Editing: Questions and Answers
     Victoria Grossack

In the February 2008 column, I started discussing the challenge of editing. We’ll continue it here, by considering the problem of questions and answers.

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 raises.

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 again.

Now let’s take a look at some of the questions that need to be answered while writing.

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 it happen?

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…

Plot-driven questions

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 route.

Character questions

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.

Artifact questions

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?

Other questions

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 perfectly logical.)

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 cases.

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 know.”

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.

This article is the sole property of the author. It is produced here with the author's permission.  The unauthorized use or reprinting of an article is illegal, and will be prosecuted at the discretion of the author.


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About the Writer:

Victoria Grossack is, with Alice Underwood, the internationally published author of Iokaste: The Novel of the Mother-Wife of Oedipus, and other books coming out in the series called the Tapestry of Bronze (Tapestry of Bronze.com).  You can also read more of her articles on writing by ordering the e-book, Levels of Structure in Fiction from  www.booklocker.com.  

Victoria was a moderator of a critique group for Coffeehouse for Writers and teaches the From Leaves to Forests and Writing Historical Fiction workshops for Coffeehouse for Writers.