrings of an idea about Bob. A vague glimmering of
the plot to come. But onward.
good question focuses on a broad topic
that lends itself well to expansion into a vast array of subtopics and
Narrow questions are easy to ask. “What did Bob do in the Smith
Building?” is a narrow question. You get one and only one answer from
that. “Bob stole Lucy’s purse.”
“What goes on in the Smith Building,” however, is ripe with
possibilities. The Muse sits there for a moment and thinks. And then it
says, “Well, the main floor is the lobby, where there used to be an
elevator attendant, a receptionist, and a guard, but the place doesn’t
have any of those anymore, and public restrooms and a seedy little music
store that gives lessons and takes trade-ins—their stock is mostly
shabby second-hand stuff. But the guy who teaches guitar is really good.
And the other half is a second-hand bookstore, and the guy who owns that
is about a hundred years old. And the second floor has munchies
machines, and the bathrooms are down the hall, and there are offices—”
“What kind of offices?”
“Hmmm. A video producer who’s supposedly legit, but who’s doing some
pretty creepy stuff down in the basement…”
“There’s a basement?”
“Apparently so. And there’s a bottomfeeder law office at the end of the
hall, right next to the public restrooms. And a detective agency with
two detectives working in it. Partners. They’re just getting started,
and money’s really tight. And an empty office—the guy who worked out of
it committed suicide—he was a broker, and he got caught churning. The
owners haven’t managed to find anyone to rent the place yet. Might be
because they haven’t patched the bullet hole behind the desk And the
third and fourth floors are walk-up apartments. Only about half of them
are rented, because of the neighborhood, you know.”
Approaches the thing you really want to know sideways,
never directly. It avoids accusation and the making of assumptions.
Never put your Muse on the defensive. You want your Muse to think it’s
your buddy, not the enemy. (Don’t make the mistake of actually believing
it’s your buddy, though, or it will stab you in the back and take off
for Bermuda with your hero or heroine and the rest of your book.)
For current purposes, you might as well consider your Muse a hostile
witness or a possible criminal being accused. You want to know the whole
story here, and the Muse has it, or at least big parts of it, and it
knows where it can get the rest. So you don’t ask, “What can you tell me
about what Bob was doing in the Smith Building last Friday at 3:27 AM?”
The answer to that one is “Nothing.” Trust me. The answer to that sort
of question is always “Nothing.”
What you want to ask is something like, “Bob seems a little odd to me.
Has he ever seemed a little odd to you?”
Everybody seems a little odd if you think about it, and by asking the
question that way, you’re building a bit of rapport with your Muse,
getting it to let its defenses down, encouraging it to say things that
it knows won’t really hurt anything. Like, “Well, he does collect rubber
bands. Makes great big balls with them. And he likes to put on makeup,
but only in his bedroom. He isn’t one of those guys who goes public with
it. And I know he likes to trap things. You know, rabbits and foxes and
And now you know that Bob would have a reason to be interested in the
contents of a woman’s purse other than for the money, that he has
intentionally killed things—this may or may not be harmless, depending
on what he does with them—and that he has an odd interest in rubber
bands, which may or may not become a creepy plot point somewhere along
the road. Ask yourself, what does he do with big rubber band balls?
After you figure out your question and ask it, don’t say anything else.
Staying silent creates tension, and both people and Muses will blurt out
some amazing things if you just ask your question and then wait, sitting
still and not filling that silence with anything.
Come up with a list of five questions you want to ask about your plot.
Ask them, and write anything and everything that comes to your mind when
you start getting answers.
Lisle Create a Plot Clinic is available for sale