The Two Power Questions Every Writer Should Ask

James Scott Bell

So you’re writing along in your latest novel or novella, and you come to a screeching (or, at least squealing) halt. Your story seems stalled for some reason. You don’t know what scene to write next.
You sigh, get up from your keyboard, and go to the refrigerator. You take out some of last night’s meatloaf or scoop out some ice cream. Maybe you turn on the TV and watch a little TCM or whatever dismal talk show fills the late morning or early afternoon slot in the vast wasteland of visual media.
Finally, you slink back to your keyboard and . . still don’t know what to write. You start to wonder, maybe the story itself is flawed. And if this is a novel under contract, and you have already cashed an advance check, and the deadline is, like, soon, you might also feel little trickles of sweat in the armpit area.
So what do you do? I have a suggestion. I call them the two writing power questions.
1. Is there enough at stake?
In my craft books, and workshops, I always stress that the stakes of a story must be DEATH. There are three kinds of death: physical, professional and psychological/spiritual. The core issue in your novel has to be one of these or the book will not be the best it can be.
For example, in a legal thriller—the kind where the story is about a trial––that case has to be a matter of professional life and death for the lawyer. In The Verdictwith Paul Newman, he is a bottom-feeding lawyer (no, that’s not redundant, thank you very much). He has lost all self-respect. He is drinking too much. His professional life is about over.
And then he gets this case. A family comes to him because one of their own has been rendered a vegetable by the negligence of a large hospital. Okay, maybe he’ll get a quick settlement, take the money and stock up on booze. But he goes to the hospital to see her. And suddenly he cares again. He realizes he is this family’s only hope. Facing huge odds, he takes the case to the limit. If he loses, it’ll be like a little “death.”  
That’s how it’s got to feel to your Lead. In a romance, the death is psychological. It’s got to feel to the reader that if the two lovers don’t get together, their lives will forever be damaged because they haven’t completed themselves with their soul mate. If it doesn’t feel that way, why read the book? Who cares?
Much literary or “character driven” fiction is of this kind. In Janet Fitch’s White Oleander, for example, the issue is whether Astrid, tossed into the foster care system, will come out whole or irretrievably harmed.
So, make this your first power question: are the stakes death? If not, backup and make it so.
2. How can it get worse?
If you’re stranded in a book, just ask yourself what is the next bad thing that can happen? What will make the character’s situation worse?
In Scott Smith’s classic, A Simple Plan, a normal guy falls into a scheme to score some drug money, maybe without anybody ever finding out. What makes the book so compelling is that it’s like a slow motion car wreck. You keep saying to yourself, Don’t do that. Please don’t do that. And then the character does it, and descends further into a pit that will eventually close around him.
Brainstorm for awhile. Make a list of the bad things that can happen. Come up with ten. Then, finally, ask: What is the absolute worst thing that can happen?
Look at the list and select the best ideas. Then put them in descending order, from bad to worse to worst. That becomes a plan for writing the rest of your book!
Whether you’re a pantser or an outliner, these two power questions can blast you through that wall, to the other side where completed novels grow.
How about you? What do you do when you’re not sure what to write next?

23 thoughts on “The Two Power Questions Every Writer Should Ask

  1. Thanks for this post, Jim. I’m at exactly that point in my WIP. I’ll toss these questions around and see what comes up.

    Great post, as usual.

    • This really gets me going. Or rather it will after i work in the garden, clean the house and post another post! It is great food for thought! A keeper!

  2. I like the idea of asking these two questions whenever one hits a roadblock. Often we may not have raised the stakes or made things tough enough for our main character, without realizing it. These two questions can serve as a drama check along the way–a very helpful post!

  3. Another red flag for me is when I start getting bored with a story. Usually if I’ve lost interest, it’s because I let the hero win too often. If I back up and make sure things end in disaster of some kind more often, I stay interested. I recently let my husband read my current draft and he couldn’t put it down!

  4. Thanks for another great post, Jim.

    As a beginner, I read and study books on craft during the brief times and places when and where I can’t write. I take notes, specifically thinking about my WIP. Sometimes I see places where I need to go back and patch or repair a subplot or character arc. This then changes my possibilities for where I was with my WIP.

    The other thing that helps me is mindless exercise – hard physical work where I don’t have to think about what I am doing. The revved-up heart rate and blood flow to the brain helps push creativity to its peak potential, and gives me new ideas.

    And on the other end of the physical activity spectrum – sleep. You mentioned in one of your books that Stephen King called it “the boys in the basement.” I’m amazed how many times the brain can, when all else is set aside, come up with a solution.

    I’m eager to read everyone else’s ideas.

  5. Yes and yes and yes.

    One of the problems I had with FantastiCon was that I was so focused on giving myself room to escalate the tension I never really established a great deal being at stake at the beginning. I did a great job with the ever increasing tension from the stalker but most of the reviews have commented that it’s a slow burn.

  6. I believe I said this in my comment on last week’s post, but I’ve had difficulty moving forward on my WIP, because I keep hearing the voices of James Scott Bell and Donald Maass in my head. “Raise the stakes!” “There’s not enough tension here.” “Both the people and the land are too happy.” “Where’s the death?? There must be death!”

    See, some of us really are paying attention.

    These nagging voices, though, are helping me go back and strengthen my basic elements before I get too far into my story. So thanks for nagging.

    Let me take the opportunity to add that I’m enjoying The Knockout Novel. Although I have most of Plot & Structure committed to memory and I’ve been to your Intensive Fiction workshop, I’m finding the step-by-step approach to be very helpful.

    • Diane, thanks for the kind word, and for mentioning Knockout Novel. If people want to find out about that, they can go here. I’m glad it’s proving helpful to you!

  7. Two essential questions! I will engrave them onto wood and hang it on my wall.

    What do I do? Head for the woodshop and haul out the power tools.

  8. Love this post. I think I’ll put both questions over my computer. When I was reading Jennifer Nielsen’s ‘False Prince,’ I felt like that. In my head, I was screaming at the protagonist, “DON’T DO THAT! YOU’RE MAKING A TERRIBLE MISTAKE!” but he did it anyway and it made for a great story. And somehow, by the skill that is at the core of good fiction writers, Jennifer pulled him out of the fire in the end.

    My favorite books are the ones in which I can’t see any way for the mc to get out, but he/she does in the end.

  9. That used to happen to me if I didn’t ‘sort of’ plot out the scene/chapter before I began to write it. When I say I plot out the scene, it might be a few sentences to keep me on track. I write romance so there’s a tendency for me to get caught up in the emotional conflicts.

    So I always start a scene/chapter with a protags goal, then I make sure there’s plenty of conflict as he/she tries to attain the goal and at the end of the scene is his/her disaster.

    However, not all disasters are created equal, some are big and some are small throughout the story.

    I’ve followed James Scott Bell for over six years. His Scene & Structure/Revision/Editing books are dog-eared, passages highlighted, notes scribbled all over pages. I’ve basically trashed them, sorry Jim. 🙂

    And now you’ve got The Knockout Novel? Off to pick it up!

  10. What do I do when I’m not sure what to write next? Kill something—a character, a possible way out of a predicament, a hope the main character might grasp. Once this loss puts my character in a downward tailspin, I try to make matters worse. Okay, I’m not a very nice guy when it comes to my characters, but they learn to live with it—or die. And finally, somewhere along the plot line I give them a little hope. Of course, that doesn’t last long. I would not be surprised if one of my characters tries to take me out one of these days.

    Great points, Jim. I learn from the best.

  11. Those are great tips, Jim. One of the things that has helped me a lot is to find someone who will listen to me talk about the story as I go, and brainstorm things that could happen next. It renews my excitement about the plot when I do this. For me that person is my husband, but I suppose it could be anyone who enjoys coming up with cool ideas. It’s a lot more fun to get the ideas flowing with another person, because you play off of one another’s ideas, and sometimes come up with something really unique. And I, too, enjoy your books. I’m headed to check out The Knockout Novel. Thanks!

  12. When I get stuck I go into the kitchen, get a stapler, a bottle of powdered jalapeno pepper, a lemon and four fingers of gin. The trick is to inhale the jalapeno powder and squirt the lemon into the eyes simultaneously, then swallow the gin and staple the lips shut before the screaming starts. If done right, once consciousness returns and the screaming and pain induced hallucinations end, the staples slip out on their own and after that I have usually have a clear vision of what plot point comes next.

    this process also is very effective to give one a clear idea of just how bad things can get.

  13. Great, great post. I love the idea of trying to make things worse for your character. I’ve heard that time and time again, and it always does the trick.

    Thanks for posting.

  14. Me, well if I’m stuck, I write to prompts. Even if they seemingly do not fit into my scheme of things, I’ve realized that they add a lot of color and flavor to my story; at times even deciding the course of the rest of the book.

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