I've been spending a lot of time working on my outline in preparation for revising my current novel, because I want to make sure I have everything figured out so the re-writing is easier. I have a lot of layers and mysteries in the works, so I decided to keep track of what breadcrumbs I was leaving behind.
And I discovered something fun and quite helpful.
Identify the reader questions in each act.
Sounds simple, doesn't it? Probably something you assume you already do (I know I did). But while I knew the main story question of every act, there were a lot more things the reader might be wondering about, and some of them I didn't do much with. These little questions were all missed opportunities to deepen my story and keep that all-important tension high.
I went scene by scene in my first act (nine chapters for this book) and wrote down every question a reader might want to know. The plot and subplot questions were easy, as these are the ones driving the narrative. The smaller mysteries were less obvious, but many of them could be expanded on or used later in the story to tie things together (and work as great red herrings).
- 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 was something a reader might wonder about and want to know the answer to, I wrote it down. I was quite pleased by how many things there were to make the reader curious about how they might turn out. It let me know I had layers to braid together for a more compelling story.
It also gave me a great reference guide to use for later in the book. The middle is always rough since that's where the bulk of the plot happens and you don't have the setup or climax to drive it. Except now I had this wonderful list of all the things I teased the reader with in the first act. All of these questions could be resolved, revealed, expanded, further teased about, throughout the second act of the book -- or the third.
And knowing what my reader questions were for each section, I was able to quickly see connections and story arcs that could be woven together or taken advantage of. I could also see where a question was left hanging and never resolved, a potential plot hole that could leave a reader unsatisfied.
Some of these breadcrumbs were intentionally left, but many were just scattered into the story as they came to me. It's no surprise that these were the ones that were forgotten, or that they made the best connections. The subconscious at work and all.
Try making a list of all your story questions per chunk of your novel. The three act structure works great here, but however you break up your novel is fine. Look for the big turning points that move the core conflict.
Write down the core conflict ones. Then write down your character arc questions, any subplots you know you have brewing. All the obvious and easy stuff. Keep them in their own sections for easy referencing later.
Now, scan through your pages or your outline, and look for anything a reader might wonder about. A character motivation or behavior, a rumor or gossip, a bit of world building that is intriguing but never explained.
Also look for things your characters wonder about. If they want to know, odds are your reader does too.
Once you have them all down, read through 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 act.
Next, look to see what was left out. Are these mysteries you can expand on? Get rid of if they don't add anything? Use to raise the tension or surprise the reader in a slow or troublesome scene? Can you combine any of these mysteries? Give one to another character?
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 breadcrumbs 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?