Monday, June 27, 2022

The Big Question, Part 3


Many of society's Big Questions are found in headline stories, particularly those about people instead of big events like wars and politics.  It's the story people discuss at the water cooler and at parties because something in the story resonates emotionally and/or intellectually with people. 

A Big Question isn't about a headline event, it's about the underlying struggle involved in the story.  The trick is to figure out why a headline resonates with you, and you are halfway to discovering a Big Question.

Here's a topic that makes headlines every time it happens -- a woman acts as a surrogate mother for her grandchild.  What is it about an older woman carrying a pregnancy for her child that makes people notice?  

Here are a few possible Big Questions in this story.  

Just because medical science allows a woman to carry her grandchild is she right to do so?  That would be a morality versus science Big Question.  

Possible premise -- The older woman has an extremely high risk of losing her life if she carries this baby, and she's willing to do it.  Should the couple accept that risk?  This will be their story, not hers since she's already made her decision that she will carry the baby whatever the cost.

If, however, you wanted the woman to be the heroine you could do that.  In a romance, she may be risking her relationship with the hero as well as her life by being a surrogate.

Or another Big Question is: Is it possible to let go of a child after you give birth to it?  That would be maternal love versus the moral obligation to fulfill her promise.  

Possible premise -- Her daughter dies just before the baby is born, and the husband decides to return to his own country with the child.  The grandmother will be losing the child forever.  Does she keep her promise, or does she hold onto the child?

A writer who does this kind of question is Jodi Picoult.  She is one of those authors editors gush about for her prose and plot, and her books are soaring up the bestseller lists.  She writes hardcover so you should be able to find her books at the local library.


Is a headline enough to carry a story?  Part of deciding that is experience.  But what is most important is seeing if the story holds a Big Question you react to emotionally and intellectually.  Can you see both sides?  Can you envision a story that will show both sides, warts and all?  If you can and the situation is complex enough for the length of story needed, then you have a Big Question that's right for you.

If you can't figure out an idea from the headlines, I suggest you start by looking through various women's magazines as well as keeping up with the newspapers.  I imagine some of the women's sites online would be a good source of ideas, as well.

When one story grabs you by the nose and won't let go, you'll know you've found your subject matter.  At that point, you need to figure out what Big Question is behind that interest and work from there.

Part 1:

Monday, June 20, 2022

The Big Question, Part 2


The second level is the primary character or characters.  The character or characters' struggles reflect that theme, and they must work their way through the plot to find their own answer.

Other characters will reflect elements of the question in their interaction with the plot.


The third level is the plot itself.  The plot must force the characters to find the answer to that question.

In essence what this boils down to is character equals plot, and plot equals character, and both answer the Big Question. 

All of this sounds rather esoteric with the result being a morality play, but it isn't, really.  What you are doing is creating a skeleton to build your story on that will give it depth.

The Big Question is one you ask yourself as you develop the story, but the reader may never be aware of it in a conscious way.

The really important thing to remember is that you must find a question and a story means of examining the two sides that interests you.  You will be spending a lot of time with this story and its characters, and no book is more unpleasant to write or impossible to finish than one you are either bored with or has major characters you don't like.

We'll look at different places to find a Big Question in the coming blog articles.

Part 1:

Monday, June 13, 2022

The Big Question

 For the next month or so, I’m publishing my workshop, including worksheets, called “The Big Question” where I’ll lead you through one method of going from a simple idea to a complete outline of your novel. Remember that you can ask me questions via the comments under each blog or by hitting reply if you get my content via my .io group.  Enjoy!

The Big Question

How to Create a Powerful Novel

from a Few Ideas and One Big Question


Marilynn Byerly

Have you ever read a story then felt dissatisfied by it as you put it down?  

You thought about the story's elements.  The main characters were likable enough, the story had plenty of action and conflict, the bad guy was suitably bad and powerful enough to be a challenge, and the story ended the way it should, but something was missing. 

That something is often called depth or resonance, and it's that element that turns an ordinary story into one you couldn't put down.   

How do you create a story like that?  It starts with the creation of the story.


A story has three main levels as you create it.  


The first level is the theme or general idea.  It is the simple statement of what the story is about on a large level.  It is the Big Question.  Just a few of these questions are: 

Can illusions about your lover destroy a relationship? (PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, GREAT EXPECTATIONS, THE GREAT GATSBY)  

Will obsession with the past destroy the future? (DAVID COPPERFIELD, MOBY DICK, GONE WITH THE WIND) 

What should you do when society and your own sense of morality clash?  (AVATAR, DANCES WITH WOLVES)

Each question has two sides. For the three examples above, the two sides would be reality versus illusion, living emotionally in the present versus living emotionally in the past, and society/duty versus moral beliefs. 

Here are some of the Big Questions I used with my published novels.

TIME AFTER TIME:  Can illusions about your lover destroy a relationship?  Reality versus illusion

THE GAME WE PLAY: After total betrayal, can a person regain their trust?  Trust versus distrust

THE ONCE AND FUTURE QUEEN: Will obsession with the past destroy the future? Living emotionally in the present versus living emotionally in the past

GUARDIAN ANGEL: What is true nobility?  The commoner prince versus the noble-born frog

A good Big Question must have strong cases on both sides to work.  

If, for example, you choose the Big Question “Is rape acceptable in a romantic relationship?” (rape versus consensual sex) you'd have a hard time making both sides equally strong because most of us in contemporary society find nothing acceptable about rape, and you probably couldn't either.  

Monday, June 6, 2022

Putting Romance into Non-Romances

Romances are allowed the leisure of the characters learning about each other, the back and forth of the relationship, and the build up of plot and emotion to the happily ever after.  That essentially is the plot.  

Non-romances often have a romance subplot, but how does a thriller or suspense writer balance their action and forward plot movement with the slow burn of a romance?

Skilled suspense and thriller writers’ romance plot tends to be what I call insta-love.  The hero and heroine meet because of what's happening, they have an instant emotional and sexual connection with each other that's off the charts, but they focus on what they need to do.  They also gain respect for each other, and the way they interact and their pasts/presents show the possibility of their successful future as a couple.  Sex happens early and as often as the plot allows.  Even thriller characters need to sleep, bandage their boo boos, do some research, and reload their weapons.

Their emotional/romantic problem tends to be very simple.  They have conflicting careers, and one needs to stay while the other needs to go.  Or it can be a bit more complex.  The woman is old money and power, and the other is from a lower middle class background who thinks he is unworthy of her.  His insecurity makes him pull away when he should be moving towards her.  The problem is resolved through talk, a like-duh moment of epiphany, or another character offering a practical solution.  None of it ruins the pace of the thriller or suspense novel.

If you’d like to see how this is done, I recommend two masters of this technique— Heather Graham and Jayne Ann Krentz/Amanda Quick.