Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

16.37: Deep Dive Into “Inquiry”

Your Hosts: Dan Wells, C.L. PolkCharlotte Forfieh, and Mary Robinette Kowal

Our third M.I.C.E. Quotient episode asks about the “Inquiry” element, and the ways in which we can use this element to structure our stories—whether we’re writing murder mysteries, thrillers, or anything else in which the turning of pages asks and eventually answers questions.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Use the same fairy tale as last week, and strip out every element that is not Inquiry.

Thing of the week: Even Though I Knew the End, by C.L. Polk (a noir fantasy novella available in 2022).

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Inquiry stories start with a question, and end when the character finds the answer. In the middle, there are a lot of conflicts that block answering the question. Mysteries! Many science fiction stories. Anything where people are trying to figure out what is going on. Obstacles keep the character from answering the question, opening up different questions, while complications open up another problem. Inquiry is great for on-the-page micro-tension. Give the reader a little information, make them ask questions, give them a little more information, and open another little question. At the end, you do not have to answer every question and tie up every loose thread. You do need to resolve the loadbearing threads that you have built. Look at the promises you made in the beginning. Sometimes you may open a new question at the end, for a cliffhanger. 

[Season 16, Episode 37]

[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Deep Dive Into “Inquiry.”

[C.L.] 15 minutes long.

[Charlotte] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Mary Robinette] And we’re not that smart, are we?


[Dan] I hope so. I’m Dan.

[C.L.] I’m C.L.

[Charlotte] I’m Charlotte.

[Mary Robinette] Who am I?


[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette. Howard’s not here. Someone has to do the funny endings.

[Dan] Someone has to do the funny jokes.

[Mary Robinette] Since this episode is looking at the structure of a story driven by questions, I thought that we would do a little questioning there. Continuing our theme, the inquiry story is about questions. They began when your character asks a question, and it ends when they have the answer. That’s your basic structure. All of the conflicts that go in the middle are about stopping the character from answering questions.

[Dan] The obvious example of this is a mystery story, right? Like a Sherlock Holmes or an Agatha Christie or something like that. But this all… There’s a lot of other kinds. Like, it occurs to me that a lot of science fiction, Andromeda Strain, would be an inquiry story. Sphere includes a lot of inquiry elements, although I think it might also be a milieu thing. Anything where people are trying to figure out what’s going on, whether it is a traditional mystery or not.

[C.L.] Yeah. Something like a scientist undertaking some kind of scientific inquiry. Anything like that, that’s what I kind of slot into the inquiry zone.

[Mary Robinette] Exactly so.

[C.L.] I think probably the inquiry story is my favorite kind of plot structure. I love the idea of, like, people trying to find stuff out, and here’s all the nonsense that got in their way as they were trying to figure this stuff out.


[Charlotte] Yeah. I love to read it. I find it very hard to write.

[Mary Robinette] Right. So, one of the tricks… And it’s… I also love the inquiry structure format, and struggled with it for a while. Then figured out something, in part based on… If you… Longtime listeners, if you go back and relisten to the episode with Margaret Dunlap about obstacles versus complications, none of the things that I realized is that in inquiry story, the obstacles are all the things that cause… Excuse me. Yeah, the obstacles are all the things that are keeping the character from being an… From answering the question. The other thing that I realized, and this was the piece that was… That really helped unlock it for me. So, we know that every time your character takes an action, it should have consequences. Right? This is a thing. But in inquiry story, if you want to keep something single thread, all of those consequences are related to that question. Because the action that your character is taking is the question. Questioning is their action. So when you’re looking at this idea of obstacles versus complications, the complication is when the character… The question opens up a different problem. But obstacles are when each question opens up another question. It’s just like the questions keep… It’s like, well, I… It’s the thing where, “Okay, we have to figure out who the murderer was.” Then you get there, and they’re unquestionably the murderer, but someone has killed them, too. Who killed them? Yes. Who killed them? Or you get there and it’s like… But someone… It’s a hired assassin. Well, who’s their boss? Or… So we’ve figured out that you can extract DNA from an egg. What happens if you stick it into a new egg? Do you get a dinosaur?

[Chuckles] [let’s find out!] [Oh, my God]

[Charlotte] So I have the problem… Obstacles. Right. When each question opens up a different question, and a complication is when the question opens up a different problem. So perhaps my character is investigating who killed the person, and then if someone is trying to kill them? Is that a complication?

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Yeah.

[Charlotte] Right.

[Mary Robinette] Right. Exactly. Because that opens up an event. If someone starts tracking them and trying to kill them, that’s disrupting their status quo. The way I explain it sometimes is Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes’ status quo is a detective. It is answering questions. So when he encounters a mystery, that’s not a disruption of his status quo. His normal is in no way broken. The normal of the people that he’s helping? Their normal is broken, it’s not their story. It’s his story. So he’s just dealing with this. But in the… The Sherlock, the BBC series, we often got things where… The question, that thing would break his own personal status quo, or it would cause him to have some sort of character doubt, because of his relationship with Watson, because of the very… Because of some of the Moriarity stuff. So those are places where you have this… The complications come in. Dan, I saw you sit forward as if you had a thought? Then you just nodded, sagely.


[Dan] Once again, I’m thinking about what do we gain by these granular definitions. Because I think on the one hand, it’s very helpful to know, “Oh, well, if this is an inquiry story, what are the kinds of things that can happen?” I can stop the character from finding the answer. I can give the character the answer, but in a way that opens up more questions and doesn’t actually solve the problem, and things like that. I’m thinking, honestly, the lean forward you saw, my book, Ghost Station, is a spy novel, is very much in inquiry novel. Because it is… It begins with a character finding a message from a double agent that is confusing and wrong. The book is about figuring out, well, what’s happened. Why is this message so broken? A lot of the complications that arrive during the process are not necessarily impediments to solving… To finding the answer, but just paranoia ramping up. That’s… He can trust fewer and fewer people as the story goes on.

[Mary Robinette] But I would make the argument with Ghost Station, because in… Ghost Station, I think, really it’s a beautifully crafted story. But the thing with that is that I think that it is… Every question he answers opens up these… This whole new can of worms. That’s why his circle of trust also erodes. So it is… You’re right, it is a nested thing of inquiry and events, because the status quo is constantly shifting. But it’s like, okay, so I figured out why… I figured out how this message is different, but why is it different like this.

[Dan] Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] Then, well, here are all of the possible reasons that it could be different. That you might make that choice. Which of these… It’s just like every time he answers a question, there’s another question waiting behind it. Even the who can I trust is a question. Even the ways that his status quo has disrupted are question-centric.

[Dan] That is true.

[Mary Robinette] It’s not until people start shooting at him that they become really event and action oriented-centric.

[Mary Robinette] We should pause for the book of the week, which is not Ghost Station, which I recommended before. But it is Even Though I Knew the End by C. L. Polk.

[C.L.] It’s me. It’s me. Yeah, I… You’ve probably… You might have heard the news a little bit earlier, but I have a novella coming out with The title is Even Though I Knew the End. Since this is a story about an occult detective solving a serial murder case, I thought it might fit the theme. Possibly. It’s coming out It’s not coming out for a while, because this is the way of publishing. It was definitely intended as a mystery story, so it… I think it will be a really good inquiry model for, like, when you get there eventually. If you want to read a book right now, Witchmark is mystery. 

[C.L.] I was thinking about the inquiry story and I just kind of had a little lightbulb go off, where I… Inquiry is a plot model. It’s like the way that you can run the events of your story. But inquiry is also the secret to on the page micro tension. Where what you do is you’re on the page and you supply a piece of information that has the reader go, “Oh, what’s that?” Then you tell them what it is. Then, as soon as you’ve told them what it is, you open another tiny little question. So that their curiosity keeps them reading.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Yeah! That’s a… Raise an interesting thing that sometimes I hear people talk about. Like, I keep saying when the character has a question, and it is true that you can have these… The relationship where the reader is the character. It is harder to manage, because the reader cannot be as… The reader’s only active engagement most of the time is to just continue reading. So they can be often less actively involved in solving a question. But it is a thing that you can play with. It is also a thing that can go wrong badly very quickly. One of the ways that I’ll see things go wrong when people are mishandling inquiry is that they will try to ramp up tension by withholding information from the reader. It’s not about just like I’m just not going to tell you this thing. It is what C said, that you give them the information, but in a way that keeps things… Keeps questions unpacking. So it’s always more interesting to give information to people and let them misinterpret it. Or let them have a another question come up from it.

[Dan] So, I’m… I keep going back to this idea that one of the things the M.I.C.E. Quotient helps with is figuring out how to end something. A really great example that keeps coming to mind is Elantris by Brandon which is very much a milieu story, because it’s about all who are stuck in this kind of city of death. But ultimately, I think it has to be an inquiry story, because it is resolved in the end by figuring out why the magic is broken and then fixing it again. That feels really meaningful to me, that knowing what kind of ending you want is… If that story was just about surviving in this city and then getting out again, that would be a very different story than the one he told. But because… Just who he is as an author, he’s very interested in how does magic work, that turns it into an inquiry story and changes the whole flavor of it because of the ending that he’s driving for.

[Mary Robinette] Oh, that’s a great and interesting… Yeah, that’s a good example. Because that is definitely a story that could have… Where it could have gone two different ways and the setup also shifts somewhat when you do that differently. But yeah. Yeah.

[Dan] Well, also… I think you could make a case that Elantris is an event story as well. Because it begins when he is cursed, basically. That’s like the first line of it. He woke up and he was damned.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Dan] That’s a huge change in status quo, and it’s a thing that has disrupted his life. But it’s that ending that he is… That really defines it. Because that’s the moment he wanted to create.

[Mary Robinette] So, this also… We’ll talk about this more later when we get into the nesting things, but I’m going to go ahead and flag it now. That one of the things that you can do is you can have a single event resolve two different threads simultaneously which is one of the things that Brandon is doing at the end of Elanteris. Because it… That… That is fixing more than one problem.

[Dan] Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] It is answering a question, it is resolving the being damned, it is… It’s lifting a curse, it’s doing multiple things. Which is why, when we’re talking about these, and when you’re thinking about examples, it’s very easy to get confused about how to construct a story, because when you’re looking at stories… They’re made up of all of these different elements. So trying to decide which pieces to include in your story when you’re looking at examples that are all jumbled together, it can be really tricky. That’s why I’m like, let’s talk about each of them individually. So that you know what the ingredients are, then you can decide how to use them in which ingredients you want to include in your story. 

[Mary Robinette] So, Charlotte, you looked again like you had something you wanted to add there?

[Charlotte] Did I? Did I have something? I might have looked like that. Yes.

[Mary Robinette] Sorry.

[Charlotte] So…


[Charlotte] Thanks, Mary Robinette. So with the inquiry, to end an inquiry thread or story correctly, all questions need to have been answered? You can’t leave any dangling?

[Mary Robinette] Well, you… Ha ha. This is why I like you. You ask me very hard questions.

[Charlotte] I know. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.

[Mary Robinette] No. No no no. This is…

[Charlotte] I’m full of them.

[Mary Robinette] This is great. This is exactly why I wanted you to come and play with us. So, in general, no, you do not need to answer every question. Like, when you get to the end of a story, you don’t need to tie up every single loose end. But you do need to figure out which ones are the ones that the reader has been holding onto. Because if you leave those unresolved, that’s when the reader is going to feel unsatisfied. If we go back to my metaphor about that piece of elastic, you can have something that kind of starts up, but isn’t like loadbearing in any way. That we never know the answer to. You can also make it a design state, that this is just something that we will never know the answer to. How did the universe really start? Someone can spend a lot of time learning, and the ultimate answer can be we won’t know. But the key is to signpost for the reader that that is a specific design state, but that is kind of… It’s like, “No, you aren’t going to get the answer to that.” Then the other piece of it is… Like, there’s a lot of that going on in Annihilation. It’s like, “No, you don’t get to know. Kind of, maybe, a little bit. But you’re going to have to strain a lot of things together. Good luck with that.”


[Mary Robinette] so what you’re looking at our… Did you answer the questions that you promised at the beginning the reader would have the answer to, and is that something that was loadbearing, that you had tension on the entire time. If you didn’t answer it, they’re going to wonder… They’re just going to be left wondering. Sometimes you want that. The other piece is that if you get to the end of the story and you open up that new question, that’s called a cliffhanger.


[Mary Robinette] There are times and places where you want to do that, but you have to figure out whether or not the frustration that the reader is going to feel, that “Oh, but I don’t know the answer,” if that’s something that you’re buying on purpose or if that’s something that you put in your bag by accident.

[C.L.] Yeah. Whether it’s intentional or not. Be intentional.

[Charlotte] Great. Thank you.

[Dan] As you were saying that, Mary Robinette, an example occurred to me of the movie Chinatown. Which ends with frustration, but it is not an inquiry-based frustration. You get to the end of that movie, all the questions have been answered. The promise that we would tell you the truth has been fulfilled. But the movie never promised you’d be happy about it, or that the problems themselves could be solved. So it has this horrible tragic ending. But it doesn’t feel frustrating in the same way that an unresolved question would be. Because of the way the promises were established in the beginning.

[Mary Robinette] Yep. Speaking of promises, in the beginning, we did say that this would be 15 minutes long.


[Mary Robinette] So far, all of these have run to 20. Sorry about that.

[Mary Robinette] But we are going to do some homework. So, your homework this time is that you’re going to take whatever fairytale you’ve picked, and you’re going to strip it down to being just an inquiry story. It will now look very different from the milieu one. You’re going to focus on the characters… Excuse me, you’re going to focus on the questions. So in my Goldilocks example, what happens is the bears arrive… Excuse me, what happens is that Goldilocks gets in… Is already in the house. Okay? Because entering the house is a milieu threshold. So Goldilocks is already in the house. She is investigating to figure out who lives in this house. Then, ultimately, from the clues, she decides that who lives in this house are bears. But the bears don’t come home, because if they come home that is, one, her not answering the question, but deus ex machina answering the question. So she is answering the question. The other thing is that it would kick off an event, because now she is an intruder and the problem with the bears. So, strip it down so it’s just Goldilocks… In mine, Goldilocks is just exploring until she understands that it’s bears. All of the things that she misunderstands along that road.

[Dan] Sounds great. So there’s your homework. You are out of excuses. Now go write.