Alphabet Blogging Challenge Day 17

It’s day 17 of my September blogging challenge

The letter is Q

and the subject is QUESTIONS


Questions are at the heart of successful fiction, from the small ‘what’s going to happen next’ type to the big questions about human experience – what’s does it mean to betray someone you love? Is there such a thing as a ‘good’ war? Can you be in love with two people at once? What are the consequences when self-fulfilment is sacrificed for the sake of others? Questions posed by a novel can make us wonder about our own responses to life’s challenges. Would we go into a burning building to rescue an unknown child? Would we give up our pursuit of dangerous sports if our wife asked us to? Would we reveal the guilt of someone we love?

It’s the job, then, of the fiction writer to put characters into difficult situations. To create conflict in order to challenge our characters. Characters  change through conflict, and change is the fuel that drives a story to resolution. A writer must push the boundaries, continually asking the question ‘what if?’ What if this happened to my character? What if that happened to my character? When in doubt, a writer needs to ‘up the anti’ for the character.

Having got an idea for a story, created characters, and got the bones of a story on the page, a writer should try to read it as a reader would. One of the best things I got from my creative writing MA was to ask myself the question ‘What’s this like for the reader?’ When I’m reworking a story/novel, I try to evaluate it from a reader’s perspective: What do I care about? What has been set in motion that I want to see completed? Where is the writer taking me? and Do I try to trust the writer to make the journey worthwhile? I can’t always make the leap from writer to reader, but trying to answer the questions is important.

Fiction involves significant questions for both writers and readers. And for the majority of readers, a good read is one that is satisfying on several levels, emotionally, psychologically and intellectually. This usually involves resolution of some kind to the question that the novel has posed. That resolution doesn’t need to be neatly tied up as in ‘The End’, ‘Reader, I married him’, ‘We all lived happily ever-after’, certainly that is not needed for contemporary fiction.

The endings of many modern novels raise as many questions as they answer. They resist closure by offering open-ended resolutions. They provide alternative endings that tease the reader, as John Fowles did in ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’. They take on Woolf’s mantle and circle back and forth in time, so that the route to resolution is challenging and constantly delayed. Maggie O’Farrell’s wonderful  ‘The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox’ uses this technique to highlight the non-linear nature of human experience – the past haunts the present; the present reaches out to the future. Past, present and future interact and impinge on each other. In Sara Waters’ ‘The Night Watchman ‘ the idea of linear development is overturned and the story is told in reverse. The novel takes us back through the 1940s towards 1941 – to the end which is actually the beginning.

Although I enjoyed the novel, I found this ultimately depressing and unsatisfactory. Usually one sets out on a journey/novel with hope of a rainbow at the end. It doesn’t always come, but the hope takes us forward to a new place. With the beginning at the end, the journey tends to be sullied by the knowledge that it didn’t end positively. Having said that, it didn’t stop me appreciating the challenge of reading a story ‘turned on its head’!

Overall, though, I love the experimentation. I enjoy the fact that we as both readers and writers can embrace traditional narratives, but also have the opportunity to experience writing that experiments; writing that questions the traditional and ‘safe’; writing that refuses to allow itself to be pigeon-holed. The post post-modern age offers us a wealth of treasures. Perhaps the real question should be ‘what next?’

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  1. Christine says:

    Loved this and immediately asked the questions to a short story I’m working on. Needless to say, they weren’t answered satisfactorily so back to the drawing board.

  2. Lindsay says:

    Glad you found it useful, Christine. Interesting, isn’t it, how easy it is to ignore what the experience might be for the reader when you’re caught up in the complexities of writing the thing!

  3. What an illuminating post Lindsay ~ apols for tardiness but have been busy (!)

    I like it that modern novels raise as many questions as they answer ~ more like real life …

  4. Lindsay says:

    Yes, as I said, I used to love the 19th century novel, but now find modern ones more interesting – should qualify that – I find some modern novels more interesting.

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