Thursday, February 13, 2020

Writing a Page-Turner: Keep the Reader Guessing with Story Questions

By Kris Bock, @Kris_Bock

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Readers keep reading to get answers and discover more about the story and its characters. Kris Bock shares tips on how to add story questions that will keep your readers guessing--and reading. 

Chris Eboch is the author of over 60 books for children, including nonfiction and fiction, early reader through teen. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, and Advanced Plotting.

Her novels for ages nine and up include The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy; and the Haunted series, about kids who travel with a ghost hunter TV show, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs.

Chris Eboch Website | Blog | Goodreads 

Chris also writes for adults as Kris Bock. Her Furrever Friends Sweet Romance series features the employees and customers at a cat café. Watch as they fall in love with each other and shelter cats. Get a free 10,000-word story set in the world of the Furrever Friends cat café when you sign up for the Kris Bock newsletter. You’ll also get a printable copy of the recipes mentioned in the cat café novels.

Kris also writes romantic suspense set in the Southwestern U.S. If you love Mary Stewart or Barbara Michaels, try Kris Bock’s stories of treasure hunting, archaeology, and intrigue in the Southwest.

Kris Bock Website | Blog | Goodreads | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Instagram | Sign up for the Kris Bock newsletter 

Take it away Kris...

Do you want to write books that keep readers enthusiastically turning the page? What writer doesn’t?

When readers pick up a new book, they have certain questions: Who is this book about? What does the main character want, and why? How are they going to pursue that, and what is going to stop them?

You should generally answer the first couple of those questions at the beginning of your novel, at least in part. To keep readers curious throughout the entire novel, maintain a series of overlapping questions. That means you constantly answer some questions and introduce new ones. If your readers never have questions, or if the questions are answered the second they’re introduced, there’s no suspense.

Strong Characters in Strong Plots

Character questions relate to the character’s goal and motivations. What do they want? Why? Why is the challenge difficult? Why can’t the main character simply stop, give up, or turn things over to the police or someone else?

Your story must be a personal quest for your main character(s). You need a reason this person must solve this problem and do it now.

Plot questions focus on events, on what is happening and why. Each answer should lead to new questions. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, why do the other students react so strongly to Harry’s lightning bolt scar? Because it shows he is the one who survived Voldemort’s attack. So who is Voldemort and what does Harry’s survival mean? We are never left without a question.

On the other hand, the questions don’t build up indefinitely – many are answered along the way. If you pile up the questions without ever answering any, readers may get confused. If you drag out questions for too long, you can frustrate readers who may lose faith in your control over the story.

Instead, think of it as having one question lead to another. 

At any given time, you might have three or four questions waiting for short-term answers, and at least one long-term question. A question from chapter 2 might be answered in chapter 4, but simultaneously lead to a new question.

Plot questions and character questions should be tightly woven together. The character’s needs, desires, actions, and choices drive the plot questions. 

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

Writing a Great Story Scene by Scene

Chris Eboch, AKA Kris Bock
As you revise a draft, look for places to beef up questions. Are you sharing information that could be reserved for later? Are you clearly showing the reader your questions? At any given moment, readers should wonder how the current situation will be resolved or what’s going to happen next.

In a new scene, characters step onto the stage in a specific place and start interacting. Start each scene with a clear character goal. This goal likely relates to the main problem, but it is a smaller, scene-specific goal, focused on the next step.

With the goal comes a question: will this character succeed?
  • If the answer is yes, the character moves on to the next step, reaching for that ultimate story goal.
  • If the answer is no, the character has to try again or try something else.
  • If things have changed, the character may have to revise her entire plan.
Regardless of how that single question is answered, you introduce new questions leading toward the big climax.

At the end of each scene, review your questions. What have you answered? What is still hanging? What new questions have you introduced? End the scene with the focus on those questions in order to drive the story forward. Have your character think about the next step, wonder about repercussions to this success, or hope for specific results. Readers will turn the page to find out if your character’s hopes or fears are realized. 

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

Writing Strong Scenes

Focusing on questions can go a long way towards improving your story’s pacing, but you also need strong, tight writing. Whether action-packed or quieter, every scene needs a purpose.

Fortunately, your questions can help. Look for details that do not relate to your story questions, such as long passages of description, unnecessary dialogue, or plot turns that go off on random tangents. Chances are you could cut that material.

For help identifying what you should keep and what you should cut, try my Plot Outline Exercise, available in my book Advanced Plotting or online here

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

Moving Your Story Forward Line by Line

If you have a well-developed character, plenty of plot action, and strong overlapping questions, but your story still feels flat or drags, consider your pacing at a line level.

Questions should act like stepping stones, each one leading naturally to the next, helping your reader run through the story towards that big climax and satisfying ending. Then readers will be asking, “When can I read another book by this author?”

About Advanced Plotting

Take your novel to the next level.

You’ve finished a few manuscripts, read books and articles on writing, taken some classes, attended conferences. But you still struggle with plot, or suspect that your plotting needs work.

This book can help.

Advanced Plotting is designed for the intermediate and advanced writer. Read the book straight through, study the index to find help with your current problem, or dip in and out randomly — however you use this book, you’ll find fascinating insights and detailed tips to help you build a stronger plot and become a better writer.

The Plot Outline Exercise is designed to help you work with a completed manuscript to identify and fix plot weaknesses. It can also help flesh out an outline. Additional articles address specific plot challenges, such as getting off to a fast start, propping up a sagging middle, building to a climax, and improving your pacing. A dozen guest authors share advice from their own years of experience.

Chris Eboch: Amazon Barnes&Noble | Kobo | iBooks

Kris Bock: Amazon Barnes&Noble | Kobo |

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