Monday, September 17, 2012

Asking the Right Questions

A rather morbid story from the Middle Ages tells of a village that was particularly hard-hit by the Black Plague. After yet another round of burials, it was discovered that one of those who had been interred wasn't dead at all! (How this was discovered -- since they were underground -- is beyond me, but so goes the story.)

Needless to say, the villagers were horrified. The elders called a meeting, in hopes of finding some way to make sure it didn't happen again. The group pondered the question "How can we make sure we don't bury anybody alive?" and came up with a number of inventive but impractical solutions:
  • Bury food and water with the body.
  • Run an air tube from the casket to the surface.
  • Delay all burials by a week until the stench of death was unmistakable.
Finally one of the older members simply asked, "Why don't we just drive a stake through their hearts before we seal the casket?"

I don't know what solution the villagers decided on -- if any -- but it's clear that the last villager was asking a different question. Instead of asking "How can we make sure we don't bury anybody alive?" he asked "How can we make sure everybody we bury is dead?"

Yes, the questions you ask have a huge impact on the answers you get!

Often, when developing story ideas, characters, worlds, plots, or any other idea-oriented part of your writing, you end up stuck. Sometimes the way out of this problem is to change the questions you're asking. The villager did that by rephrasing their question so that he asked an opposite question. There are other options as well.

The idea is to play with your problem. Turn it sideways, backwards, upside-down, and inside-out. How you do that is up to you.

KumquatsIs your main character a boy? Replace him with a girl... or a dog... or a robot... or a purple kumquat from Planet Cetas-5. (The photo shows standard Earth kumquats.)

Move his home from a modern apartment to a farm... or a museum... or a school bus... or a tightrope strung across the Grand Canyon... or a large triangular rock with slick purple fungus that smells like burnt rubber.

Change history. (Doesn't have to be a big change... what if zippers were never invented?) Create new ways to travel. (Suppose the newest economy car hops like a rabbit?) Use new building materials. (How about building entire cities from giant Legos made of recycled plastic?)

How would those changes affect the way people dress? The way they talk? (New slang phrases are created everyday.) The way they socialize? The way they eat? (That purple kumquat from Planet Cetas-5 might have more problems with people who eat plants than people who eat meat.)

You may not ultimately use the answers you get -- at least, not unless that purple kumquat from Planet Cetas-5 is a more attractive main character after all. But those answers should trigger new ways of thinking about the story...

And those new ideas might be the very thing you're looking for.

The photo came from this page at WikiMedia Commons.

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