Seven Questions

I have a private online critique group that’s been going strong for about two years now. Recently we’ve stopped critiquing–just overwhelmed by life like everybody else–and I took down the page with the seven questions we ask in each critique because it seemed as though we were done with that. When several people said, “Can we please have the seven questions back?” I realized that even though the questions are a pain in the ass, they do give a form to critiques, and since I really do think they’re the seven most important things to ask about a scene or a story, the questions that are most likely to show you where you have a problem, I’m putting them here, too. They seemed to go with everything we’ve been doing lately. Yes, I know all this critique stuff is boring. I’m slamming to the end of the book, I’m using all my creativity there.

The Seven Questions:

Begin each scene critique by answering these seven questions, then follow up with whatever additional comments you want to make.

1. Who is the protagonist?

2. What is the protagonist’s goal?

3. Who is the antagonist?

4. What is the antagonist’s goal?

5. What do you expect will happen next in the story, given what you read in this scene?

6. What in this scene must be kept at all costs?

7. What in this scene needs work?


20 thoughts on “Seven Questions

  1. There’s nothing boring about the critiquing stuff. I’ve had a first draft sitting on my computer for four months and I’m finally confident enough to wrestle into a second draft. These posts have been infinitely helpful in showing me what I’m going to have to do to my book. (I’m afraid, but determined.)

  2. This critiquing stuff is fascinating! especially when it’s illustrated by chapters of AKMG. Please keep it up.

  3. Very interesting. I find it quite intriguing to compare that list of questions with the kind of questions one automatically asks when refereeing an academic book or paper. Although the actual questions are different (e.g. Is this a significant contribution to the field? Is the research original? Are the arguments clearly presented and the illustrative examples apposite?), both focus in just the same way on the basic aims and objectives of the work, on its underlying framework and purpose.

  4. I love your books — really. I buy them for friends; I’ve bought a whole set for my sister; whenever anyone asks about a favorite “feel-good” read, I point to you.
    So, I agree with the others. It’s very interesting to see the process of how it comes together.
    Besides, like everyone else, I like to write. It’s interesting to see whether or not I’m doing anything right when I do it. 😉

  5. You have to be careful about “right.” There are a lot of books out there that didn’t do anything right and are still good reads, and lot of books that did everything right and are just flat out boring. Formalist criticism like this is really to help you fix a scene you’re not happy with. If you like the scene, don’t mess with it even if you can’t answer all the protag/antag stuff.

    Ag, I think a lot of evaluative questions really come down to the same thing: Is this valuable for your audience? Does it give them what they need in a form that’s most helpful to them? If you’re writing a diary, none of that matters, but the minute you hand your writing to another person–friend, teacher, editor, whatever–you have to put audience first. So a lot of rewriting is just fixing the draft-that-was-for-you so that it’s the draft-that-is-for-them.

    1. Good point about “right.” But it is helpful to have some reasons why it might be “not-quite-right.” There are times when I read something and it’s….OK. But not quite how I wanted it. And times when I’m not sure how to fix it. This gives me a place to start!

      1. Absolutely. As long as you’re the one determining the right or wrong for your work, you’re good. It’s when you let the “Never do this” crowd in that you start going crazy.
        Except, you know, prologues and headhopping and infodump: NEVER DO THAT.

        1. Headhopping – is that a “one character says/thinks, another character says/thinks,” the characters are speaking back and fore in their heads? Could you explain this please?

          1. Headhopping is a break in third person limited POV, which is telling the story from the POV of only one character in the scene, so that you see what that characters sees, hear what that character hears, feel what that character feels, think what that character thinks. If you headhop, or move into another character’s head, you break the you-are-there connection with the reader which is one of the few reasons for doing third limited since it’s a bear to do well.

          1. Thought so…. tried a third person limited POV, it IS a bear to do well. Half the critiques were brutal, the other half…not so bad and I did learn from it…after a day or two of eating chocolate and thinking the critiques through, well, except for one, I tore that one up. Not going to do that again! I developed another layer of “croc” skin…thank you.

  6. Your blog is always a lot of fun — whether it is practical critiquing, or creating luggage with personality.

  7. Briana: Nah, if you really want to you can. Heck, the only reason I’m still reading Lee Child is because of his infodump. (Which is good, since it makes up 85% of the story.) 🙂

    I love learning critique stuff. I don’t really use it, but its always there as an option, just in case.

  8. Critiqing and related skills isn’t boring, it’s fascinating! I’m a reader. Ok, I’m also a process engineer so seeing your process floats my boat in a big way, but still. Skill building posts are great.

    I’ve also learned a lot about writing (whether or not I ever do any outside work and personal communications) from you and other authors. Some authors outline extensively then have clean first drafts that need little work. Some authors like you need to write the book before you know what the outline is, then you go back and outline what the girls in the basement put forth, then go back and re-write. It’s all the same stuff, just in a different order. Being taught to write in school for years from an outline generated before any sentences, which I fundamentally cannot do, killed most of my writing interest at an early age. Knowing now that I can throw stuff on a page THEN outline and make it coherent and that’s NOT WRONG makes me feel more capable as a person and a writer.

    It turns out that’s how I got through my college papers – but now I know what the process is enough that I can plan time for the steps, be ok with writing as a go along, and allow that process to work for me without beating myself up for not doing it “right”. And then when I get stuck, answer the above questions (whether for fiction or academia…) Hrm. I have 3 weeks to write a conference paper abstract, but I can’t write the abstract until I know what the paper will be on. Have over a year’s worth of data, but what does the audience most want to know?

  9. Thanks for this post on 7 questions. I plan to share it with my writers’ group. Enjoyed your wit and insight on your blog. I’ll start following you on Twitter. See you in the clouds.


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