Writing Tips

Writing Fake Answers to Real Questions: Part 1

Writing Tips: Avoid Fake Answers to Real Questions (Part 1)

Last week I posted about why we, as writers, have a responsibility to write about real and difficult questions. Now, I want to address how we can try and fail to address these real questions properly and practical tips for how we can do better. I have found two different ways that authors fail to properly deal with hard questions, so for the sake of organization, I am splitting this topic into two blog posts. Today’s post will address writing that asks a difficult question but then turns a blind eye to specific situations and follow up questions that complicate and contradict the proposed answer.

I am sure that all of you are familiar with these types of book. We have all read books with these fake answer, and unfortunately, most of us write books with this type of fake answer. So why I am writing this post? First, to complete the post trilogy. Second, to remind you of what you already know. Third, hopefully, I can actually contribute some helpful tips near the end of this post once I get past the obligatory description and lecture.

Ready? Let’s go.

Image resultSome stories tackle hard, real questions that haunt us but then ignore the part of the question that is difficult and haunting to produce a shallow, trite answer that can be summed up in a single catch phrase perfect for an encouraging note. Unfortunately, the most well known offenders tend to be modern “Christian” stories.
Beyond the Mask is an adventure drama that came out in 2015, and it is one of the worst offenders I encountered in a long time. The movie posed a plethora of difficult, real questions and then proceeded to spit out cliche, false answers. Some of the questions that the movie bravely faced were:

  • Can you outrun a sinful past? What part does a past full of violence and wrong doing have to do with your identity?
  • What really is grace and forgiveness?
  • What is the greatest love? And how does romantic love fit into a relationship with Christ?
  • Can people change?
  • How is someone redeemed?
  • How should we interact with and see God? What is His relationship to us?
  • How does liberty and freedom fit into faith?

Not a single one of these questions were satisfactorily or honestly answered. The movie may have thrown quips about “forgiveness is a gift” and “only God can change you” and “you can’t outrun your past,” but the story shamelessly turned a blind eye the the challenging parts of the questions that it posed. For instance: Our past is a part of our identity and even our personality, and would it not be better if we had never done those terrible things in our past? Is forgiveness merely an emotional response that frees us from guilt or is there a supernatural aspect? And what is that supernatural aspect? In order to receive forgiveness, do we need to ask for it? We are called to be bondservants to Christ and to one another and obey the authority above us, so is liberty and democracy really that important? And yet, humans have a natural desire for freedom; does that not come from God?

Beyond the Mask offers nothing to people who are truly wrestling with these questions. Perhaps, the writers felt good about themselves, proud that they asked such hard questions and presented their “answers” to the public in a swash-buckling adventure. But stories like these that ignore the situations and questions that complicate life are perhaps worse that those that do not ask the hard questions. Delusion is no comfort to the depressed and conflicted.

Before I move onto tips to help you truly answer a hard question in your writing, I want to note that Christian stories are not the only ones that provide fake answers. Divergent maybe an even worse– though sneakier– offender than Beyond the Mask, and I would even claim that, from what I have seen, The Fault in Our Stars offers only superficial answers and ignores many aspects of the difficult questions that the book poses. The praised movie, Oblivion, also falls into this trap.

So here are some signs that a story might be ignoring complications of real life and offering only a superficial answers:

  • You are trying to answer more than one hard questions. If you are answering it honestly, then you will likely not have the time or ability to add another question. If you have multiple hard questions in your story, chances are that you will only provide false answers.
  • The whole answer can be summed up in a single sentence. If it can be, then why write the whole story? Also clearly, you don’t think this is a hard question.
  • You already know the answer. Now, this isn’t always a sign that you have superficially answered a hard question, but it often is.
  • One or more characters know the correct answer from the beginning. This goes back to the point before but is slightly different. Unless there is a very good reason why a supporting character should know the answer, then you probably over simplified the question.

Though it may take some rewriting, fake answers can be fixed. Here are my best tips for writing real answer when you are only coming up with cliches:

  • Pick one hard question to focus on.
  • Do not pick a proper theme for your story until after it is written. Content yourself with picking a question instead.
  • Pick a question that you do not know the answer to– or better pick a question that is really bothering you.
  • Have a conversation about your question with a rational and intelligent person who has different foundational beliefs than you.
  • Research the question. Read books that have proposed different answers to the question, and see what you can discover from them.
  • Let your characters drive the search for and the answer to the question. If you have well developed, realistic character and set realistic situations before them, then you are likely to come up with a real answer so long as you keep your meddling hands off your characters!
  • Present situations to your characters that challenge conventional answers to your hard question.
  • Once you finish the story, have beta readers give you feedback on the question and answer you wrote about. Consider even picking a beta reader who is likely to disagree with the answer you found.

So what was the last question that has haunted you– either in a story you are writing or not? Do you have any tips for avoiding a cliched false answer?

Now, don’t worry if you have written about a hard question, refusing to settle for cliches and bravely facing situations that challenge your natural answer, but have been unable to find any solid answer whatsoever. I will be address that next week.

God bless,

Gabrielle

Why Writers Should Ask Real Questions          Writing Fake Answers to Real Questions: Part 2

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17 thoughts on “Writing Fake Answers to Real Questions: Part 1”

  1. This is great – and a lot of food for thought. I’m currently trying to tackle some hard questions in a Middle Grade fantasy. So far, feedback has been positive, but I still wrestle with whether or not I actually answered the questions adequately. This does get the mind going.

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  2. This is great! I especially like the emphasis on looking to listen to people who might disagree with your answer; it seems like an effective way to prevent confirmation bias, and to explore how water tight your answer really is.

    Could you give some examples of books that you think have done a good job of providing (or, at the very least, throughy exploring) answers to the question they ask?

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    1. Hum. Examples. I probably should have added that to the post. Off the top of my head, here are the best ones that I can think of that are both enjoyable and answer hard questions well: “Till We Have Faces” (by C. S. Lewis), “Frankenstein” (by Mary Shelley– it has been a while since I read this), “King’s Folly” (by Jill Williamson, unfinished series but from what I have seen, she is tackling some great questions), and “The Bronze Bow” (by Elizabeth George Speare). That should give you a couple of example. I will think of better ones and add them to the post later.

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  3. At this point, spending my life working in a coffee shop seems like a nice, safe alternative to writing 🙂 …
    Seriously, though, this is a great post and very thought-provoking. What annoys me most in this respect is when a character asks an important question, a mentor-type character answers it without giving it any thought, and then everyone moves on immediately.
    Can I ask what you meant about Divergent? I find that trilogy unsatisfying, but I’ve never been able to put my finger on why.

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    1. Ha! I know what you are feeling, but writing hard questions and answers is more than worth it (or so I have been told).
      I am glad the post was helpful for you. Yes, that bothers me, too. Though sometimes it can be done well. If the mentor has either a detailed backstory that gives credence to the answer or if the answer makes no sense to the main character (though this one can be done poorly.)
      Well, it has been a while since I read Divergent, but I think I was thinking particularly about the questions about identity that the book brings up (for instance, what does it mean to be different? and what about those people who do appear to fit the stereotypical molds?) Also the book posed some questions about family, romantic love, government that were answered in trite ways. Please note that I am talking about the books and not the movies. What do you think, Kikyo?

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      1. I see what you mean. Now that I think about it, a lot of Tris’s problems seem to be solved in very simple ways, especially during the last book. Maybe the book was just trying to tackle so many questions about such a wide range of topics that it would have been impossible to answer them all satisfactorily. I think all the plot twists and illusion-shattering tends to mask it, though, and that is one of the reasons I can’t always figure out why some part of it doesn’t quite work for me.

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  4. This is really helpful, thanks. I keep worrying about that with a WIP. The question is basically about why God allows such terrible things to happen (in the protagonist’s mind, it is God who is the antagonist) and I think that the protagonist’s questions and her struggle are very honest and people will be able to identify with them. The problem is that as the story progresses, it’s looking like the character will eventually come to the point of saying ‘I don’t know why, I only know that he is good’ and that’s not an answer. But then, maybe it’s about time that we admitted in our writing that often we don’t have an answer. That turned into a bit of a ramble but what do you think? Should we not only deal with difficult questions but begin to admit that sometimes we don’t known the answer instead of covering our ignorance with cliche?

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    1. Great question. So I am going to address your situation in the next post (which hopefully will show up next Monday.) My basic answer is that I think there is an answer to all questions– though some are definitely beyond our understanding. However, I don’t think that your question and most posed in stories are. And I think there is another option between writing a cliche and offering no answer. I’ll have some general tips for you then, but I have a couple book recommendations that might help you with your specific question. The first is “Till We Have Faces” by C. S. Lewis. The main character starts the book by accusing God of doing her wrong and causing her sister’s suffering. Now, at the end of the book, you discover that the main character’s real problem isn’t that God is causing her problems but that she is. Still, I think it might be helpful for you. The second addresses your question directly. Read the 7th Chapter of Augustine’s Confessions. It is really dense and hard to read, so read it out loud if you can. He purposes some very interesting answers to your questions. And if you want to discuss the question or the sources I am giving you, I’d love to 🙂

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      1. Thanks. I’ll check out Augustine and track down a copy of CS Lewis. I know there are answers and legitimate ones at that but I was wondering if sometimes it is better to elave them unanswered? Or is that just unhelpful and leaving the reader feeling cheated?

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      2. Hey! So I plan on focusing my last post on this topic on your questions. So I want to quote your comments in that post. Is that alright? Also is it alright if I attribute your questions to your username (Kumquat Absurdium) or would you rather me address you otherwise in the post?

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  5. May I add something to this? The question you appear to be working with is part of the problem of evil. Yes this is notoriously difficult to answer, but I agree with Gadrielle that we do have some answers. Augustine is very helpful and there are two other very good books that give slightly different, although still thoroughly christian, answers. God and Evil by Alvin Plantinga and A Creation Order Theodicy by Bruce A. Little. The problem I have, is that however intellectually satisfying these answers may be, they are not at all emotionally satisfying. No matter how we reconcile God’s goodness with the presence of suffering in the world, there is still great suffering. I know these answers and yet I personally struggle with it every day on a very deep level, I know the answers, but I cannot satisfy myself! However, as fiction writers, it is our job to deal with emotions instead of purely intellectual arguments. I honestly do not know if we have an emotionally satisfying answer to this question, the closest I have ever found is in Till We Have Faces, in which God Himself is the answer, not words, but there is sense in which we are living an unfulfilled story. As humans we are still waiting for the satisfying conclusion. Thus I think it could be good to leave the question unanswered, not in such a way as to leave your readers in despair, but to leave them with a sense that there is something beyond us, something we are waiting for. I hope this is helpful. This is a wonderful post Gabrielle, and I agree with you entirely about Beyond the Mask!~Jane

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    1. That’s a beautiful interpretation, Jane. I too have found that finding out the intellectually satisfying answer to a question doesn’t always help when push comes to shove and one is dealing with a difficult situation. I imagine that the reason this is the way things are is because fundamentally, we are supposed to depend on (as you said) God and not just words or reasoning.
      I read/heard somewhere that one of the reasons why the bible might not have clear cut blatant answers on every question we might have is because at the end of the day, we are supposed to get answers, or the emotional and spiritual satisfaction associated with those answers, in a relationship with God. Humans often want clear cut answers so that they feel like they can exist without dependence on God, or on a relationship or dialogue with him. Of course that doesn’t in any way detract from the need for us to look for answers (in the bible and in Him and in life) because I believe He wants us to find them- it just means that it can be easy to get preoccupied in leaning on the answers rather than on the Who gave them.

      Truly, I don’t think humans will ever fully be fulfilled on earth and as you say, it might be more accurate to relay to readers both the intellectual nature of answers (because understanding them is still valuable) and the fact that full satisfaction regarding them (and life in general) only ever comes through that ‘somehting beyond us, somehting we are waiting for’-our life after earth and God.

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