That? Is the question?

QsUnfortunately, we live in an age where rising terminals are becoming the norm. It’s not only teenagers and the like who are now adopting an interrogative intonation for non-questions, the contagion seems to spread to some parents, other adults, role models, and even broadcasters and academics who should know better. That, however, is the hand that’s currently being dealt so, if, as writers, we want to ‘get down’ with them all, our punctuation should reflect our streetwise credentials. For example:

‘So Jenny went to the gig? but it was, like, soooooo baaaaad? that people were, like, getting up on the stage? and the drummer was hitting them with his sticks?’


‘The Critique of Pure Reason poses problems of interpretation? so students tend to look for synopses online? They think that will be enough to get them through their exams? And the comprehension and absorption of its metaphysical consequences? can be postponed ad infinitum?

There are, however, genuine, legitimate questions which are fundamental to producing fiction (as well as some non-fiction). They are, of course, Who? Where? What? How? When? and most important of the lot, Why? Most of my fictional output has been crime novels but I’m fairly confident that these questions play a large part in most genres, including the one which is deemed superior to them all, the ‘literary’ one. So here’s a blog which I think our US friends might call Writing 101.

This is the easy one. I know there are stories ‘peopled’ by things, objects, usually treated

Close up of group of pencil erasers.

anthropomorphically: depressive but aspirational mops which live in dark basement cupboards with only an educationally challenged bucket for company; carbon molecules in the lead of a pencil burning with envy at cousins who form diamonds in the crown jewels but whose lives are transformed when they hear and begin to understand the meaning of ‘put lead in your pencil’; a discarded spittoon; and so on.

A step up from them in the league of fictional protagonists (although there are those who would deplore such elitism), come those which feature beasts, such as Animal Farm or much of the oeuvre of Dr Seuss. Then, at the top of the heap, there are  actual people. (Again, such hierarchical rigidity will cause the chorus of disagreement to swell even further.) In the interstices appear fairies, werewolves, starship captains, Hobbits, Paris Hilton, and so on, but in all the cases, answering the question ‘who?’ forces the writer to individualise them, distinguish them from the other mops in the cupboard or their fellow investment analysts in the Square Mile. Try it. Think up a name or pick one from the phone book and ask ‘Who’s this?’ In no time at all, you’ll find you have someone with connections, relationships, problems, aspirations.


mopJust as the answers to ‘who?’ work by reducing possibilities – choosing name, gender, marital status, job – so ‘where?’ works in the same way. Drop your bucket and mop into a Chicago basement and their angst will be very different from that experienced by their counterparts in Surrey or a croft in Caithness. The place will impose certain customs, behaviours, cultural restrictions or opportunities. Complicate that by having a mop manufactured in, say, Cuba, find itself in the basement of Enron mere days before it stopped being ‘America’s Most Innovative Company’ and the plot has already thickened.

Such restrictions are, in fact, liberating. By anchoring the narrative to a specific location, Kilts9‘where?’ offers a ready-made back story in which things as diverse as kilts, rosaries and cricket bats can provide instant colour and mood. Then again, mix them up so that you have a Scottish batsman employed by the Vatican to organise recreational pursuits for its nuns and the available textures multiply further. ‘Where?’ not only anchors characters, gives them specific substance, the ‘elsewhere’ which it implies also opens an infinity of alternative narrative layers, perspectives, and even universes.

And that’s enough to be going on with. I shall return to my theme next time to continue the 101 course. Meanwhile, experiment with who? and where?. The richness your answers provide may surprise you.

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