10 Questions Your Readers Shouldn’t Have to Ask

The most important thing an author can present here 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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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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