A good story is always about questions and their answers, and ultimately we consume stories because we want to know why.
Why is the hero behaving like that? Why should they stick it out to the end? Why is the antagonist being such a douche? What happens next?
The brainstorming process cannot happen without questions.
They spark new lines of thought, get everyone involved and working together, and ultimately prove to be the best way to explore a complex idea, which is what stories are. Just ask Socrates, who viewed questions as a means of bringing forth or birthing the knowledge that was already there in the minds of his listeners. For him, questions are the midwife of ideas, and the same applies to stories. Questions are the midwife of character growth and plot developments.
They are the most powerful tool in your writers room.
Many of these questions are particular to each story: What caused that character’s flaw? Why did they change jobs? Why are they falling in love with this person? Etc. Other questions are stock-standard and apply to every story because they provide it’s building blocks. Whose story is it? What do they want? Who’s trying to stop them? What if ….?
There is, however, the third category of questions that are truly maieutic in nature. These questions are designed to bring out the ideas that are lying hidden in the minds of the story room participants. They do not address the universal mechanics of storytelling (e.g. what does this character want and why?), nor do they address the particular needs of a story (e.g. why is this happening now?) Nor are they philosophical (e.g. why are we telling this story?) This third category of questions are designed specifically for story brainstorms, across the board, and are geared to facilitate a groups’ brainstorming session around a story, by getting them to clarify their thinking, probe their ideas deeper and listen to each other better. These questions improve the quality of the teamwork that happens in a writers room, and I have found them to be worth learning by heart.
Question 1: What question are we trying to answer right now?
Brainstorming sessions tend to meander off-topic and sometimes end up in useless time-wasting rabbit holes. This question is a powerful way to get everyone back on the same page and to keep the conversation relevant. It addresses both the effectiveness (are we doing the right thing?) and the efficiency (are we using our time well?) of the conversation.
Question 2: How could we make that suggestion work, given that __?
This is a powerful ‘acceptance’ question. What do I mean by that? In every brainstorm, it is far too easy, and it happens way too often, to simply shut down the suggestion that anyone makes, without a second thought. Immediately shutting down suggestions has two negative consequences+
Question 3: Could you express that using different words?
This is a question that forces the speaker to be more clear about what they are saying. For the longest time, I battled with the words ‘texture and nuance’. I never could quite understand what people meant when they said they wanted more texture and nuance. Through trial and error, I learnt that it usually meant they want more detailed descriptions that could communicate the uniqueness of the story setting or of a character’s personality. Had I had this question at hand, I might have saved myself some time and effort. Having said that, asking this question could usually lead to an equally vague answer, that will necessitate further questioning for the sake of clarity. E.g:
Speaker 1: I’m not feeling this story.
You: Could you express what you mean using different words?
Speaker: I mean the story is not exciting to me.
You: What would you like to see happening so you could get more excited?
Such a line of questioning usually forces the interlocutors to think. To quote Mortimer Adler, thinking is the hardest work on the planet, and not many people enjoy it. If the person you are speaking to tries to shy away from the thinking involved (and I have had people literally tell me ‘Thinking is your job, not mine), then it’s a good idea to remind them that this is a group effort, and that is why they are in the room, to contribute their thoughts and that you appreciate their thinking efforts.
Question 4: How do the purposes of these two people vary?
This is a quick way to bring two people who are having a creative tiff in a brainstorm session onto the same page. People are bound to get passionate about certain ideas in story brainstorms. It’s actually a bad sign if they don’t. It could mean that nobody in the room is invested in the characters, which means that you will end up with a boring story. However, sometimes the creative differences give rise to tension, and sometimes even conflict. A good way to remind everyone that they are all playing on the same team, is to ask the question, ‘How do their purposes vary?’ You’d usually want to level this question at a third party, though sometimes, with some rephrasing, you could ask the combatants directly.
Dan: There is no way in hell Sophie would ever do that!
Grace: Why the hell not? Why must women always play nice?
Dan+ It’s not about that. It’s about staying true to the character.
Grace: Characters can change over time. We just need to justify it.
Dan: You’re just forcing your own agenda on the character.
You: Hang on guys. I have a question. Lesley…
You: How do you think that Dan’s purpose and Grace’s purpose vary? What do you think each one of them is after?
Lesley: Umm, I don’t know.
You: Hazard a guess.
Question 5: You seem to be assuming …….. How would you justify taking this for granted?
That is another great question to probe at people’s intentions. In a brainstorm session, people rarely pause to ask themselves why they are saying what they are saying. This question forces them to stop and reflect. Its also quite useful to ask whenever emotions are running high in the brainstorming room, which again I insist, is better than people being cold and aloof. When people are getting emotional in the writers room, it’s a good time to probe their intentions. There be story gold. And maybe even dragons. You’ll never know until you ask.
Question 6: Could explain your reasons to us?
Again, this question probes at the intentions of the people in the room. It’s a good one to use whenever someone makes a suggestion that seems to come from nowhere. Rather than dismiss it outright and run the risk of alienating a member of your team, ask them what the reasons for their suggestion are. You will often be quite surprised by the answer, and will frequently find a way to execute what they want in another way. A variant of this question is ‘How did you reach that conclusion?’
Question 7: What conclusions are we coming to about ….?
This question works its magic further down the line when the brainstorm goes down a rabbit hole and people get stuck. In such instances, it is often useful to backtrack and reflect on the previous conclusions that you had reached earlier. Asking people to pause and note the conclusions that have been reached every so often, and to write them down, creates a sort of conceptual Ariadne’s Thread that will lead you out of the story maze whenever you get lost.
Master these 7 questions, ask them at the right time, and, you will find that your story brainstorm sessions will proceed more smoothly. Share your questions and comments about your experiences with asking different kinds of questions in the story brainstorming sessions