Our top tag is , with nearly 6000 questions, many of which are new users' first posts to the site. Many of these new users need some guidance on how to ask a story-ID question well (include as many details as possible), and established users often need to leave comments along the lines of:

When did you read this book/see this film? How old was it? What language was it in? Can you remember anything more about it? Any little detail might help us to identify it!

The purpose of this meta post is to give us a single page to link these users to, for guidance on how to write a good story-ID question and what to think of and include. (A meta thread will do in lieu of this feature being implemented.)

What advice would you offer on writing a good question?

  • 4
    Was it part of an anthology, or a complete novel? Do you remember any details about the cover? What was the target age range? Do you remember any character names? Any unique phrases? What made it stand out from other, similar stories? – Web Head Mar 18 '16 at 1:15
  • I guess it can't do any harm, but I don't know how much good it's going to do. I suspect nobody's going to read it except those who don't need to. – user14111 Mar 18 '16 at 9:10
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    "I read it in the 1950s" is more helpful than "I read it as a kid" because, you see, we don't know how old you are. – user14111 Mar 18 '16 at 9:11
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    @user14111 True, nobody will find it here of their own accord except those who don't need it. But it'd make a very useful link to point people to who do need it, and it's much easier for us to have all these questions gathered together in one place so we don't have to remember them all each time! – Rand al'Thor Mar 18 '16 at 9:14
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    It may seem like you've stumped us, but don't give up hope. Some story-ID questions are answered weeks, months, even years after they were asked. – user14111 Mar 18 '16 at 9:24
  • Perhaps start by copying the suggestions out of the tag wiki, and making the tag wiki a signpost here? I'm sure Meta Qs are more visible than tag descriptions. – alexwlchan Mar 18 '16 at 10:32
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    @alexwlchan Good idea. We might also be able to cadge some ideas from M&TV, where they have a special little banner that comes up for everyone who posts an ID question. – Rand al'Thor Mar 18 '16 at 10:34
  • I'd already edited the tag wiki scifi.stackexchange.com/tags/story-identification/info to include my suggestions. See also meta.scifi.stackexchange.com/q/7028/4918 . – b_jonas Mar 18 '16 at 12:22
  • While I don't know that it's worth including in the tip box, including a list of stories you're pretty certain it isn't, and why, is useful, although my experience is that it's a good idea for the querent to check them out anyhow, because sometimes they're misremembering the work. – FuzzyBoots Mar 18 '16 at 13:18
  • @randal'thor - at just past two weeks, I'm very new here and this issue is fresh for me. While realizing it couldn't and shouldn't be done for other question types, I very much like the idea of a special banner for ID questions. I also wonder if question edits for very new users should require a comment to explain the reasons. Most people already do this and I realize this might be a burden for people, but it would help guide the way. – rosesunhill Mar 20 '16 at 5:07
up vote 62 down vote accepted

As the site's top answerer of questions, I'd like to offer the following suggestions to anyone thinking of posting a question in this tag:

  • No detail is too insignificant. You might think it's ever so obvious that your characters are white or teenagers or whatever, but you still need to tell us. If you don't tell us, we don't know it.

  • Try to offer unique details. That means you need to think about character names, details of any incidents that occurred in the plot, any dialogue that you can remember, any words invented by the author, etc. Anything that can help distinguish your story is key to finding it.

  • Be available to answer questions about it, and answer them in a timely fashion. Story Ident questions will often lead to comments asking for more details. Those users who enter into a dialogue about their ident are almost certain to get more interest than those who post and run away, never to be seen again.

  • What is it? It may seem obvious to you that your question is about a book/film/TV show, but harking back to "you need to tell us", if you don't say what it is, you've hurt your chances of having it identified. If we have to spend ten minutes puzzling that out, that's ten minutes less time we'll spend actually helping you.

  • When did you see it? It's absolutely no help to know that you saw it when you were younger. Be specific. Tell us when you actually saw it and whether you think it was new/old when you saw it?

  • Tell us what made it memorable. I've noticed that very generic ident questions can often become answerable when people share why they remember it so vividly. This can also lead to further details emerging about the way that the story was portrayed, the audience it was intended for or where you saw it.

  • Tell us what it isn't. If you've already spent years posting the same question around the internet, make sure you tell us. There's nothing more frustrating then thinking you've found a mention of the story only to find a post from 2007 on Yahoo Questions that's identical to the one that was just posted. If you've ruled anything out already, let us know so that we don't waste time following the same lines of enquiry.

  • You've never finished asking. After posting, come back and review what you've put. Try to add at least one extra detail, no matter how measly. The more you edit, the more likely you are to remember something else. Don't forget that each quality edit will mean more attention for your question when it gets bumped back to the top of the front page.

  • 7
    Wait, what do you mean "the site's top answerer of story-identification questions"? user14111 is still ahead of you! – Rand al'Thor Mar 23 '16 at 20:08
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    @randal'thor - More rep, fewer answers. – Valorum Mar 23 '16 at 20:17
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    More rep,fewer answers = higher quality answers. – user14111 Mar 23 '16 at 21:33
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    @user14111 - In my head, the top answerer is the person who's answered the most questions (acceptably), not the person who's managed to garner the most rep by answering the easy ones :-P – Valorum Mar 23 '16 at 21:45
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    Flipside on the penultimate point, don't be afraid to admit that the answer might be the one you've ruled out. Sometimes you don't remember rightly. Sometimes, you realize that the detail which doesn't match is from a different work that you conflated. – FuzzyBoots Nov 8 '16 at 18:16

Questions must have as much detail as possible, including, but not limited to:

  • Media (short story collection, magazine, novel, TV, film, animated, website)  Was it part of a series?
  • Original year of publication/airing, or at least when you read/saw this work of fiction. "Read when I was a child" is not as useful as "Read when I was a child (early 1980s)". Similarly, qualifications like 'a long time ago' are not very helpful.  Many teenagers think five years is "a long time"; some of us find that laughable (no offense).
  • Major themes
  • Plot (as much as you can remember), including details of technology (e.g., people had a matter transmission capability, but they pretended that it was FTL travel.  Were there robots or other artificial intelligences?)
  • Tone (adventure, horror, serious / light-hearted / tongue-in-cheek)
  • Setting
  • Characters (names, descriptions)
  • If live action (TV or movie), do you remember any of the actors?  If animated, were any of the voices performed by celebrities?
  • The language you read or heard the story in
    • In what country?
    • The language the story was originally written in (if different), and any information you might have about translations into other languages
  • Details about the cover, if applicable
  • Target audience/age group
  • Color or black & white, if applicable
  • Gameplay mechanics, if applicable
  • A sketch of a book cover, or a scene, or a character, could also help jog someone's memory
  • Ideas that you have already ruled out (for example, if you know the story was not written by Asimov, then tell us so that we can save time)

If the question is too vague (and so could match dozens or hundreds of stories), then it will probably be closed. If this happens to your question, please add more detail and flag it for re-opening. Add the details relevant to the question by editing your question, rather than by commenting.

I think the most important tip for asking about a story is composing a concise title and first paragraph.

The title issue has been discussed Consensus on Story Identification titles? and the quality of titles is better than it was a year ago, but I'm not sure how much of that is people reviewing questions vs people writing them well in the first place.

When I scan down a list of questions and see something like Need help finding fantasy book series with no helpful snippet underneath, it's useless.

  • 2
    Yes, titles can definitely be a problem, and we very often have to edit them when reviewing new story-ID questions. This problem also shows up with non-story-ID questions though: I've seen titles like "Question about Harry Potter". – Rand al'Thor Mar 24 '16 at 10:55
  • @randal'thor In a sane world, "Question about Harry Potter" would be a good title. – user14111 Mar 25 '16 at 8:33
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    @user14111 How? It tells you nothing about the content of the question except what one of the tags is. Surely a more descriptive title like "Why did Harry Potter do XYZ?" would be much better! – Rand al'Thor Mar 25 '16 at 12:04
  • @randal'thor Would "Question about Attack of the 50-Foot Woman" be a good title, or do you think it needs to be more descriptive? – user14111 Mar 26 '16 at 3:45
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    @user14111 why would the words "question about" be useful in a question title? There's a limited space for words, and that's just a waste - not to mention it immediately indicates that the questioner has no clue how to phrase a question and so reading the full description is probably a waste of time. – moopet Mar 26 '16 at 11:41

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