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I recently asked a question asking how for help with a plot twist. It's quite similar to My Hero's Captured question. I wasn't sure when I posted whether it was on topic - it's very broad and has no definitive answer.

Now it's been open a little while I'm even less sure. It's had a lot of views and answers however hasn't received a great number of upvotes (an indicator of a good question quality).

I'm worried questions like this are simply a drift net for "You could do this or this" type answers and don't add a lot of value to the site (despite being a great help to me).

Are questions like this on topic?

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    I actually came to meta to post a thread about it, thanks for getting this started. – Neil Fein Aug 6 '14 at 18:06
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How could a criminal forget a crime?
How can I arrange a murder without tipping off the murder that they are the criminal?

I agree that this question isn't yet the strongest it could be. In addition to your concerns--that it's very broad and has no definitive answer--another problem with questions like this is that they're not useful to future visitors.

Asking "what should I do to achieve X" is, IMHO (1) very close to asking "what should I write" -- off topic here -- and (2) really better suited for a discussion forum or a chat room. Ahem.

However, this is a concern to many writers, at one time or another.

(Now that this is being discussed here, I'm temporarily placing the question on hold so it's not a moving target if we have to do some significant editing.)

Why didn't the mods place this on hold?

There was a time on Writers.SE when the mods proactively closed borderline questions; however, over time, we learned that the community is good at providing excellent answers to borderline questions.

However, this clearly hasn't worked here. Out of the answers, the only ones that are really good are what's answer and lea's answer, both of which suggest avenues for future research. This is potentially useful to future users who may have written themselves into a corner.

The rest of the answers are specific suggestions. While many of them are good and some of them are fascinating, none are useful to future visitors.

What can be done to fix this?

Here's what I can think of for now:

You can either rewrite the question or leave it closed and open a new one. If you agree that the two answers I linked to above are good ones, maybe you could rewrite the question to fit those. They answered the implied question of "where can I look for inspiration to fix this problem." This is very likely to help future visitors, and also likely to be a question that's definitively answerable.

(If you don't like that option, you could also just leave the original question closed and write a new one. Or wait and see what other suggestions people think of.)

  • Thanks Neil, I've decided to leave the question closed. There are lots of good ideas in there which help me but I don't think it's worth salvaging it into a better question. Thanks to everyone who's helped! – Liath Aug 11 '14 at 11:37
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The problem as I see it is that the question has devolved into a referendum on every piece of fiction involving memory loss, that any of the users can remember off-hand. Some parameters were raised to exclude certain answers (including in response to my answer), but since none of them had backing by the question text, they smacked a little bit of mini-modding.

One possible way to improve the question is to expand on the solutions that don't fit the scenario. For example, you might want to exclude House M.D.-style conditions that are vanishingly rare and show up in TV shows more often than in real life. Or, you might want to exclude diagnoses that are legally or medically controversial, such as some of the suggestions I made.

These are just some ideas. In the end, you're the one who knows what you intended to ask.

I'm also inclined to agree with Neil Fein that leaving the question as-is and opening a new one has merit.

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I would say this question does run afoul of "asking what to write."

You're having a problem which is purely in the realm of plotting details; that naturally gives rise to any and all suggestions of "here's one way you could solve this." The result is a big list of suggestions, some clear and some less, some helpful and some less, some immediately helpful to you personally and some less.

So "How Could..." questions are poor, IMHO.

The other question you referenced, My Hero is captured, now what? , was originally also a "what to write" question. But the line that absolutely saved that question for me was:

All my latest tries have involved someone else rescuing him. I need him to escape by himself.

That's a crucial line, because it explains why this is a Q&A. It isn't "I don't know what to write here; give me suggestions." It's "I've tried to write a bunch of things, but they're not working because ((PROBLEM))." Once you've got that, then all the answers can talk about how to solve ((PROBLEM)), not about what it is you could conceivably write!

If you can't put your finger on what the problem is, then your question is unlikely to work well as Q&A. If you can (and your problem isn't "I need an editor," "I need a brainstorming session," "I need a proofreader"), then you're golden.

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