How Stories Work, Part 2: Questions

I’ve spent a long time reading about storytelling. My guiding questions are: “How do stories work?” and “What makes one story better than another?” This is the second in a series of essays about what I’ve learned.

Questions

The game designer Sid Meier famously said:

“A game is a series of interesting choices.”

I’d say that something very similar applies to storytelling, namely:

“A story is a series of interesting questions.”

Plot is all about making stories engaging and entertaining, and anticipation is the lifeblood of compelling plots. The reason you tune in for next week’s episode is to find out if Jessie will finally kiss Jordan, etc.

Suspense

  • One of the primary functions of plot is suspense. Suspense works like this: First, the story introduces a measure of uncertainty. The audience feels suspense or tension about how that uncertainty will be resolved. Eventually, the uncertainty is resolved.
“Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty” — William Archer, via Andrew Stanton
  • In this sense, plotted stories are a series of interesting questions. Analyzing a plot in terms of the questions it raises is useful because it pinpoints the uncertainty in play.
  • The most common source of suspense in a story’s primary storyline is an unresolved situation: eg. a conflict, a desire, a mystery or other problem. A conflict is defined by its obstacle or adversary (e.g. man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. self, etc.) and raises the question: “Who will prevail?”, ie. “Will the wolf eat Little Red Riding Hood?” Desires raise the question: “Will the desire be fulfilled?”, ie. “Will Alice get Bob back?” Mysteries raise the questions: “What is the secret and will it be discovered?” ie. whodunnit?
  • Not all questions raised by a story are “big” questions related to a storyline, nor do all questions serve only to create suspense. Some questions last only a single scene, e.g. “Can Jessie defuse the bomb?” Other questions just create intrigue, like: “Who keeps calling Jeffrey?” These “small” questions propel the action of a story forward, like Tarzan swinging from vine to vine.
  • In trying to understand a story, it’s useful to try to identify all of its questions. Let’s consider Star Wars. The opening wastes no time in raising questions: “Who is fighting in this space battle”, “What are they fighting over?”, “Who is this fearsome Darth Vader?”, etc. These questions do much of the “work” of engaging the audience and making the story engrossing.
  • It’s also worth looking at how the questions fit together, especially how stories tend to introduce new questions as soon as they answer others. Consider how the questions raised by Star Wars’ main storyline keep changing. First: “Can Luke recover R2?” Then: “Can they deliver the plans to the rebels?” Then: “Can they rescue the princess?” Then: “Can they destroy the Death Star?” The story keeps the audience in a constant state of uncertainty.
  • The questions raised don’t have to be particularly original. Most action sequences rely upon the same handful of questions: “Who will win this fight?”, “Will the hero survive this situation?”, etc. There’s a great deal of storytelling craft that goes the giant rolling boulder that chases Indy out of the cave, but from a plotting point of view, it’s quite simple.

Nuts and Bolts

Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called “The Pledge”. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course…it probably isn’t. The second act is called “The Turn”. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige”. — Christopher Priest, The Prestige
  • Stories introduce suspense by raising questions and deliberately deferring when they will be answered. Stories build suspense by offering a steady stream of conflicting hints about how these questions will be answered without revealing the answer. Finally, the questions are answered. Creating suspense therefore comes down to promising but withholding information — while tantalizing the audience.
  • Suspense plays upon human nature. Humans need resolution, and experience the absence of resolution as discomfort. Stories induce this discomfort (e.g. suspense) through uncertainty, then relieve that discomfort by resolving the uncertainty. The relief of a negative feeling is indistinguishable from a positive feeling. There’s something deeply pleasurable about letting stories introduce this discomfort, knowing that the uncertainty is sure to be resolved.
  • The conventions around suspense in a story’s main storyline are: a) steadily building tension to the denouement (rising action), b) varying tension along the way so that it rises in a sawtooth shape, c) a climax or denouement that swiftly and completely resolves the tension.
  • Stories fail to generate suspense if: a) the story doesn’t offer interesting questions. b) the audience figures out the answers too soon. c) audiences don’t care about the answers, usually because they don’t identify with the characters involved.
  • Let it not go unsaid: any questions raised by a story should (usually) be answered.

So Then

  • Thinking in terms of questions is a useful lens for understanding stories, whether you’re writing, editing or the audience of a story. The question: “Is this part of the story boring?” is vague and hard to answer. Far better to have concrete questions like: “What questions will the audience have?”, “Will they care about the answers?”, “Does the story stoke their anticipation?”, and “When are those questions answered?”
  • A well-constructed plot weaves a fabric of long-lived questions studded by a steady drumbeat of short-lived questions. This lifecycle of questions is the pulse of the plot.
  • Once you get in the habit of thinking in terms of questions, you’ll be surprised what a large portion of a popular fiction is driven by this aspect of plot, and how much light it sheds on how the story fits together, and why it is or isn’t entertaining.

If you’re new to the topic of how stories work, I suggest starting with Story by Robert McKee. David Ball’s Backwards & Forwards is a useful discussion of how the elements of a play fit together.