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"Everybody has a secret world inside of them. All of the people of the world, I mean everybody. No matter how dull and boring they are on the outside, inside them they've all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds. Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands maybe" ~ Neil Gaiman (A Game of You)

6.01.2011

Questions, Questions, Questions

A woman from my writing group shared that she was advised at a writing workshop to never have a character ask questions in her thoughts.  She couldn't remember why; she just remembered that rule.  That's silly, I thought.  People naturally ask themselves questions.  I chalked it up to a rule I was determined to break.

But occasionally, I'll be reading a book, sometimes a very good book, and I'll notice that the character is asking a lot of questions through inner dialogue.  And it begins to irritate me.  The character starts to seem whiny and weak.  Is that really what the author intended?  I'm especially annoyed if all the characters keep asking questions, and it doesn't seem authentic to me.

Here's an example:

"Good grief, I think.  Do people really do that?  Do they ask themselves questions over and over?  Why can't they just form an opinion and stick to it?"

vs.

"Good grief, I think. People don't really do that.  They don't sit there and ask themselves questions over and over.  They form an opinion and stick to it."

Guess which example reflects my actual thought?  The latter.

Maybe I was being unfair.  I decided to investigate.  Since reading The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron, I have been writing stream-of-consciousness morning pages for several months.  I have three or four notebooks filled with my uncensored thoughts.  I picked up one of my old notebooks and thumbed through it, looking for question marks.

What did I find?  Long expanses where I did not use a single question mark.  I discovered I'm very opinionated when it comes to my husband, my children, the birds outside, and the weather.  I noticed I occasionally threw in a rhetorical question, especially if I was trying to be clever or funny.

But then I'd hit a passage that blew my theory out of the water.  Tons and tons of question marks.  I read closer to find out what was going on.  I discovered that when I was truly soul-searching, I used a lot of questions.  If something was bothering me and I needed to dig it up, I asked questions.  But here's the kicker.  They were not rhetorical questions, and I always answered myself.

My conclusion, then, is that questions can be useful in inner dialogue if used purposefully.  If you have a weak character, questions are a subtle way to emphasize that weakness.  It's also a subtle way to show character arc when you have a weak character gaining personal strength -- change the inner dialogue from questions to statements of opinion.  And it's very powerful to show your character wrestling with inner demons -- if you remember to answer the questions you raise.

What do you think?  Do your characters ask too many questions?

7 comments:

Donna K. Weaver said...

Wow. Now I'll have to go back and check.

=D

Renee said...

Very interesting, Shelli...you do know how to get people thinking!
I have a question for you!! Where do you get your graphics and photos you use in the blog?

Thanks

Shelli said...

Donna, it's an easy fix. :) And I also think that misusing questions sometimes reveals the author's lack of confidence.

Renee -- I know, funny where my mind goes, isn't it? As for the pictures, I just do a google search for the topic at hand, choose "images," and then make sure the image I'm using isn't copyrighted.

Lynda Sewing and other things. said...

Well, Shelli, I'm not a writer, but I must be kind of whiny and weak, or else spend way too much time reflecting on things.
To be fair, it is my job to reflect on things and figure out what would have value to the typical person, and how much value. But since Dale has been working out of town and is gone most weeks from before I get up Monday morning til way past bedtime Friday nights, I spend so much time alone, I talk to myself a lot as if I were having a conversation. Please note Dale mentioned I was talking to the dogs like they were people last weekend too!
So perhaps I am soul searching, perhaps I am trying to get answers to things that I am questioning, or perhaps I'm just truly your crazy old aunt! ROFLOL
But the good thing is when I finally answer the questions that come up in my internal dialog I am convinced that I have the right answer.
I think in your writing, you need to determine what personality your character is, and if in fact, they question everything, or bull ahead believing they are right in all of their thoughts without heeding any internal dialog whatsoever.
And don't discount the fact that most very strong people have those internal discussions before they plant their heels!
Now I need to get The Artist's Way. It's been on my Amazon wish list for a while. :P}}

K.C. Woolf said...

Interesting thoughts, and your example made me think.

Something to watch out for next time I go over the manuscript!

Shelli said...

Lynda, I think you're a perfect example of how using questions with a purpose can help you craft a character. You can use it to create a careful planner, or someone introspective, or someone who doesn't have anyone else to talk to at the moment! And I think you've proven my point -- when you ask questions, you answer them. No hand-wringing there. I don't think anyone would call you weak and whiny!!!

KC -- Thanks, I'm glad I made you think. :) It's just one more way to make sure that our words are purposeful and conveying the meaning we want them to convey.

Carrie Dair said...

Love this! I never thought about the character asking him or herself a question before. I think you're right about their importance, but also having them answered. The reader is on the journey with the character. They don't want to guess at the answer...they want to know what the character decided. Then the reader can decide if they agree with their choice or not. That's the adventure. Thank you for the great tip!!!