I conservatively estimate I receive more than 1,000 writing questions every year—and that’s just in emails. Some of these questions are brand-new ones I’ve never seen before. Most are on topics I’ve covered here on the blog. Some are stumpers that prompt me to learn new things and write new posts. But many of them are ones I see over and over, because they are foundational questions in nearly every writer’s journey.
Today, I want to share just seven of the most frequently asked writing questions I receive, along with my answers. If you guys enjoy this format, I may share more posts in the same vein in the future.
7 Frequently Asked Writing Questions
1. Must My Story Have an Antagonist—or Can the Protagonist Be His Own Antagonist?
Man Against Himself is a time-honored storyform. Nothing wrong with writing a book that centers primarily around a character’s inner conflict.
However, that conflict will almost always manifest in the outer world as well. The best way to think of conflict is as a series of related obstacles that prevent the character from reaching her overall goal until the end of the story. The best way to think of an antagonistic force is as whoever or whatever is presenting those obstacles. (The antagonistic force’s moral alignment within the the story is irrelevant as far as the foundational conflict goes.)
Take a look at what is consistently standing between your character and her goals throughout the story. Whatever you find, that‘s your primary antagonistic force.
2. Can My Antagonist Be Non-Human?
Short answer: your antagonist does not have to be human. In fact, I generally prefer the term “antagonistic force,” since it allows for any type of obstacle to fill this role within the story.
Although you often get more mileage out of personifying your antagonistic force (see above), you don’t have to. The most important thing to remember about antagonistic forces is that they are nothing more or less than an obstacle between the protagonist and his goals. As long as that obstacle is thematically pertinent, that’s what’s most important.
3. Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Backstory?
Backstory is the subtext for the context of the main story. The deeper it is, the deeper the subtext can be. So there really isn’t such a thing as “too much backstory.”
However, there is definitely such a thing as sharing too much backstory within the main story. The best rule of thumb for knowing when and how much backstory to share is to try to refrain from sharing anything but hints about the backstory until the moment when the reader absolutely needs to know in order for the main story to work and progress.
4. What’s the Difference Between Scenes and Chapters?
The important difference to understand about scenes and chapters is that chapter divisions can be arbitrary; scene divisions cannot.
Chapter breaks are really just about breaking up the book at opportune moments to create a well-timed reading experience for readers.
Scenes, however, are about structure. A scene will always be defined by its two parts: scene (action) and sequel (reaction).
The action half is made up three parts of its own:
As is the reaction half:
For a scene to work, it must possess all of those parts, to one degree or another. But you could stick in a chapter break at any moment. Personally, I often prefer to break my chapters right in the middle of the scene (after the disaster), then open the next chapter with the sequel/reaction and end it in the middle of the next scene.
5. Should I Edit As I Go?
As I’m sure you know, there are many opinions on whether writers should or should not edit as they go. Personally, I take something of a middle-ground approach.
My approach goes like this: each day, I allow myself to read whatever I wrote the previous day. This lets me clean it up and also get back into the same frame of mind in order to continue writing.
I also stop every quarter of the book and re-read the whole thing. I call this a “50-page edit.” It’s a great tool for turning out relatively clean first drafts and also for helping me stay oriented within the overall story. It can be so easy to lose the forest for the trees when writing a story over a long period of time, and this method is great for both helping me keep the big picture in view and scratch the edit-as-I-go itch.
6. How Can I Successfully Incorporate Themes of Faith Into My Fiction?
For me, the first consideration in how explicit faith is in any story is always the characters and the setting. Probably my most explicitly Christian novel is my Crusades-era historical Behold the Dawn, simply because the era is steeped in Christianity. The setting and the protagonist’s central struggles with his own faith meant that I could effortlessly discuss blatantly religious subjects without it seeming as if they were shoehorned into the story.
The same goes, more or less, for my portal fantasy Dreamlander. I was able to build a fantasy society in which religion was widespread and widely accepted. I dealt with Chris—my “real world” character—and his faith much more subtly, because, although I wanted to deal with religious themes, I didn’t want the story to necessarily be one that was about his personal redemption. So I got to discuss faith-based elements much more obviously in the POV of the dream-world character Allara.
My most recent book Storming is set in Nebraska in the 1920s and is basically an adventurous romp about barnstormers and steampunk-ish flying weather machines. I ended up touching on spiritual elements only obliquely in this story, since anything more just wouldn’t have flowed smoothly with the characters and the setting.
One other thing I always keep in mind is trying to address meaty spiritual themes from a place where the characters don’t have a handle on it. I think readers are much less likely to find subjects preachy and much more likely to relate to them if the characters are struggling through them. In essence, the characters are asking questions, not necessarily providing answers.
7. Should I Use Real-Life Settings or Made-Up Settings?
Since I write a lot of historical fiction, this is something I have to consider in every book. I’ve done it both ways.
Real-life settings present the obvious benefit of being instantly recognizable. Even if readers have never visited your setting, most will recognize the name and conjure up certain associations that will help them fill in the blanks and build the setting within their imaginations. Real-life settings offer built-in verisimilitude. The very fact that your setting is a real place gives readers a firmer belief in it and all the story events that happen there.
Because the facts are already there for you to draw upon, you won’t have to worry about creating a real-life setting from scratch. All you have to do is record what you see or learn. However, by the same token, you will also bear a greater responsibility for establishing an accurate portrayal. Get something wrong and some reader, somewhere, will notice. You’ll also have to deal with the possibility that real-life people living in your real-life setting may not like how you’ve portrayed them or their home.
Made-up settings, on the other hand, free you from the burden of the facts. If you want to maintain the verisimilitude of a real-life town, but need to tweak a few minor details, all you have to do is rename it. If you want to get a little wilder (as you almost certainly will if you’re writing speculative fiction), a made-up setting gives you the power to alter whole swatches of reality. To some extent, all stories include made-up settings, even if it’s only a street or a house.
Made-up settings offer partial or total freedom from the constraints of the facts, but they also impose a heavy demand for active creativity. With the power of total creation comes total accountability. Because even the most realistic of made-up settings will always lack the added punch of being real, your attention to detail must be even more obsessive than usual.
In most instances, the choice between a real-life setting and a made-up setting won’t significantly affect your plot (for example, Batman could just as easily have lived in New York City as its made-up doppelgänger Gotham). But, in application, the decision will affect every page of your story.
And there you have it: a small portion of some of the most frequently asked writing questions I see. Perhaps you’ve even asked these questions yourself. If so, I hope you find the answers helpful in moving forward with your stories.