Questions That Lead to Action: A Story Starter

Due to the recent COVID surge, Cathy and I have been limiting our exposure by avoiding public places as much as possible. This past week, we went to a bookstore event where everyone was fully vaccinated and boosted and wore masks. It felt odd, but also nice, to be among people again. For those of you who don’t know, central Ohio can be a dark and gloomy place in January and February. The infrequent days of sunshine are causes for celebration. Add to the natural course of gray days the isolation brought on by this pandemic, and we’re looking at a rough stretch until spring finally arrives. Cathy and I are resigned, then, to our socialization, for the most part, coming from trips to the grocery store and the pharmacy.

If you’re working on a novel or a short story, you face the task of letting your characters move through the world. Whether they must face the challenges of the pandemic or no, they still have to move about, encountering people and facing the pressure of having to act. Active characters are interesting; passive ones rarely are. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat staring out a window, trying to answer the question of what my characters should do and where they might go that would give them an invitation to action.

So here’s a writing exercise for any fiction writer who may feel their narrative momentum lagging or stalled altogether.

Where does your main character go when they’re bored or in need of being around other people? What public place? Maybe it’s the grocery store, or the local bowling alley, or the movie theater, or an auction house. The place doesn’t matter as long as it’s a place where other people gather.

Put your character in that place. Have them walk through the door, or go down an aisle, or turn a corner where they come face to face with someone else. It can be a stranger, a casual acquaintance, or someone once dear to them whom they haven’t seen in quite some time. Maybe there’s a history between them (you’re often money ahead if that’s the case), or maybe there isn’t. Whatever the case, your main character shouldn’t be able to avoid contact with this other person. . . .

. . . . because that person is about to ask your main character a question. The question should be one that your main character can’t avoid answering. The question should require your main character’s action, thereby setting into motion a sequence of events. Maybe the other character says, “Why didn’t you ever come by to get your mother’s wedding ring?” Or maybe the other character says, “Will you come with me right now? Trust me, there’s not a moment to lose.” Or, “You look just like my first husband. Do you like coconut cream pie? I make the best coconut cream pie. Won’t you let me make you one?”

The objective is to let the second character want something and to express that desire in the form of a question that your main character can’t ignore. It’s your job to figure out why your main character can’t just walk away. What are they carrying with them that makes that impossible?

This pandemic has brought a degree of stasis to many of our lives. Our fictional characters, though, can’t afford to be stagnant. I hope this exercise helps you set a narrative into motion.


  1. Rachel Hall on January 31, 2022 at 5:46 pm

    So helpful! I’m glad Sonja Livingston told me about your blog.

    • Lee Martin on February 1, 2022 at 11:29 am

      Thanks, Rachel! I’m very pleased to have you as a reader of my blog.

  2. Jamie Lyn Smith on February 1, 2022 at 12:16 pm

    Thanks so much, Lee. I’m returning to my novel tomorrow morning, and this is just the thing to help me get started.

    • Lee Martin on February 1, 2022 at 12:26 pm

      Keep doing the good work!

  3. Donna Burtch on February 1, 2022 at 3:31 pm

    Great exercise to help writer make characters active and not passive. I have noticed the value of place and activities like eating and drinking coffee in watching (powering through, actually) this season of Ozark. You see the characters with shower-washed hair, in the grocery store, making breakfast…and then heading off to do drug deals and other atrocities. Lee, thanks for this!

    • Lee Martin on February 2, 2022 at 11:18 am

      That’s so true about Ozark! I’m glad you pointed that out, Donna. I’m ready for the final set of episodes.

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