Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Are You Asking--and Answering--the Right Story Questions?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Leaving the right trail for readers to follow is a big part of writing a novel. The right story questions make that a whole lot easier.

I always set aside time to update my outline and prepare for a manuscript revision. Not only is it a good way to remember what I wrote, it helps me ensure I have everything figured out so the revision is easier.

Years ago, I was working on a novel with a lot of layers and mysteries, and I added something new to this process:

Identify the story questions in each act.

Why I hadn't done this before I have no idea, as it sounds so obvious, right? It's likely something you assume you already do (I know I did before I started doing this). But while I knew the main story question of every act, there were a lot more questions readers might ask about, and some of them I didn't do much with in the novel. These little questions were all missed opportunities to deepen my story and keep that all-important tension high.

Identifying Your Story Questions

These days, I go scene by scene in each act and write down every question readers might ask. The plot and subplot questions are easy, as these are the ones driving the narrative. The smaller mysteries are usually less obvious, but many of them are good opportunities to expand or use later in the story to tie story elements or plots together (they also make great red herrings). There's also a lot of foreshadowing (intentional and accidental) to track, to make sure enough groundwork has been laid for any reveals, or to even spot things I setup but didn't realize I had (the writers' subconscious at work).

Things such as:
  • What's the deal with X and his attitude?
  • Who's really behind Y?
  • Will J tell A how he really feels?
  • Why is Q so scared of X?
  • What did K mean by XYZ?
No matter how small the mystery, if it's something readers might wonder about and want to know the answer to, I write it down.

Most of the time I'm quite pleased by how many things I discover that can make readers curious about how the story might turn out, and what hidden gems I'd overlooked. I usually have several great ideas I can weave into the plot for a more compelling story.

(Here's more on Stuck on Your Plot? Change Your Story Question)

Tracking Story Questions in Your Novel

Sometimes I use just my outline to track my story questions, other times I read the manuscript and search for them. It really depends on how solid I feel the first draft is. It's not uncommon for me to write a rough draft that just gets everything down so I can decide what I want to do with it. With those drafts, the odds of subconscious or accidental "story connections" is much higher, so I take the time to go through every page in the book. More time consuming, but well worth it in the end.

Make a list of all the story questions in each chunk of the novel: The three act structure works great here, but however you break up your novel is fine. Questions to look for:

  • The core conflict questions: Pay attention to the major turning points that move the core conflict. This ensures that your plot-driving engine is working. 
  • The character arc questions: Start with the major turning points here as well, then look for the smaller steps that lead to those turning points.
  • The subplot questions: Make sure your subplots enter the story at the right time, and that you leave enough for readers to wonder about so they'll want to see this subplot play out. 
  • Random questions: What random questions did you ask that might be good foreshadow moments or even turn out to be more than what they look like? A tossed-off comment in an early scene might just end up being the key to a sticky plot problem you can't quite workout.
  • World questions: Look for any world mechanics that need answering or explaining, or opportunities to deepen the world or make readers wonder more about it.

Look for anything readers might simply wonder about: This is a little tougher, because odds are there won't be clear cut "questions" in the same sense. It's clear when the story question is "Who killed the mailman?" but less clear when it's "Why did Bob ignore Jane's question about Phoenix?" But these are things that often play to the deeper subtext of the story.

Look for things that suggest character motivation or suspicious behavior, a rumor or gossip, a bit of world building that is intriguing but never explained.

Look for things your characters wonder about: Characters can wonder things, too, and they often ask the wrong questions (which is a great way to misdirect readers without tricking them). If characters want to know something, odds are readers do too.

Verify Your Story Questions

Now comes the hard part. Once you have all your questions down, verify them. Start with act one and see if/where you answered those questions or resolved those mysteries. Did you get them all? Were any left behind? Do the same for each chunk of the manuscript.

Next, look to see what was left out. Are these mysteries you can expand on? Are there any that don't add anything to the story? Are there any you can use to raise the tension or surprise readers in a slow or troublesome scene? Can you combine any of these mysteries?

I've caught plenty of plot holes with this step over the years, as well as found great (and unexpected) story moments, and solutions to problems.

(Here's more on Are You Asking the Right Story Questions?)

This Process Isn't Just for Revisions, Either

I've also double checked my story questions in the drafting process to make sure I've setup enough story and plot to get me through the middle. Middles can be rough on a lot of writers (they were for me when I was starting out) since that's where the bulk of the plot happens. But when you identify your first act story questions, you'll have a wonderful list of all the things you teased readers with to carry you into the middle. All of these questions could be resolved, revealed, expanded, further teased about, throughout the second act of the book--or even the third.

When I know what my reader questions are for each act, I can quickly see connections and story arcs that can be woven together or taken advantage of. I can also see where a question is left hanging and never resolved, or a potential plot hole that might leave readers unsatisfied.

Some questions will be intentionally left unanswered, and that's okay. You don't need to answer every single thing in a novel. But many questions slip into a story as we write, and it's no surprise that these are the ones that we most often forgot about. They're also the ones most likely to result in the coolest and most creative plot twists, connections, or revelations.

Reveals are a big part of keeping a reader hooked, and wanting to know how something turns out or finding out a secret will keep them up way past their bedtime. Knowing what story questions you've left behind is a great way to ensure you're leaving a trail worth following.

What are your big reader questions? Do you have reader questions per act? Are you leaving enough mysteries to keep your reader hooked and guessing, or are you relying on action to move your story forward? Are there any questions you can do more with? Less with?

*Originally published January 2012. Last updated July 2019.

Find out more about plot and story structure in my book, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems.

Go step-by-step through plot and story structure-related issues, such as wandering plots; a lack of scene structure; no goals, conflicts, or stakes; low tension; no hooks; and slow pacing. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Create unpredictable plots that keep readers guessing
  • Find the right beginning and setup for your story
  • Avoid the boggy, aimless middle
  • Develop compelling hooks to build tension in every scene
  • Craft strong goals, conflicts, and stakes to grab readers
  • Determine the best pacing and narrative drive for your story
Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting gripping plots and novels that are impossible to put down.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. This is such a great idea for deepening the story especially if you have the main plot but maybe your ideas for subplots or those points you want to weave throughout the story are weak. Thanks for the tip.

  2. This is a great motivation to continue what I'd started in my third draft -- I'd had a section on my scene checklist to write down each story question raised, and I'd carry them over to the next scene if not answered, but as I got further into the draft I stopped :( Maybe it was too cumbersome to keep copying the questions... I'll do your suggestion and do them by Act!

  3. I tend to write short chapters with mini-cliffhangers, and my only deep reader-analysis is whether they would keep reading. I actually like to leave out crucial info at times in order to let them think and fill in the holes themselves. This is probably why I am not a best-seller lol

  4. Great tip! I'm just about to begin revisions on two screenplays. One is a thriller, so this will be perfect.

  5. I actually just made a list of reader questions for my story, but I'm at the outline stage. This post is a great reminder to revisit my list when I have more of a draft, so that I can see what other reader questions emerged on their own. Thanks!

  6. Great post! I'll definitely go through my WIP to see where I can flesh things out a bit, stir up some tension.

  7. Wonderful post! This is why I love my main crit partner. We both comment in questions. Anything that pops into our minds we write down for each other and it helps us see exactly what you are explaining.

    I need to train myself to do it on my own too.

  8. It's a great idea to actively ask these questions.. in a way they're mini hooks - little things that get your reader curious about where it's going, or what's going on.

    I know with my first book I didn't necessarily plan things out, but I believe they happened on their own - and as further scenes were being written, the ideas popped up "Oh! this would be a great time to do something with X, or explain why Bob did that thing earlier." It kind of happened naturally.

    I have a feeling, though, that making this a conscious decision, rather than leaving it to chance, would result in stronger story building and plotting.

    Thanks for the post!

  9. Great ideas! I always look forward to your blog posts. They keep me thinking and improving my MS.

    I know of certain things I'm leaving mysterious on purpose -- although, I could probably leave a few more breadcrumbs. But as I go through I'll see if there are any other things I missed or put in subconsciously.


  10. Natalie, most welcome. I'm putting mine in a spreadsheet now to keep track of them and when I reveal them. Sort of a timeline for the novel.

    Angela Q, acts did feel easier. It also let me focus on the bigger questions, because a lot of smaller mysteries were solved right away, so they really weren't things I had to worry about.

    Brian, hehe. That sounds like a solid process actually. Some holes are fine to leave open, and you do want to let the reader participate. You just have to find that balance between mystery and confusing plot holes.

    Kaitin, good luck!

    Jillian, most welcome. Hope it works out well for you. Let me know how it goes :)

    Heather, happy hunting!

    Charity, I love questions. I even ask myself questions in my own revisions. I left them in for one of my crit partners (she was reading the very rough draft) and she actually answered them, which I loved!

    Paul, totally mini-hooks. A lot of these things do show up by chance, and that's when I started paying attention. It happened too often so knew this was something worth exploring. It's also a great way to keep track of smaller details.

    Dani, thanks! And that's totally fine. We don't want to answer everything right away (or even at all for some things) but it can be helpful to keep track of what we have and then we can better decide what to do with it.

  11. Great idea! Will be sure to use this technique.

  12. Hey, I love these process posts. As a pantser I have devised a method that works well for me, in color. As I go I highlight three things, Characters are in red, World points are green and Question are blue. Easy peasy to go back and note down points without having to read through the raw draft and keep my forward momentum.

    1. Thanks! Great tip. This can also work for those who like to print out their work, too. I have a friend who does that, but she highlights different things :)

  13. This process makes sense. Unfortunately it won't work for writers like myself who let the story evolve as I write it, often surprising myself with twists. Then I have come in for a fair amount of praise for how meticulously plotted they are!

    1. And that's true of a lot of advice and ideas. Everyone has a different process. But this is also something you can use after a first draft is written to make sure the story has all the right pieces and is keeping readers interested.