Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Question and Answer Outline

I was finishing up a story for a critique group yesterday. This group doesn't meet very often, so I wanted to turn in something that felt "complete" so that I didn't waste anyone's time.

I had been working on a story about a father who left his wife and eight children for another woman. He goes to live with this other woman, but for some strange reason he wants to maintain a relationship with one of the children, the youngest one, whom they had adopted.

Last night I was panicking because the story wasn't done yet. I had written about 18 pages, but I wasn't feeling any sense of closure. I decided to make an outline for myself. This outline was based on questions and answers. I went along in my story, and whenever the events created a question, I wrote it down.

1. Why does Sam leave his wife and family?
2. How does his wife Sally deal with it?
3. How does the other woman, Vivian, feel about Sally?
4. What does Sam's son think about all the attention he is getting from his father?
...and so on.

When I got to the end, I noticed that very few of these questions had been answered. I had written a lot, but what I wrote was only creating more questions. I realized that I had to answer these questions before I could call the story done.

This directed my writing a little, but when I got to the last paragraph I felt like I had something much more satisfying. I found this new outline format to be pretty helpful, so I'll probably be using it more often.


  1. I like that a lot!!!! I'm sure others will find it helpful. Are you going to post that story? Sounds GREAT!Reminds me of Woody Allen somehow...???

  2. Davin,
    Great strategy!

    So many questions while writing... and some answers come only after days of pondering. But the answers can be electrifying! magic!

    I look forward to reading more!

    peace, Chuck

  3. I do this a lot. Whenever I read a work-in-progress, I have a notebook and pen handy, and I write down questions the story must answer. I also make sure I do this when I'm first working on the story: I like to know the ending (the final sentence is good to have before you write the first sentence), and then I make a list of questions about how the characters got to that ending. The story essentially is a narrative which answers all these questions. During revisions to my current novel, I have an open-ended list of questions: "Why does Bernardo...?" or "When does Constantin see that...?"

    Massively helpful. Excellent advice!

  4. When I wrote my first novel, I followed a guidleline I made before even starting to write. My second novel, on the other hand, started so naturally, that I didn't need an outline, it just flowed out of me. But once the frist draft was finished, I did need that outline, for the same reasons you mention in this post. Actually, I haven't written the outline down, it's just in my head. I have to do it, because on paper everything becomes more organized. Thanks for reminding me.


  5. "When I got to the end, I noticed that very few of these questions had been answered. I had written a lot, but what I wrote was only creating more questions."

    That's kind of like watching LOST :-)

  6. That's a marvelous way to find what's missing. I have done similar things for my wip.

  7. Interesting concept!

    I recently did something similar (because I felt that my WIP was getting off topic, too). I listed out everywhere that I really wanted the characters to go/do/think. There were about five main things that I wanted them to experience. Then, as I write, I ask myself if they're heading towards one of those things...and if not...cut cut cut.

  8. Litgirl, This story is VERY rough and I don't particularly like it right now. Maybe I'll post it if I decide it's worth revising. Thanks for your enthusiasm!

    Hi Chuck! Thanks for stopping by. Yes, totally, some realizations take a long time to discover.

    Scott, I hate knowing that last sentence. For me, I just need a first sentence to start writing. I let the story drift for awhile, and after it comes to the end on its own, then I go back and trim what ca be trimmed. It's very interesting how books can be written in such different ways.

    Krisz, I usually work like you did on your second book. I write first, then I shape it and find the structure afterwards. I think it's just more fun for me that way.

    Funny, Rick! I used to be sad that I stopped watching that show, but maybe I shouldn't be.

    Lotusgirl, Yeah, this is new for me. But, I did rather like it as a strategy.

    Beth, that's an interesting system too. It definitely makes sense. It's sort of like a loose version of an outline, with trail markers instead of exact trails. That might actually work well for me. Thanks!

  9. "I hate knowing that last sentence. For me, I just need a first sentence to start writing."About three years ago, I think, I wrote eight or ten stories sort of like that: I'd write down the first thing that came to mind and make a story that followed that first sentence. Some of them were pretty good stories.

  10. Hm...great post. I often ask myself these sorts of questions, but rarely write them down. I think I may have to "steal" that tip from you. Being able to see these things written down in front of me may help me find some much-needed resolutions. Thanks for the post!

  11. "I had written a lot, but what I wrote was only creating more questions."

    Welcome to my first novel.

    Now Scottie has convinced me to work with an outline.

  12. Davin, thank you! This is something I need to do for Monarch as I receive feedback from writers. It's a great way to go about filling those holes.

    I've found that my betas are giving me some good questions to answer. Hope your story goes well with your group!


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