Editing: Questions and Answers
In the February 2008 column, I started discussing the challenge of
editing. We’ll continue it here, by considering the problem of questions
I don’t mean questions that you have about editing, such as whether or
not you may put a preposition at the end of a sentence. Instead I mean
questions within your story and the answers that your story gives to the
reader. One of the most important things to do while editing is to make sure
that your story gives full and complete answers to all the questions it
Types of Questions
Before we consider the types of questions in a story, let’s consider
questions in general by reviewing “interrogative pronouns” (you may know
them as “question words”). Here’s a list of the ones I could find: who,
when, what, where, why, how, which, which ones, how much, and
how many. Now, not all of these will apply to every aspect of your
story, but it’s useful to remember them, because they come up over and over
Now let’s take a look at some of the questions that need to be answered
Scene mechanics questions
For example, when you write a scene you’ll need to decide the following:
Who is there? Where does it take place? When does it
take place? What happens? How does it happen? Why does
You may choose not to answer all of these questions in your first
version. For example, I often block out a scene by sketching out a
conversation. When I decide, later, that I want to keep that conversation,
I’ll insert description of where the people are, what activities they’re
involved in, more about the time of day, and so on.
I admit that I have a less-than-enthusiastic approach to these questions,
because they rarely involve the main forceful pieces of plot – yet, like the
piece of parsley on the plate, they truly garnish the story. I may stare at
my screen for a while, and then decide to place the conversation inside a
wine-jug, and somehow the background weaves itself with the foreground to
make a scene which lives and breathes…
Many questions will relate to the plot, and many of them are obvious. For
example, in a cozy mystery, the main question might be: Who killed the
butler? If this is central to your story, you had better know not just
who the perpetrator is, but why and when and where
and how he committed the murder.
Other genres have other central questions. In a love story you need to
know how the lovers meet, what hinders them from getting together at once
(which always happens) and how they finally resolve their issues and live
happily ever after (not all romances end happily but most do). In a
fantasy-type quest (note how the word “quest” relates to “question”), you
need to answer what is being sought and why, what dangers are encountered en
By the end of your story, you and your readers should be able to answer
what happened to all of the characters. Are they alive or dead? Healthy,
happy and rich? Have their problems been solved? How are they relating to
one another? Have they learned what they needed to learn? Have the bad been
punished and the good rewarded?
This may even include bit characters, and characters who are off-stage,
so to speak. I once reviewed a manuscript in which the protagonist had an
estranged son. I waited throughout the entire story to learn what happened
to this young man – but oddly, he was never mentioned again. Yet an
estranged child or parent is so significant that the relationship needed
to be resolved.
Even when the character is not significant, readers like to know what
happened to them. You can wind up with a sentence or a paragraph. Perhaps
Mrs. Brown decides to become a belly dancer. Mr. Brown finally comes out the
closet. The hero’s high school math teacher turns out to have a gambling
problem and joins a help-group.
Your story has to be concerned with more than just people – occasionally
it needs to be concerned with things as well.
Significant items are expected to play some role in the story. For
example, if you write a play in which a gun is displayed over the
mantelpiece, than that gun has to be used, somehow, by some character in the
play (this rule is known as “Chekhov’s gun”).
Furthermore, readers like to know what happens in the end to important or
interesting artifacts. For example: Was the car fixed? Was the house sold?
What happened to the necklace?
The above just gives a few of the types of questions that a reader could
have about your story. I’m sure that you can generate many more. Some of the
questions that you generate may be ones that your reader did not know he
should ask but will satisfy him greatly when you answer it.
Types of Answers
We’ve gone through many of the types of questions that your story can
generate, and that it’s important to answer them. However, you then have to
decide how you answer them. Eventually you will have to answer all
your story’s questions completely. But you do not want to answer them
completely immediately! If you do that you will kill your story – especially
with the main questions to your story.
One thing to do is mislead your characters (and your readers) by feeding
them incorrect or information. They will then act on their poorly-formed
assumptions, and hopefully plenty of entertaining chaos will ensue.
Another alternative is to drip-feed the answers. You give incomplete
answers – often misleading – so that they again make wrong judgments.
Another way of looking at this is to consider the answers as different
layers, or different perspectives or interpretations.
Your answers should also be surprising but logical, a challenging goal.
If you’re not sure what I mean, think about mystery stories: the reader is
most satisfied when the murderer is perfectly logical and simply not at all
obvious. The “surprising-but-logical” answer, when achieved, can be very
rewarding for the reader. (Think of Jane Austen’s Emma, which has
been described as a detective story without a body – and yet, when the
surprise comes out – and for me, at least, it was a surprise – it is
Your answers should be emotionally satisfying to the readers. Perhaps the
hero does not win every time and the villain does not always lose –
perversely, shedding tears can also be satisfying – but in many of the
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, your answers should be
entertaining. For that is what fiction is about, isn’t it?
In John Irving’s The World According to Garp, a reader (Jillsy
Sloper) remarked, that, even though she did not like the book or the
characters, she kept turning pages. “But why?” asked the editor. “To find
out what happens next,” was her answer. This is true of many readers. They
want to have their questions answered! After all, “Inquiring minds want to
You may decide – and I hope you do – that some of the advice above is
good, not just at the editing stage, but in the formation of the main draft
of the story! This should not be surprising: after all, editing is
essentially correcting everything that you didn’t get right the first time.
But it’s also good to go through your manuscript when you’re editing, just
like it’s important to review your homework or your test, and to make sure
that you have not skipped any questions. By the time you reach “The End,”
you want to make sure that all your answers are clear, logical, and complete
as well as entertaining and emotionally satisfying.
In fact, you may want to answer a few extra questions, in order to get
some extra credit with your readers!
Do you have questions – or answers – that you wish to share with me? Do
you want to use this article in another situation? Please contact me at
grossackva at yahoo dot com.
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