In William Gibson’s novel “Pattern Recognition” he created a character whose occupation is to find the “next big trend” and help companies capitalize on it. This “cool hunter”, Cayce Pollard, doesn’t consider herself overly lucky or clever. She’s just mastered the art of asking the next question.
I more I study writing and try to improve my own writing the more I’m coming to believe that an important element in writing well is to emulate Cayce Pollard and learn to ask that next question.
Let’s take an example from a novel I’ve been reading. Suppose we have a character we want to send to study with a weapons master who also happens to be a powerful ally of the local leader. Suppose we don’t want to just tell some important facts about this weapons master, but would prefer to show. So what “next questions” might we ask?
Q. Why is this weapons master so important to the duke?
A. They’ve been through a lot of battles together.
Q. What might our character see on his way to the training space that could communicate that?
A. Souvenirs of the battles he and the duke both fought in?
Q. Souvenirs?! Like thimbles or teaspoons or penants–or those oval acronym car stickers?
A. Uh…no. Something they could gather after a battle from the battlefield, preferably.
Q. What would be on a battlefield that would interest someone of such high rank? He wouldn’t be a common looter.
A. How about the banners of the defeated companies/armies?
Q. Great! What more could we discern from those banners that would help paint the picture?
A. The different wars themselves? We need to indicate they’ve seen a LOT of battles together.
Q. Okay. What might we name some of these battles or wars?
You get the idea. I think it’s usually easy to stop after one or two levels of depth, but if we can train ourselves to keep asking the next question we increase our chances of hitting on something really awesome in our descriptions, characterization, plotting, etc. Consider the following passage from “The Lies of Locke Lamora”, by Scott Lynch:
They wound their way up past three floors of glittering glass and ancient stone, decorated with thick red carpets and innumerable stained tapestries that Jean recognized as battle flags. Don Maranzalla had served as the duke’s personal swordmaster and the commander of his blackjackets for a quarter of a century. These bloody scraps of cloth were all that remained of the countless companies of men fate had thrown against Nicovante and Maranzella in fights that were now legend: the Iron Sea Wars, the Mad Count’s Rebellion, the Thousand-Day War against Tal verrar.
I don’t know about you, but I got a lot more out of that description than perhaps Lynch even intended. The fact that it’s banners, for example, and not, say, swords, or heads makes a difference. I picture this display as both indicating just how incredible a warrior this man is as well as his attitude toward his enemies. Displaying their company banners suggests to me that he respected his enemies, even while destroying them, and not just their officers, but the fighting men.
Did Lynch intend that interpretation? Perhaps not. But that’s what good description does–it encourages the reader to put something of themselves into it, to fill in the details, so to speak.
We get even more detailed imagery when we actually meet the weapons master a few paragraphs later, and before long we have a very thorough image of a rather minor character who, as far as I know at the moment, never appears again in the novel. But the effort was far from wasted. We learn a lot about the setting from such passages as well, not to mention the caliber of people our characters have access to. Such deep descriptions can serve multiple uses at once.
But most of us likely skip past such opportunities, opting to take the quickest route to our destination. That’s not necessarily wrong. There are several chances in the completion of a novel for “asking the next question,” including in later drafts. It may very well be that having the entire novel undery our belt may help you ask better “next questions.” But training yourself to even go one level deeper even on the first draft will likely yield profound results.