Monday, February 18, 2008

Essential Questions

What I’m Reading: The Unsung Hero by Suzanne Brockmann AND The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory.

What I’m working on: Typing up some more hand-written stuff from my trip. Adding to the scene with Galen and his most trusted advisor. (Tonight is my Valentine's night out with the DH, so I'm expecting only minimal words.)

New words today: 124

My day job is in education. I really try to keep that aspect of my life separate from my writing. However, a concept we’re exploring at work poses some interesting ideas for writing so I thought I’d bring it up here.

Essential questions.

The long and short of it is that I’m in charge of helping teachers learn how to write and use essential questions in their classes. For the record, I’m a big proponent of essential questions and was using them naturally long before I ever knew I was doing it.

What is an essential question? Grant Wiggins says, “an essential question is – well, essential: important, vital, at the heart of the matter – the essence of the issue.”

He goes on to say the “meaning of essential involves important questions that recur throughout one’s life. Such questions are broad in scope and timeless by nature. They are perpetually arguable. We may arrive at or be helped to grasp understandings for these questions, but we soon learn that answers to them are invariably provisional. In other words, we are liable to change our minds in response to reflection and experience concerning such questions as we go through life, and that such changes of mind are not only expected but beneficial.”

Essential questions don’t have easy answers. Rather, they are big ideas. A person’s answer will depend on prior knowledge and experience and assumptions and the consideration of alternatives and connections.

So, I’m thinking many writers use essential questions when they write. They take a question that’s important to them and provide a lens for viewing that question in the form of a work of fiction. I’m wondering if being able to state a question up front might help guide the story you write.

Perhaps an essential question is sort of like a theme, but I’d prefer to think of it as a question. I don’t want someone to tell me what I’m so supposed to take away from a story. I’d rather figure that out myself.

I’ve been thinking about theme for awhile now, but I’m going to think of it as a question instead – an essential question.

For example, the themes I’d come up with for Slayer all had to do with good and evil. But they were really hard to state. I like it in question form better: Is there such a thing as pure good or pure evil? What would pure good look like? What would pure evil look like? What happens if someone commits an evil act to preserve pure good? Can you be both evil and good at the same time?

Essential questions.

I’m not sure I answer those questions in my story. Maybe different people have their own answers. However, I explore them.

What essential questions does your writing explore?


Dara Edmondson said...

Interesting concept. In my current work, I think the hero's question would be about trust and his abilities as a father - not sure how I'd phrase that yet. The heroine's would be: Can I love a man and not sabotage the relationship for fear he'll abandon me eventually.

Chudney said...

In my current WIP, for the heorine would be, can she allow herself to be vulnerable enough to love the hero. the hero's question would be could he let go of his need to be in control.

C. Alyson Love said...

Oh dear. Good question, and now my brain hurts. LOL. I'm thinking there's an overarching essential question for the whole mess (I have a saga going that will probably divide into at least three, maybe four books. And really, each character/couple has a sort of essential question that is related. Actually, M, this is a good way to sort that all out and make sure the symmetry is as tight as I like. I think my overarching essential question is this:If you stopped playing it safe and were true to yourself, how would you live your life, what would you be willing to take a risk on -- and are you courageous enough to live your life that way, knowing full well it might not work out well? Then, hopefully, the story examines the costs of various choices.(although is that too generic?) I won't go into ALL of my character's questions but I'll do a couple, because they get more specific, or situational. For Carly, who believes she's cursed because three prior boyfriends have died, the essential question is Can she let go of the curse (and her fear of loss) and freely love Nick, who has cancer? For Stosh, who has an alcoholic/addict father and brother, the question is can he let go of his past and love Madison, a recovering alcoholic. Or would he be happier and she feel less under the gun and "more accepted" if he walks away?And for Nick and Madison, the question is whether they can get over their feelings of being damaged goods enough to love freely and live the life they think others deserve (but not them because, shoot, they're broken) -- and, also, can they trust these people who are scared of what will happen (Carly is afraid of Nick's cancer; Stosh is afraid Madison's alcoholism.)

Rsmble, ramble, ramble. Sorry that's so long. I didn't actually boil it to its essence, but I'll work on it.I like this idea.

C. Alyson Love said...

Oh, and, as always, pardon typos in my previous comment.

Macy O'Neal said...

Alyson, I think you've got it. An essential question (like a theme) is really big. Then you explore it with smaller questions in various stories and situations.

Hmm, Chudney, maybe one of your themes or essential questions is what happens when you let down emotional defenses (like invulnerability and controlly behavior).

Dara, both of the questions you posed deal with trust in some way. Maybe your essential question examines fear and trust -- what should we fear? what should we trust?