Good art centers around questions. The pursuit of an answer is never-ending. In that answer, there is revelation, or discovery, or a truth that can be emotional or empirical. Good writing is art – and good writing is the same.
I will go one more step: good writing is only good because it answers a question (use LOOK AWAY to cast your answer). Often these questions are ones that go unasked, either because someone blindly accepted what came before as gospel or due to the emergence of something new. However, different mediums use questions in differing ways. Take research and film as two examples.
For research purposes, a driving question is just that – it propels an investigation forward. Think Newton under the apple tree. To form a good research question, you must be specific. The best questions also apply to a wide swath of audience. Leave ideas about good and bad to the pundits and talking heads – a question that drives research is not argumentative but empirical. In the moment after the apple fell, Newton — while nursing a newfound bruise — must have thought: what force made that apple fall from the tree? That was his trigger.
Is your driving question derived from what came before? If so, the question must find a hole – something that has not yet been explored. Perhaps the question has been answered in one context but not another – extending previous research to situation that differs from the original is not as novel but certainly a valid pursuit. Also, be on the lookout for “the new”. As times progress, new forces and needs emerge. With them, questions arise as well.
The best literature and screenplays come from a single question: what does a character desire? To paraphrase Tennessee Williams, every character has a spine, what they want, and a mask, what they need. As an actor, the mask is what you show but as a writer, the spine is what you need to know. Conflict is what comes up when two characters — each seeking to answer their own question — meet.
This also explains why most sequels, to put it bluntly, suck. Let me explain.
Sequels fail because they rely on familiarity. You know and like the characters. That – and not a character’s driving question – is allowed to shape the narrative. Led by a question (notice the word quest buried within), a story moves. Led by a character, a story doesn’t. Even a character-driven movie like The Big Lebowski features a question. The main character, The Dude, wants to know this: who soiled his rug?
The Godfather II outshines the original because the heartbroken son, Michael, comes back to the fold. Can he integrate himself into the family? Will he get his revenge? How will he quell the dissent within the family? And, finally, will he become the leader of the crime family? All these questions are answered in course of the story in startling and unexpected fashion. The questions – not simply the character – make the narrative.
Know that any question, once answered, creates new questions. Research leads to more questions. A good sequel must have more unfulfilled desires, more questions. This leads to another consideration. Many intensely personal pieces of well-felt prose fail to connect. Why? The writer has questions to answer, but those questions fail to speak to a larger audience. In essence, a piece doesn’t ring true to anyone except to the writer and people who think like the writer.
If this niche is enough for you as a writer, so be it . . . but if you have read this far, then you just might have something big to get off your chest. Remember: your question must be relevant and interesting to more than just you. A second thought: it must cover new ground – or at least ground with few footprints.
Develop a big driving question, then use words to pursue the answer … wherever it leads.
LEARN: Pick up a good book of fiction off your bookshelf. Choose one you read and enjoyed. Some ideas for those eager for suggestions:
+ All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
+ “Sonny’s Blues” from Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin
+ Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
+ The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
+ The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin
USE: Enjoy the book (good pieces of writing get better each time you re-read them) and then define the book . . . what does it mean to be XXXXXXX? See X-FACTOR for more