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For the past week, I’ve been pondering a comment from Colin Wilson’s, The Craft of Novel Writing.  In it, he stated, “Go to the heart of most novels and you will find a question mark.”  He thought that this applied to stories, too, which were shorter versions of the novel.

The point I’ve been considering is that stories that have an underlying question (whether literally presented or not) are much richer than stories that don’t.  There is a suggestion that stories that don’t have this inner layer are less involving and may be the result of lazy writing.

Let’s take a moment and look at what is meant by having a question mark at the heart of a story.  This isn’t a superficial question such as, “Will he get away with it?” or “Will she ever reach the top?”  All stories should inherently invoke such questions or they will not be involving to the reader or listener.

The type of question that Mr. Wilson has in mind runs deeper…perhaps, more existential.  Examples would be something similar to, “Who am I?” or “Why am I here?” or “What does it all mean?”  These are deep questions, indeed, and can add a level of appreciation to an audience willing to explore them.

I cannot agree that stories that don’t have such questions at their heart are less involving or rewarding.  They can help stories that seek to teach, yet I don’t feel that they are required.  Stories with a sole purpose of entertaining can be incredibly involving, and audiences will hang onto their every word.

For the sake of analysis, I’ll look at a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, “The Tell-Tale Heart.”  Poe’s life certainly influenced his writing, and one could argue that the death of his young wife, Virginia Clemm, placed questions about life’s meaning and coping with loss at the heart of many of his creative pieces.

When I read or perform “The Tell-Tale Heart,” I see a story that seeks to create a mood in the audience, and then thrill them with almost unbearable suspense.  What questions could be contained within it?

First of all, when one of Poe’s characters indicates that he is not mad, it’s a sure bet that he has crossed way over the Bend.  So, we can probably dispense with, “Is he mad?”  Since we know he’s mad, we can also dispense with, “Is this really happening?”

The questions that would likely come readily to mind are, “Will he kill him?” and “Will he get away with it?”  The answers will not morally uplift you.  The purpose is to entertain…to take you out of your world of safety for a little while and transport you into one where frightening things can happen.

Period.

If I was seeking a comment on the nature of society or existentialism, I wouldn’t read, “The Tell-Tale Heart.”

If we wanted to turn the story into a lesson that would be pondered long after the telling (in broad daylight, that is…the story is very easy to recall in the dark of night when we’re alone), it is ripe with possibilities.  I’ll avoid the obvious, “Is it a good idea to kill a person, dismember the body, and bury the parts under your floor?”  (The story tells us that the answer is a resounding, “No!”)

For instance, one high-level question could be, “Is my life more valuable or worth more than the life of another?”  If that was the central question, we would not only tremble to the sound of “the beating of his hideous heart!”   We would also explore how the world has changed because of the taking of the life.

The central character accelerates his descent into madness.  He becomes haunted and hunted.  He will also judge himself for the deed and be tormented by the Ultimate Judgment to which he will one day be subjected.  The kindness that he had observed in the old man will come back as a harsh, relentless accusation.

The loss of the old man could also have other consequences.  Perhaps a Will would have been changed, or a family financially rescued.  Maybe the old man had a secret he would have shared with the narrator that would have sent his life along the path to a glorious adventure.

In short, it would have been a very different story with a very different purpose than the one intended.  (My mind boggles at the idea of a Poe version of Crime And Punishment.)

Stories with a question mark at their heart are truly dynamic and thought-provoking.  If you can communicate them, you have a chance to transform your audience.

In the meantime, it is also extremely worthwhile to entertain!

Thank you for reading.