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Develop Your Story and Characters With Open-ended Questions

Let’s say you’re writing a story with a protagonist named John. He’s a frustrated golfer with a short temper. In one scene, John throws his golf cap on the living room floor and stomps on it. His wife observes John's actions and asks him a question.

Which of these questions gives you more opportunity to show your readers John’s personality?

      “So,” his wife asked, “Did you have a good round?”


      “So,” his wife asked, “How did your round go?”

The second is more appealing because it opens up the scene, and the character, for more development. After the first question, John is likely to answer “yes” or “no” and the conversation might end there. But after the second John is more-or-less obliged to explain what happened. That's called an open-ended question.

Admittedly, the second question could be considered snarky. She knows John’s upset and almost seems to be baiting him. But that’s good! Maybe then John responds in an equally snarky way. He might refuse to answer, or perhaps he snarls at his wife. (How do you think my round went!”) Or maybe instead he shows himself to be above snarkiness. He might take a deep breath and calmly tell his wife how he hit three golf balls in the water.

Either way, your readers get a better idea of who John is. Furthermore, you have a wider number of choices about where the passage goes from there. That’s what open-ended questions are all about—choice and opportunity.

Now that we’ve seen the wisdom of using open-ended questions, let’s look at some specifics of how to do so.

First, just to be sure we’re on the same page, let’s define our terms. Questions that elicit one-word, or at least brief, responses are called close-ended. In contrast, open-ended questions require a character to respond with an explanation or elucidation.

Open-ended questions may require a bit more thinking to develop, but they’re well worth the work.

These words may be used to ask open-ended questions: explain, describe, how, or why. The following questions also work: What do you plan to do? How will you? What do you feel? and How did you? These examples are far short of an exhaustive list, of course.

You can almost always reword a close-ended question into an open-ended one. Try it with these two questions that your characters might ask:

1. “Did you enjoy the concert?”

2. “Are you thinking about marrying Bill?”

Possible answers:

1. This is an easy change. “How did you enjoy the concert?”

2. This one’s a little tougher. “What are your thoughts about marrying Bill?” works.

You can’t use open-ended questions every time. Sometimes they simply don’t work. But even if you can’t, many times you can follow a close-ended question with an open-ended one, like this:

      “Where did you go to college?”

There’s no practical way to make that question open-ended. But it’s easy to follow up with an open-ended question: “How did you like it?”

Open-ended questions showcase your characters’ personalities and give you more latitude in developing your story. Use them whenever you can.

Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Joe Wisinski