A thread in a Facebook group I belong to begins with one writer’s most-hated book: The Fountainhead. I immediately feel a chime of agreement. Though I’ve never read The Fountainhead, I did force myself to finish Atlas Shrugged after a friend said it was her favorite book. There’s no way I would subject myself to another Ayn Rand screed posing as a story.
Some love it, some don’t.
But further down the thread, other members of the group express different ideas. Their most-hated books and authors include some of my favorites: The Princess Bride, by William Goldman; J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books as well as The Casual Vacancy; anything by Barbara Kingsolver; something else by Stephen King. There were also the usual suspects: Hemingway, Faulkner, Austen, and Moby Dick on the “literature” side, Fifty Shades and Twilight among the commercially successful. One that surprised me was how many hate Holden Caulfield.
I didn’t bother to raise my voice in agreement with the Ayn Rand haters, but I read every post until my internet connection clicked off. If anything, it should make writers very, very happy to know that such famous and popular authors are also thoroughly hated by a few. You can’t please everybody, so you might as well write what pleases you. A few rejections might just mean that you haven’t yet reached the readers who love your work.
A story question, for me, is any question that pops into my reader’s head as I read. They appear in fiction and nonfiction, books and newspaper articles, blogs and business plans. Without them, writing can seem flat or boring.
There can be many in any given story; ideally, they are planted at one point and paid off—answered or satisfied—somewhere in the story. A good way to think of them is as nesting brackets. The largest question is usually planted first and paid off last, while smaller questions can be planted and paid off in different places in the story.
You don’t even need a story to have a story question. Photo from Unsplash by elizabeth lies, https://unsplash.com/elizabethlies.
In literary fiction, they don’t all have to be answered. They can be left open, but bringing them back serves to satisfy them.
Genre fiction usually answers them: “Should you mess with time travel? No, you should not. But if you do, you’d better fix what you messed with” (the big story question and answer in Stephen King’s novel 11/22/63.); “Will the bad guy get away with it? Never!” (just about any detective story); “What will happen to Elizabeth Bennett when her father dies and the family home goes to a distant cousin? She’ll be the lady of her own grand house, thanks to her personal integrity and stubborn adherence to what she knows is right.” (the story question and answer in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which is usually considered a foremother of the romance genre even though it’s also considered lit fic).
Any other great examples of story questions, either resolved or left open, that come to mind?