How often do you start reading a new chapter in your book, even though you know you should be heading to bed? The clock keeps ticking, but you’re totally invested in the story. Now stop and ask yourself this: why do only some books keep you turning pages like that? Whether you realize it or not, the answer usually comes down to questions.
A well-designed question will make you want answers, and to find answers you’ll need to keep reading.
So how can writers raise powerful story questions? Let’s dive into that.
Hooking readers with questions
If you’ve been in the writing community for long, you’ve probably been told a million times to “hook your readers”. Everyone suggests different methods for doing this, from using irony to having a strong character voice. Some techniques work better than others (I don’t typically recommend hooking your readers with philosophical statements, for instance), but the absolute simplest way to keep your readers invested is to present questions.
This does not mean that you should explicitly state a question. The classic advice of “show don’t tell” applies well here. A thriller writer won’t directly ask if the characters will be able to diffuse the bomb. Instead, they show the difficulty of diffusing the bomb, and you as the reader are left to wonder if the characters can succeed. The question is powerful because you are the one asking it, and you’ll keep reading to find an answer.
This concept applies to a multitude of situations, on both a scene and a story level. Scene-level questions include things like whether or not the characters will be able to get out a burning building, while story-level questions are broader scale, like whether two characters will become a couple by the end of the book.
Let’s look at three principles for raising questions.
1. Feed information out slowly
What do you enjoy more, looking at a puzzle that someone else completed, or putting it together yourself?
For most people, putting it together piece by piece and having the satisfaction of watching it come to life is much more enjoyable.
For storytellers, this is an important concept to keep in mind. If you hand the readers a fully finished puzzle they’ll be bored. If you hand them a single puzzle piece, they’ll want more. They’ll wonder what the whole picture looks like, and that question will propel them forwards.
I learned this lesson when I wrote my thriller MANTECOR. In the first chapter, the main character receives a text from someone who is worried about him, and he decides not to answer immediately. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but many of my early readers expressed interest in what was going on. It wasn’t a huge story question, but it piqued their interest. I’d given them a single bit of information, and they wanted to learn more.
The danger with this technique is feeding information out too slowly, especially for small questions. You can only stretch a 5 piece puzzle for so long before readers realize they’re being strung along.
2. Never infodump
This is similar to the previous point, but it deserves a mention of its own.
I see a lot of newer writers make the mistake of infodumping. Not only do infodumps typically bore the reader and kill your narrative flow, but they also destroy story questions. Ironically, many writers will infodump directly after raising an interesting story question.
What I see regularly is a skittishness about raising questions. A lot of writers worry that their readers will be annoyed by not having answers, so as soon as a question regarding backstory or worldbuilding is raised, they infodump and provide all of the answers.
I do understand where that skittishness comes from, because new writers especially need to be careful not to confuse their readers. A confused reader will be asking questions, but not the right sort. If their confusion persists, they may put the book down.
It takes care and experience to determine which questions will hook the reader and which will confuse them. Regardless of what type of question you’ve created, infodumping is never the solution.
3. Raise the stakes or present a problem
While you can certainly raise excellent questions by keeping information back, many of the best questions have to do with events in the story.
There are two primary ways to make readers ask questions related to story events. The first is to raise the stakes. When you combine heightened challenges with an increased cost of failure, readers will wonder if your characters can actually win. This is especially true if you’ve already had genuine disasters where your characters failed.
The other way to make readers ask questions is to present a compelling problem. Readers may hope that Sue and Jim will become a couple (the question “will they get together” is essentially the root of most romance stories). But when you reveal that Jim is suffering from a disease that requires a very specific cure, reader assumptions are thrust aside and replaced with questions. Will Jim survive? How will he get the cure? If he does survive, will he get together with Sue?
Raising questions early on
While story questions are important throughout a narrative, they’re absolutely key within the first few pages. The task of the first sentence, then the first page, and then the first couple of pages are to hook readers. To make them want to keep turning pages, even if they haven’t decided yet to read the book.
The opening sentence of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is an excellent example of raising questions early on: “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” This sets the tone and makes us smile, but it also raises the implied question of why Eustace is such a disliked character. We keep reading to find out.
Weaving questions together
Ultimately, the goal of the storyteller is not to raise one question, but many. Big and small, story questions should weave together, pulling a reader deeper and deeper into the pages of a story.
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