By Shelly Brown
Good questions are critical to have in your writing, whether it’s fantasy or romance or nonfiction. In fact I recently read a nonfiction article where the author did this very well. He wrote:
“On January 15, 1919, 10-year-old Pasquale Iantosca went out to gather scraps for firewood. Although it was a warm day, his father, Giuseppe, was taking no chances: He had bundled his son into two crimson sweaters, and was keeping an eye on him from the second-story window of their small apartment building in Boston’s North End. But peril is not predictable, and as Giuseppe watched, Pasquale suddenly vanished. A dark wall had consumed him as though he never existed. (1)”
I don’t know about you, but when I read that paragraph, I had so many intriguing questions racing through my mind: What was the dark wall? How did it consume him? Did he survive?
These are examples of good questions.
You want to get your reader asking good questions like the ones above. The kind of questions that show that the reader is curious about what is going to happen next, creating mysteries we want to solve, creating cravings to get answers. Make them want to turn the page.
You’ll want to introduce good questions, or I like to call them mystery boxes based on a JJ Abrams TED talk, as soon as possible. If they aren’t in chapter 1, no one will read to chapter 2 or 3 or 30, no matter how beautifully you wrote them. Aim for first page, or even first sentence if you can. Also, a lot of authors make sure that the end of every chapter has the readers asking big questions.
There is also such thing as bad questions. Sometimes authors try to create mystery by withholding information. They leave the reader asking a lot of questions but out of confusion. And confusion leads to frustration, maybe even enough to close the book. Avoid confusion.
So, intriguing questions = good. Confusion = bad.
Okay, but how can you tell if your creating good or bad questions? You create bad questions when the reader is missing the who, what, when, and where answers that are so critical for following a story. If a reader is asking themselves, “Who is speaking?” the majority of the time, they aren’t intrigued; they are confused. If they wonder, “Did we just go back in time?” that is likely a bad sign. Or if they ask any of the following, you may be in trouble: “What on earth does that word even mean?” “Was I supposed to understand that explanation?”, “Am I supposed to know who this person is?” or “Why are there now aliens in this western?”
Creating good questions and avoiding the bad ones is hard to do. That’s why it’s essential to let people read your story. Ask them what confused them. Listen carefully as they respond. Also, ask what grabbed their attention. What made them want to read on? Ask about the beginning of the book, what intrigued them most. Then see if you can move that up closer to the first page.
Understanding the difference between good questions and bad questions can often be the difference between hooking your readers and losing them.
And the answers to those questions about the boy gathering firewood that suddenly vanished in a dark wall?
Molasses. Flood-style. Unfortunately not.
Yeah, you might want to read more about that.
Read about that here: The Boston Molasses Flood
Editors and agents comment all of the time that they are looking for something with great voice but few of them can tell you exactly what that means. Some of them even treat voice like it’s a magical something nobody can put their finger on. But it’s actually not that hard if you break it down. Shelly can show you the tips and tricks to pull your own unique voice out onto the page so your writing gets noticed.