Wednesday, February 11

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, February 11, 2015 13 comments
Journalists are trained to always ask six core questions when developing a news story: Who? What? Where? When? Why?  How? The corporate world has a clever way of visualizing them: on a six-pointed star. For corporations, the center of the star would list a new product or service, and executives would use the “starburst” to develop key questions to help them think through the practicalities of creating it: Who needs it? What do they want from it? Where do customers ask for this kind of thing? Why might they want it? When can we develop it? How would we manufacture it? The point of the exercise isn’t to develop answers, but merely to generate as many quality questions as possible.

How might starbursting help you generate ideas for your fiction? One of the most effective ways of developing tension in a story is to continually raise questions. Starbursting can help you figure out the kinds of questions to raise for readers, as well as sort out which are the most compelling. From there, you can begin to shape your material around raising those questions and artfully and parsimoniously providing answers.

Here are some examples of questions you might generate:

Who questions

Who has the most to lose in this situation?
Who might be secret allies?
Who would have the most trouble keeping this secret?
Who should the protagonist trust?
Who should the protagonist suspect?
Who would be the best eyewitness?
Who might sabotage the protagonist?

What questions

What does my protagonist most want in this scene?
What outcome does s/he most fear?
What usual coping mechanisms will s/he draw upon?
What emotions will s/he hide?
What skills does s/he need to achieve his/her goal?
What tools does s/he need?
What connections will s/he need to make to achieve his/her goal?
What traits could bring him/her into conflict in this scene?
What traits, good or bad, could hinder the protagonist in his/her quest?

Where questions

Where could I set this scene to maximize the tension?
Where would readers least expect this kind of scene to take place?
Where does the protagonist feel most comfortable and confident?
Where does the protagonist feel most uneasy or incompetent?
Where might my protagonist hide something valuable?
Where would s/he most naturally seek for the lost thing or person?
Where would s/he go for advice?
Where would s/he most stick out as an oddball?

Why questions

Why would the protagonist choose this course of action?
Why does s/he feels so passionately about this cause?
Why does s/he fear this person, place or situation?
Why would s/he trust or distrust this character?
Why might s/he choose to keep this information secret?
Why might s/he let this character get away with wrongdoing?

When questions

When might this argument happen?
When could this scene be set to add the most potential for change and growth?
When does the character’s normal world change?
When is this character apt to be most stubborn? Most pliable?
When might this character most naturally first meet my protagonist?
When should I place the “ticking clock” deadline?
When would my character reach a decision?
When would forces in the story most fittingly come to a head?

How questions

How does this situation follow what came before?
How could I best set up the next plot action?
How might these characters hinder each other?
How will characters obtain the skills and tools they need?
How will the protagonist escape?
How will s/he win back another’s trust?
How will s/he attempt to hinder the antagonist?
How will the antagonist react to this event or action?

If your critique partners frequently point out lack of tension in your stories, it might be due to a failure to keep curiosity piqued. Stop and think like a journalist (or detective). Starburst any big plot point you have planned. You’ll have suddenly have questions to raise as you build up to that moment.

Does raising questions come naturally to you? How might starbursting help you enhance a scene you need to revise? 


  1. I think this would be particularly helpful when I reach a dead-stop in the novel. Thanks!

    1. Curiosity always wins when you feel you've hit a dead end. Think questions and you'll find new direction.

  2. Awesome questions to ask. Thanks for the tips.

    1. These are just a jumping off point. Take any scene that isn't tense enough and raise as many questions as you can about it; you'll soon see opportunities to withhold/reveal critical information or put characters in conflict.

  3. This is a great tool. I'm hanging on to it. Thanks.

    1. You're welcome. Glad to know it's useful to you.

  4. This is an excellent post, and it gets my creative thoughts churning. Thank you! :)

    1. You're most welcome. Have fun generating lots of questions!

  5. I liked your questions, Laurel. They would be super helpful during those "bad" idea days that come sometimes when I'm writing.

    1. Thanks. Those were merely examples. Startbursting is a way for you to ask your own questions about particular scenes. Staying curious is one way to tackle revisions of scenes that aren't yet grabbing you.

  6. I love these lists - I've been doing more free-writing exercises and I see these are great prompts! I'm planning to share this with my writers group too.

    1. The starburst can be a great tool for generating lots of questions specific to your story: What does the protagonist fear here? Who will she trust? Where will she turn for help? Why will she be happy about this? How will she express her feelings? Have fun with it!

  7. Excellent lists! I tend to go by gut when I'm drafting, but I'm learning to incorporate more planning/plotting techniques into that process. I'll be including this from now on :)