Monday, July 16, 2012

Questions and Consequences

My dad has trouble with his back. And has for as long as I can remember.

As a child, I was not particularly helpful in this area. He frequently carried me in from the car (sometimes because I was sleeping, other times because I was lazy and pretending to sleep). I jumped on him. Sat on his feet while he walked. Asked him repeatedly to hold me upside down. And my sister joined me for each of these fun-time activities.

He used to lie down on the living room floor, with his arms stretched perpendicular to his body. Looking back on this, he was probably trying to stretch out his abused back. At the time though, my sister and I just figured this was a new game. And because he loved us, he made it one.

In what I’m sure was an effort to prevent us from jumping on him, he would have each of us lay on either side of him, our heads on his upper arms. Then he would ask us questions. If we got the answer right, his arms would stay as they were. But if we got it wrong, they would slowly fold in. The movement of his lower arm was incremental, and would go back down if we answered a subsequent question correctly. But if you had too many wrong answers? Head was ‘crushed.’*

It was a strange trivia game and my sister and I loved it. Every time we saw him on the floor we came running in for our questions.

This isn’t to say that the game didn’t have its issues. I still maintain that my father was ageist in his questions. The little sis would be asked things like “Is it raining today?” or “What color are your favorite shoes?” Meanwhile, I’d be getting things like “Who was the second vice president under Thomas Jefferson?” and “What is the insignia for a Second Lieutenant in the Army?”** My father claims that the discrepancy was not this vast, but that’s the way I remember it.

Still, despite question inequality, I have realized that the game has informed the way I write stories. It taught me that asking questions is infinitely more interesting if there are consequences to answering them. Seeking answers just for the sake of knowledge is all well and good, but for a story to be interesting, a character should have more than edification at stake.

Basically, it’s The Last Crusade method. Drink out of the right cup, eternal life. Pick the wrong one, your flesh melts off your bones as your skeleton rattles to the floor.

Now, the consequences to every question shouldn’t be this dire. But for everything that the main character gets wrong, the walls should close in a little more and when he gets something right, even if it’s small, there should be an inch more breathing room. Even with this, though, in the back of both the character’s and reader’s minds should be the knowledge that another question is coming and a wrong answer can lose him what little ground he's gained. Depending on your story, this loss could mean death, or it could just mean that two giggling girls get their heads ‘crushed’ by their father. Either way, you've shown that questions have consequences and given the reader a reason to be concerned about the answer.

*No heads were actually crushed in the making of this game.
**The answers are George Clinton and one gold bar, respectively.

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