Woman holding question mark
This image raises a lot of questions

We ask, therefore we are. Is that true? Does it even make sense?

Questions seem pretty fundamental to being human. They express our wondering, our yearning to know. They’re also useful in the creation of story.

Maybe the most basic story question is, “What if?” What if a short man-like being finds a magic ring that makes him invisible when he wears it? What if the ring was made by an evil creature who wants it back?

Whether they are stated explicitly or not, “What if?” questions tap into our imagination and the realm of possibilities. Beyond providing a starting premise for a story, questions lead us deeper. Who is the protagonist? What does she want? What scares the crap out of her?

When I write, I often don’t ask these questions consciously, but I think bringing conscious questioning to aspects of a story can be very useful. In order to get to know my main character better, I’ve “interviewed” them by having them answer a bunch of questions. That’s barely scratching the surface of how questions can help.

Rather than delve into that here, I’ll point you to a great post by Veronica Sicoe, Questions Are the Life of the Party.

Instead, I’ll segue into how questions come up in improv. Questions in improv are usually discouraged, at least in dialogue. Many times, questions add nothing to a scene and just put the onus on the other players to make offers everyone can work with. For example, say A enters a scene and asks, “Hey, how’s it going?” They have given virtually no information to their partners. Compare that to A coming in and saying, “Fred! Help me clean up the living room before Mom gets home!”

On the other hand, questions inherent in writing also apply to improv. We speak of establishing CROW:

C — Character. Who is in the scene?

R — Relationship. How do the characters relate to each other?

O — Objective. What do they want? What are they trying to achieve?

W — Where. Where does the scene take place?

These may seem basic but when creating a scene on the fly, it can be easy to forget, so having a mnemonic is useful. The quicker CROW can be established, the quicker the scene can move forward.

Another useful question in improv is, “What comes next?” It’s just getting at cause and effect, but this simple question can really help keep a thread going in a scene. Sometimes improvisers get carried away and make an offer that seems completely random in the context of what has gone before. For example:

A: “Fred! Help me clean up the living room before Mom gets home!”

B: “Okay, but this is your mess, so you’re going to owe me big time.”

A: “Well, considering there are aliens in our back yard, none of this may matter.”

Asking What comes next? internally can help players avoid such leaps. Or, “What comes next?” can help the improviser who is drawing a blank while trying to think of an idea. Chances are, there’s an obvious follow-on action to whatever the situation is. Like:

A: “Fred! Help me clean up the living room before Mom gets home!”

B: “Okay, but this is your mess, so you’re going to owe me big time.”

A: “Anything. Let’s just get this done. We have half an hour.”

It may seem that these result in mundane or boring scene choices. The thing is, keeping a scene grounded helps let the audience into the scene. The other thing is, almost without fail, a player will answer the question, “What comes next?” with a perfectly acceptable, and fascinating offer.

A: “Fred! Help me clean up the living room before Mom gets home!”

B: “Okay, but this is your mess, so you’re going to owe me big time.”

A: “Anything. Let’s just get this done. We have half an hour.”

B: “You know, next time you decide to off a neighbor, make sure there’s less blood.”

(Okay, so “acceptable” might be a stretch, but still.)

Do you ever ask questions to help with your writing? What questions do you ask?

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Q is for Questions
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4 thoughts on “Q is for Questions

  • 04-20-2012 at 3:51 am

    This is really interesting! I’ve often used improv in dialog when I got stuck with my characters somewhere, but I’ve never done it consciously and never thought about it this way.

    The CROW mnemonic is really useful, thanks for sharing it! *scribbles it into her notebook with colored crayons*

    Also, thanks a lot for linking to my post about questions in writing fiction! *blush*

    • 04-20-2012 at 10:23 am

      I have tried to apply skills I’ve learned in improv to writing, and vice versa. Sometimes I was already doing things unconsciously that just became more conscious or intentional thanks to the other discipline.

      Glad the CROW sounds useful. I found your post useful and more in-depth than mine, so naturally I linked to it. 🙂 Thanks for writing it!

  • 04-20-2012 at 2:23 pm

    I’ve always been fascinated at how creative improv folks are.This is enlightening.

    I’d like to check out that book, and I agree that this translates well to writing. I find myself always asking questions about the people and things I observe and sometimes imagine what their stories are, but I don’t think I’ve focused on what comes next, only what happened before.

    Thanks for this!

    • 04-30-2012 at 8:06 pm

      Sorry it’s taken so long to reply to your comment.

      I’ve found that improv brings out creativity in pretty much everyone once they relax and let go.

      The “what comes next” piece is something I don’t think I ever thought of consciously before discussing it in improv. It can be really useful in any storytelling, I think.


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