10 Questions Your Readers Shouldn’t Have to Ask

The most important thing an author can present in the beginning of any scene is a question that will hook readers into needing to know the answer. The second most important thing is making certain that question isn’t the wrong question.

You want reader’s asking concrete questions. Who stole the Statue of Liberty? How is Westley going to escape the Pit of Despair? Why did Cinderella order glass slippers a size too large?

You don’t want them asking the dreaded four-word question: What’s going on here? Or, worse, the end-of-the-line three-letter question: Huh?

 

Be wary of creating what award-winning author Peter Selgin refers to as “false suspense”—the kind of suspense that has readers floundering to understand the basics of your scene, rather than forging ahead with definite and pressing questions. Following are ten questions your readers shouldn’t have to ask.

1. What is this character’s name?

Award-winning author (and one of my editors) Linda Yezak explains, “[N]ameless, faceless characters don’t usually draw readers into the story. [G]et your readers to bond with your
characters early… [by letting] the reader know who they are.”

2. How old is this person?

You don’t have to spell out their age. But if you’re writing about an eighty-year-old, don’t give readers a chance to imagine he’s really only seventeen (or vice versa).

3. What does this person look like?

In some stories, you can get away without ever mentioning a thing about character appearance. But most readers like a few hints about what the character looks like—particularly if you’re going to end up describing him later in the story.

4. Who is this person?

Readers need to know something about your character, so look for a detail or two that will help them flesh him out. This could be his occupation, a prominent personality trait, or a defining action.

5. Where is this scene taking place?

Don’t leave your characters exploring The Matrix’s White Room. Readers need to know if the scene is taking place in a café, a forest, a bedroom, or an airplane.

6. What year/season/day is it?

This one is particularly important if you’re writing historical fiction, or some other kind of story in which the date is important. Orient readers with any time-sensitive info.

7. Who is this character interacting with?

If other characters are present in the scene, give readers a little help by naming them.“He” or “she” just doesn’t give readers much to work with the first time they’re  introduced to a character.

8. What is the narrator’s relation to the other character(s)?

Readers should almost always know everything the narrating character does. Unless the other characters in the scene are strangers to the protagonist, fill readers in on how the narrator knows these people and what he’s doing with them in this scene.

9. What is the character trying to accomplish in this scene?

The character’s goal in any given scene is arguably the single most important bit of info to share with your readers. This is what drives your scene. This is what gives birth to those concrete questions you want readers to be asking.

10. Why should I care about any of this?

And now we reach the topper on the cake. This is the question you must answer if you want readers to keep reading. Whether the answer is curiosity, emotional investment, or sympathy, you have to supply readers a personal reason to care about finding the answers to all the rest of the questions you will present in the story.

If you can make certain you’ve satisfactorily answered all these questions (without info dumping) in the opening of your book and, to a lesser extent, in the opening of every scene to follow, you’ll free up readers’ minds to concentrate on the questions that really matter—such as the Fairy Godmother’s dispute with the Magic Shoe Company’s faulty sizing chart.

Tell me your opinion: Do you think  “false suspense”  ever has its place in fiction?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Great list, K.M., and spot on! Thank you. 🙂

  2. You’re awesome. It’s a common sense list I read each one and said “of course” but I think I miss out on some of them in my stories I’ll have to go back and strengthen them thanks

  3. @Vero: Glad you enjoyed it!

    @Frosty: There are just so many components we need to keep track of in our writing that it’s easy to miss a few. Glad the list came in handy!

  4. Oh, these are all really good points. Thank you!

    Jessica

  5. Thanks for reading!

  6. Perfect post. As always. Great tips for sure!

  7. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  8. Had no problems with any of these except the last two, and those are the ones I’m working on in this second-and-a-half draft. So I should nail it this time, right? Haha!

  9. If you’ve got two amiss, you’ll be sailing by the time it counts!

  10. Great list, Katie. With #9 I’d add a hint of what’s at stake. Goals and stakes make for great tension-builders.

    Thanks for the shout-out!

  11. Definitely agree. If readers understand what is as stake for a character, they’re much more likely to care about what happens to him if he fails.

  12. To answer your question: No, I don’t. With possible rare exceptions,I suppose, when I, as a reader start reading a story I want to know where and when it’s happening, who the actors are and what the problem is asap. Otherwise, I often just quit reading and find a story I can enjoy without being kept in the dark for page after page.

  13. Really useful – so succinctly put.

  14. Really great post. Hope you don’t mind if I link to it from my blog – This Craft Called Writing.

  15. @Bill: I admit I have read a few books in which “false suspense” created some interesting scenes, but there was always an excellent purpose behind the withheld info. Without that, I never would have forgiven the author.

    @JO: Glad you enjoyed it!

    @Lorrie: Not at all! Thanks for sharing the post.

  16. Great post!! Oh my…I submitted the first 3 chapters of my WIP to an agent who so graciously reminded me that the name of my character was missing. Ooops!

    But at least she really wanted to know and like my character and gave me some great advice. I was encouraged.

    But your tips did ring true with me. Sometimes I get so into the plot I forget to focus on the characters.

  17. Plot and character are always a balancing act. Honestly, it’s tough to get it right in the first (or even second and third) drafts. Thankfully, we don’t have to!

  18. False suspense annoys me. There’s no reason not to start in a better place and have some real suspense with a payoff.
    I worry about my book’s beginning hook, but I don’t have hooks at the beginning of my other scenes, just cliffhangers at the ends. I guess I’ll have to think about that more.
    Thanks for the info!

  19. Why mess around with false suspense when you can have the real thing, right?

  20. I’ve tried, in the past, to start a scene off with hidden suspense. When my attempts did not achieve the desired effects, it came back promptly to slap me upside the head. Seemed my idea of being intriguing just confused or annoyed the reader.

  21. When in doubt, the best thing we can do is try to put ourselves in our readers’ shoes and figure out how we would react. Reading other authors’ books with attention is a good way of doing this.

  22. K.M., thanks for the post. I am particularly intrigued by the last one…Info dumping. A habit of mine. Can you advise on if, when, how, and how much, to provide in back story? Consider of course that every story requires something different. I have a protagonist that needs to share vital history as far back as her childhood. History that makes her who she is today and explains her uncanny abilities. Without knowing the story, is there anything you can say (rules of thumb perhaps?) that may help me decide whether to approach her history with a few paragraphs here and there throughout the current narrative or to go all S. King (and others) and reserve entire chapters for back story?

    Thanks,

    You are the best and should break whatever modern day record is held for most “acknowledgments” by various future authors!

  23. Glad you enjoyed the post, Chris! You’re right that it’s difficult to offer backstory advice across the board, since every story requires something a little different. However, some of these articles might offer something helpful.

    As a general rule of thumb, remember that it’s best to err on the side of not enough backstory, rather than too much. Backstory can offer some awesome opportunities for arousing reader curiosity, so string them along for all they’re worth. Dole out clues to your character’s past, but for every clue, raise another question.

    Most writers are surprised to discover they actually get along well with much less explicit backstory than they initially think. When you absolutely must share something, just make certain the revelations move the plot forward in some direct and obvious way.

  24. Amen to #s 2 & 3! I HATE sinking into a book to be told AFTER my mind has stepped in and formed its own picture of a character that they are not they way I pictured them. From then on, every reminder pulls me out of the story.

    ‘Oh wait. That’s right. She’s a brunette, not a blonde.’ :\

    In my pre-writer days, I actually dinged an author on a review for describing a (main) character in a way that made him sound 50ish only to find out HALF WAY THROUGH THE BOOK that he was in his early 30s. O_O

    I also like occasional refreshers of physical characteristics from time to time. Maybe it’s that I read so many books, but the mental image of characters fades from a sharp colorful one to a muddled gray as I read. When the author gives me a reminder – of eye color, say – suddenly that part of the image becomes vivid again. (Okay, so I’m weird…) I like them to be clever and varied, but I do like visual reminders sprinkled throughout the story.

    Great post! 🙂

  25. Like it or not (and I’ll venture most of us do), we live in an era of visual media. Readers are also movie watchers, and as such, they like visual immediacy. This is nowhere more important than in character descriptions. We want to see a character in our mind’s just as clearly as we see Russell Crowe or Cate Blanchett on our screens.

  26. I hate it when novels are missing some of these points because I have to go and re-read the story as I struggle to link everything up otherwise. I always feel like I’ve missed some important detail even though it wasn’t there to miss in the first place. When parts are missing you fail to capture the whole image.

  27. Exactly. Writers don’t have to spell *everything* out, but if we’re making a story needlessly difficult for readers, we’re just asking for their contempt.

  28. Good list yes, however I have to disagree on one point. Sometimes holding off on the MC’s name can be a good thing. My readers have stated that they liked “not knowing who he is” and were “able to place themselves in his predicaments”, i.e. I allowed my readers’ imagination go wild and put them in a “what would I do?” situation. Later they accepted the name I decided to give him. It still wasn’t original enough to stand out, in short a particular anybody/nobody kind of character.
    So foregoing the character’s name can work. Particularly in first person. In fact the MC’s character in my story/novella is introducing himself to another character and (again) he could be misleading them.

    • First-person is a different ball of wax, since, in essence the character’s name *is* “I” – allowing the readers to identify and connect with them through that understanding. And, granted, there will definitely be instances in which it’s better to put off naming a character, for whatever reason.

      But we need readers to get a sense of the character as soon as possible. We don’t want them projecting too much of themselves into the character too soon, since they’ll inevitably end up being confused or disappointed when we correct their assumptions later in the story.

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