On Making Sure Your Story Answers Its Own Questions

I got stuck again with NEXT BOOK—which seems to be happening every week-to-two-weeks, now that I’m in the part of the story where I have to put all the pieces together, balance and resolve the tensions, and get everyone to the end.

Then I read a Time Magazine article about the end of Game of Thrones that included this quote:

A happy ending isn’t the same thing as an ending satisfying enough to keep you up at night, thinking about how the show’s elemental questions were resolved (see: Six Feet UnderMad Men and, just this week, Fleabag).

This made me ask myself what elemental questions were at the core of NEXT BOOK. I’d always known it would be a story about “stuckness vs. possibility,” as well as “what would happen if an adult with responsibilities found herself in the middle of a portal fantasy,” but as I’d been writing the draft, I’d also realized that this was a book about family, and that many of the questions re: stuckness and possibility were tied up in my protagonist’s experience with her extended family.

So I decided to do this exercise I learned in theater school, where I break down every “scene” by what the protagonist wants, what the protagonist does to get what they want, what the other characters do that gets in the way, and how that reaction changes what the protagonist wants.

I mean, the big thing the protagonist wants generally stays constant throughout the whole act (that’d be the superobjective) but the thing the protagonist wants in each scene (the objective) is generally different.

With that in mind, here’s how I broke down the first big chunk of NEXT BOOK. Spoilers ahead, but not too many:

Because Ellen feels stuck in a caregiving role, she wants to find ways of separating from her extended family and its responsibilities/routines.

She tries doing a Solstice ritual to celebrate her own winter holiday and bring magic into her life

But the ritual doesn’t make her feel better.

Ellen assumes she will be tied to her family forever.

***

Because Ellen assumes she will be tied to her family forever, Ellen wants to connect with her family.

She tries inviting her sister to tour the Banner House holiday decorations

But Grace (who is newly pregnant and not feeling well) stays in the car.

Ellen takes the tour by herself and connects with Robin instead.

***

Because Ellen has connected with Robin, Ellen wants to learn more about Robin.

She tries asking her grandmother, her friends, and the Banner House staff

But they do not give her answers.

Ellen decides to return to the Banner House and find Robin herself.

***

Because Ellen finds Robin herself, Ellen wants Robin to be as interested in her as she is in him.

She tries flirting and following Robin upstairs

But then he asks her to follow him into his world, which is something she is not ready to do.

Ellen goes back to her unsatisfying life and its responsibilities.

***

Because Ellen is unsatisfied with her life, she wants to know whether Robin’s story is true.

She tries asking her grandmother why she always claimed to have been brought home through a fairy door,

But learns that the family story was put in place to hide Grandma Trudy’s true parentage.

Ellen is angry that it’s all about family again.

***

Because Ellen is angry, she wants to be alone.

She tries going for a bike ride

But Robin finds her and asks her to follow him again.

Ellen says she will think about it and arranges to meet Robin later.

***

Because Ellen said she will think about it, she wants to get a few more questions answered.

She tries asking Robin for details about his world

And he provides them.

Then she asks for a favor and he agrees.

Since Ellen has what she wants, and since Robin has shown that he will care for her needs, she is ready to ask herself how to separate from her family and move forward.

So. Writing this out showed me where my scenes didn’t match up with what was in my draft—that is, the “because this, then that” is either unclear or nonexistent. In other words: as I was writing this, I was making notes to myself like “we need another conversation between Ellen and her friends HERE,” or “we need to make it clear that the reason Ellen accepts Robin’s invitation is because he is providing care to her, which nobody else in her life is doing at the moment.”

Writing this out also showed me that some of my scenes might not follow each other super-logically. Does Ellen start asking herself whether there could really be a portal to another world because she is unsatisfied with her life, or because SHE JUST DISCOVERED THERE MIGHT BE A PORTAL TO ANOTHER WORLD? Is there ever a moment where a person who made that discovery would legitimately say “sorry, gotta go back to my everyday life and not think about this for a while?”

I’ve faked it a little by having a responsibility that Ellen needs to get back to right away, during which she can remind herself that she is unsatisfied with her life and that she can’t stop thinking about this Robin fellow and his secret door, and that might work.

Likewise, the “because Ellen finds Robin herself, she wants Robin to be interested in her” thing doesn’t match up. I have a scene where Ellen’s friends are all “did you finally meet someone who could be a romantic partner,” so that could be how it matches up: because Ellen’s friends suggest Robin could be a romantic partner, Ellen tries flirting. Either way, I know that section needs more work because the cause and effect don’t quite harmonize yet.

But again—this is why it’s a draft, and why I’m doing exercises like this, and why I’ve given myself a good long time to play with this story.

Because I want readers to end the book thinking about the way the story’s elemental questions were resolved. ❤️

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