Keep ’em Guessing: The Importance of Story Questions


During a writing workshop I took many years ago, the instructor launched into an earnest lecture on suspense and the vital role it plays in fiction. Like my fellow students, I was surprised by her intensity on the subject. If she’d been a mystery author, I would have understood, but in fact she wrote thoughtful novels about women finding themselves; one of her books aired as a Lifetime movie while I was studying with her.

Bemused by our bemusement, she explained that suspense is vital to every genre of fiction, not just whodunits and thrillers. Story questions—what happened, what’s happening, what’s going to happen—are what maintain your reader’s interest in the events you’re playing out, what keeps him or her turning the pages.

No matter what kind of fiction you write, never lose sight of the entertainment imperative. Our work competes for our audience’s attention with other books, movies, television, magazines, newspapers, the Internet, computer games, obsessive-compulsive texting… It’s a noisy world out there. The kiss of death for a novelist is to forget that our job is to grab hold of and maintain our reader’s attention through hundreds of pages of stuff we made up. If that reader starts to get bored, he’s not going to stick it out unless he’s a masochist. He’s going to abandon your story and move on to someone else’s.

Readers—people who occasionally choose to put down the remote and pick up a book—tend to be smarter than the average bear. They don’t want to be spoon-fed their entertainment, at least not always. They gravitate toward pastimes that require a certain amount of intellectual interaction. When you’re reading a good story, your mind is always working—speculating, deducing, rooting around mentally for answers to the questions that keep popping up. A work of fiction that doesn’t provide fodder for these cerebral calisthenics—in other word, that lacks story questions—is bound to bore the reader because it simply isn’t doing the job that fiction is meant to do.

All well-written stories generate story questions as they play themselves out, so that the reader always has something to ponder, wait for, anticipate. If the outcome will affect a protagonist with whom your reader empathizes deeply, her investment in it is all the greater, and she won’t want to put the book down until that story question is answered.

In most novels, there’s one big story question (or a couple of big ones that are usually connected). Let’s call this the major story question. In the best novels, there are also a number of smaller, ongoing, minor story questions. All story questions relate to plot—to the events of the story—but ideally, story and character are inextricably linked. In character-driven fiction, after all, your characters are making decisions that keep the story moving.

The major story question, which ties into the central conflict, is generally resolved at or near the end of the book. With classic mystery novels, the story question is almost always Who Done It? Some other examples:

Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind: Will Scarlett win Ashley’s love? Will she rebound after the devastation of the Civil War?

Elizabeth Berg’s Range of Motion: Will Jay wake up from his coma?

John Grisham’s The Firm: How will Mitch McDeere manage to extricate himself from the clutches of his mafia-affiliated law firm? Will his marriage survive?

William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner: Why does sympathetic Nat Turner end up spearheading a brutal rebellion?

Another Syron novel, Sophie’s Choice: What was Sophie’s choice and why did it have such repercussions?

John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman: Will Sarah and Charles manage to defy all the many societal constraints of Victorian England, not to mention his engagement to Ernestina, and end up together?

David Balducci’s Absolute Power: Will President Alan Richmond’s involvement in a young woman’s brutal murder become known?

Steven King’s The Shining: Will the family end up victims of the dark forces inhabiting the hotel in which they’re snowbound for the winter?

The often numerous minor story questions are extremely important, because they help to keep your reader engaged until the resolution of the major story question. From page one, you should be peppering questions into your story and then answering them, in a leapfrogging manner that fits the natural evolution of your plot. Make your reader wonder what happened, what’s happening, what’s going to happen—and why?

Don’t frustrate your reader by withholding answers too long. That has a coy, artificial feel. But as questions are answered, be aware that new ones should naturally crop up.

An example from the opening of my book In the Garden of Sin:

I am in my autumn years now, sitting quill in hand before a high, arched window in the library of my marble palazzo overlooking the Grand Canal, preparing to record the events that had driven me, as a virginal young Englishwoman of gentle birth, to seek an education in whoredom….[Story question: Why would a virginal young gentlewoman want to become a whore?]

The curtain opened on my tale on the eighteenth day of July in the year of our Lord 1626, when I still lived in London, where I had been born and reared. Through covert inquiries, I had ascertained that there was a visitor to that city, a Venetian nobleman and poet named Domenico Vitturi, who acted as a Pygmalion of sorts to young women from every corner of Europe who sought to improve their circumstances through the exalted form of prostitution for which Venice had long been notorious….

Desperate for a solution to an agonizing dilemma, the nature of which I was loath to admit openly for reasons that will become clear [What kind of dilemma would prompt her to take such extreme measures?], I resolved to contrive an audience with Signor Vitturi in the hope that he would deem me worthy to partake in this venture. And so it was that I found myself, that damp and unseasonably chilly morning, being ushered by a liveried footman into the high-ceilinged, darkly paneled great chamber of York House on the Strand, where Vitturi was a guest of the Duke of Buckingham.

The Venetian rose from his writing desk as I was presented, bowing with his hand upon his breast, but not before I caught sight of his face—the face I had been warned to expect, lest my countenance betray any hint of distaste. His forehead, cheek, and jaw on the right side were badly scarred, the flesh there gouged and puckered, but well-healed. These ghastly wounds appeared to extend to his chin and neck, but were mostly concealed in those regions by a narrow, trim beard of the type that was in fashion at that time, as well as by the ruff at his throat. [What happened to him?]

And so on…

It’s a writing truism that if you pose a question, you must answer it at some point. Yes… and no. Remember, there are no rules for writing fiction. By and large, it’s more satisfying to have all the threads tied up at the end, but if it works to leave your reader hanging on a particular question, write it that way. I recently read a brilliant suspense novel by a relatively new author (I don’t want to name the book for fear of revealing too much) which featured a present-day murder mystery that was tied into a mysterious crime that had occurred two decades before. Intriguing questions are raised about that crime, which I had assumed would be answered at the end of the book. They weren’t, but it felt absolutely right for the story, and I was happy with the ending.

Story questions can add zing to your opening hooks and curtain lines. To craft a true page-turner, try to end most of your chapters with an intriguing bit of business that goads your reader into starting the next chapter even though it’s 1:00 am and he’s got to go to work the next morning.

If the endings of your chapters are ho-hum, it’s not a bad idea to re-chapter the manuscript so as to make them more intriguing. Chapters breaks can interrupt scenes in the middle, and they don’t have to be any particular length. They can contain one scene or, as in Chapter 3 of David Balducci’s Absolute Power—the quintessential page-turner—seventeen. (As I recall, there are some very short scenes in that book as well.) Your goal isn’t to be consistent, it’s to be entertaining, and great story questions will go far toward achieving that goal.

That’s all for now. Catch you next month, same time, same place…

Louisa Burton
August 2009

“FictionCraft” © 2009 Louisa Burton. All rights reserved.

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