Monday, 17 October 2011

Every Question Needs An Answer

From a writer’s perspective, all story has the same basic purpose: I have something I want to tell you. The problem is, you might be busy, or uninterested, or having fun doing something reprehensible (don’t pretend you wouldn’t). 

So, first I need to get your attention.

I could just shout, “Hey! Listen to me!”  but as we all know from late night journeys on the subway/tube/metro, that just comes across as crazy (although it’s a handy way to collect spare change).

As human’s we develop techniques to catch people’s attentions: Listen, we have to talk or the equally ominous I’ve got something to tell you, or the ever popular You’ll never guess what happened today...

That’s the basic, entry level approach. But we also learn the: So, I got to work this morning and I found a message that Larry wanted to see me in his office, immediately...

What I’m trying to say is I’ve been fired, but I start well before that happens in an attempt to manage the emotions of the person I’m telling. I want to break the news gently. I want it to appear not to be my fault. I want the person I’m telling to be sympathetic. So I rig the story in my favour. This is the essence of storytelling, to be aware of the impact of what you’re saying and taking it into account structurally. Depending on how I start the story the person I’m telling will have different emotional responses.

But underpinning all of these approaches is the innate (and often unconscious) understanding that the person on the receiving end is going to want to know what you want to tell them if you tee it up the right way.

At the beginning of the story there is the question. In macro terms the question is What happened? and eventually that will become apparent, but on the micro level every part of the story is also a question, that question being, And then?

Anecdote, the kind we share with each other on a daily basis, has the structure of this happened and then this which led to that... but if each step in that process is obvious it loses its power to keep the reader interested.

I went to the fridge and opened it and took out the pasta and ate it.

This follows the story structure, but does not fulfil the minimum requirements. It’s boring.

I went to the fridge and opened it and took out a pair of frosty underpants and put them on.

The unexpected helps raise interest levels, but this is still NOT the way to hook a reader into the story. Because: I went to the fridge and opened it.... is the set up and it is too straightforward. Even though it could lead to something unusual (the ice-pants) there’s no way to know that, it doesn’t present itself as interesting in the first part, and you have to get through the first part to get to the second part, so the first part has to have the hook in it. The question has to make you want to know the answer.

In order to keep momentum rolling within a story you have to pose a question the reader wants to know the answer to. Not one they’ll appreciate once they get the answer.

However, just because one interesting question hooks the reader, does not mean six questions will hook them even better, you also have to provide answers.

Harold woke. It was 3AM according to the alarm clock. He slipped out of bed, careful not to wake Megan, and crept downstairs.

So, the question here is what is he up to. He could just be getting a glass of water, and then go back to bed. If I did that, in beautiful prose of course, it would not only kill any curiosity, it would probably also make the reader not care about any further story questions raised. It has to be something interesting.

He stopped by the coat rack and slipped on Megan’s boots. They were a tight fit.

I could easily keep it a mystery and have him do all sorts of inexplicable things.

He tottered through the kitchen and opened the back door, slipping into the garden as quietly as possible. Ten minutes later he came back in, locked the door, put the boots back, and went back to bed.

Obviously things would be explained later, but so far this isn’t a very satisfactory story. If you were telling this story to someone face to face, they would undoubtedly stop to ask you questions. And you could insist to them that it would all become clear, but they wouldn’t care, they would just become irritated with you.

For maximum effect you want to pose a question and provide an answer in the same scene. That does NOT mean the answer you provide has to be the answer to the question you just posed. It can be an answer to another question entirely, but that rhythm of finding out one thing while becoming curious about another creates a snowball effect. Bear in mind you can ask more than one question at a time, and answers themselves can also lead to more question.

If the story above took our man into the garden in his wife’s shoes, and then he went over the garden fence into the neighbour’s garden and stamped around in the mud outside the neighbour’s window leaving clear boot prints and getting the boots muddy before returning to bed, even though it still isn’t clear why he’s doing that, the fact you can see what he’s doing, that his actions are deliberate, that he has a purpose, that is enough of an answers in the short term.

It is tempting to leave things open ended in an attempt to engender greater levels of curiosity, but there is a plateau effect, so you can’t just keep piling on mystery after enigma after secret. But if you need the reader to hold on a little longer before getting the answer to the big question, you can stop them cutting their losses and bailing by giving them an answer to one of the little questions you posed along the way.

As long as the reader feels they know more than when they started (even if they have more questions) then they’ll stay engaged with the story as a whole.


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Margo Berendsen said...

"It can be an answer to another question entirely, but that rhythm of finding out one thing while becoming curious about another creates a snowball effect." - great insight! I plan to keep this one in mind. I love how you dissect story telling down to a fine level, most people just barf up "you need a hook" and a 3 act structure.

Rachelle Ayala said...

I'm guilty of not answering questions. My crit buds are always saying, huh? and then what? thanks for clarifying why little questions should be answered to keep the reader from early frustration.

Lorena said...

You make two great points here:

1. Hook the reader immediately with a question.
2. Give the reader satisfaction by answering one of the questions early on.

This sounds so simple, but it's so difficult to find the perfect balance between intriguing the reader and exposing too much. It's amazing to me how many books and films fail to do this well.

Great post!

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

The last bit summed it up nicely - "As long as the reader feels they know more than when they started (even if they have more questions) then they’ll stay engaged with the story as a whole."

Just like the example of Harold stamping around in Megan's boots - we don't know why he's doing it but the fact that he has a purpose in doing it makes us want to see just what that purpose is. We know more than when we started - even if we're not exactly sure what that "more" is. :)

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Great post moody.

Brenda said...

You nailed it. If you ask a question, you have to answer if you want your reader's satisfied. They (we) love closure, even when we can't we still want. I believe we (as writers) start off with a plan to answer, but we are so easily wooed into something else along the way, which is fine, so long as we go back... but do we? Great food for thought ans reminding...

Beverly Diehl said...

You had me at Scooby Doo.

You are dead right - if there aren't little pay-offs along the way, I stop caring. Stop caring = stop reading/listening.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

You are the master of this stuff! (And Scooby Doo caught my attention as well.) So, what is the proper way to lead in to the fridge and the icy underwear? Curious minds want to know...

Cheryl said...

Reading about the man stomping around his neighbour's garden in his wife's boots had me curious to read on, that's for sure. All kinds of questions and suspicions forming there.

Interesting post, as usual Moody.

Lydia Kang said...

Well said. Sometimes, it's also interesting when the ending is given away at the beginning.

"Michael lost his toes, a killer dachsund, and the love of his life on one frosty January morning. This is his story."

But not always. Great post.

Alleged Author said...

Oooh, that is true. If I know more than when I started to read the first chapter, I feel as though the plot has moved forward.

VR Barkowski said...

This is excellent advice of which every writer should take heed. That said, not all readers are hooked by the same question. Ah, therein lies the rub...

Jason Runnels said...

Great insight, thanks for sharing. You're right, this is what makes a good mystery read so well. As a reader you feel smarter with each step toward the ending, even if you don't have all of the final answers. I can't wait to apply this advice.

mooderino said...

@Margo- although it's nver that simple when I sit down to analyse my own writing.

@Rachelle-Crit buddies are handy for keeping us honest.

@Lorena-I think it's always better to say too mcuh rather than too little. If the story is interesting the reader will want to know even more.

@Madeline-it's tempting to be mystrious in order to keep the reader curious, but it only works for so long.


@Brenda-because the writer already has the answer in their own head it's easy to forget the reader doesn't. It's hard to put yourself in the position of not-knowing and what that feels like.

@Beverly-scooby snacks are in the mail.

mooderino said...

@Alex-well, since the payoff is cool pants, I would imagine the set up would be the character feeling too hot and unable to find a way to cool down. You can do that in various ways, the most obvius of which would be them saying how hot they are, but in order to make it a question in the reader's mind, perhaps sneaking down to the kitchen naked? you'd wonder why they were doing that, especially if there were others in the house.

@Cheryl-I suspect he's up to no good.

@Lydia-a well framed answer always leads to more questions, I think.

@Alleged-and you can do that without actually giving away any major plot developments if you wish.

@VR-I think curiosity is fairly universal as long as the answer isn't obvious. Even a macho guy like me can end up watching a soap opera if I don't change the channel quick enough.

@Jason-cheers, glad to be of help.

Mary Mary said...

I completely agree that we need to draw the reader in with a good hook, but then we have to get down to weaving our web of a story and then unwinding it for the reader to see all those pesky little questions that popped up.

Good post!

dolorah said...

So much easier said than done . .

I'll have to find a few of my favorite books and find the hooks :)


Laura Pauling said...

I love questions when I'm reading. I think LOST was the master of this and what I can only hope to apply to my writing.

mooderino said...

@Mary Mary - reel them in, play them out, reel them in...

@Donna - trouble is with good books you start looking for the hooks, you end up forgetting and just reading the story.

@Laura - also shows you ca keep them hooked without rfevealing the big answers (because you don't have any).

Donna K. Weaver said...

"although it’s a handy way to collect spare change"


Yes, not only asking a question but asking the right question, the one that will keep the reader reading.

Sarah Allen said...

Great post! I love me some scooby :)

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

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