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Wednesday, January 25

Leave the Breadcrumbs Behind: Are You Asking -- and Answering -- the Right Story Questions?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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).

Things like:
  • 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?


  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.