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Story question

June 19, 2010

How do we as writers get readers to keep turning the pages of our books?

Well, there are a lot of answers to that question, but for now, I’m going to focus on one aspect of it: readers read our books and keep turning the pages to find out how it’s all going to end. They read to find the answer to the story question: Will the main character reach her goal? Will the girl get the girl? Will the detective catch the killer? Will the heroine save humankind from attacking aliens?

Okay, truth be told, we all know the answer to those questions. In most cases, yes, the girl will get the girl, the detective will catch the killer, and the heroine will beat E.T.’s evil cousins. But readers are willing to pretend they don’t already know.

So the story really starts when the story question is raised in the reader’s mind, and the story ends when the story question is answered.

To write a tight story that keeps readers interested, it might be a good idea to raise the story question early in the book (and that includes keeping backstory out of the first chapter). The story should start with or close to the scene when the heroine meets her love interest or first hears about her, when the first murder is committed or the detective is assigned to the case, or when the heroine sees alien spaceships show up in the earth orbit.

Also, wrap up the story soon after the story question is answered. Don’t drag it out for too long afterward.

It’s possible for a novel to have more than one story question — it might have one for every subplot.

For example, the story questions for Backwards to Oregon might be: Will they safely reach Oregon? Will Luke be able to hide her secret? Will Luke and Nora get together?

Usually, story questions should be clear (they have a yes/no answer), and the main character’s story goal needs to be achievable (the answer might be yes), but difficult to achieve (the answer could be no).

Every scene of the story should in some way relate to one of the story questions. If it doesn’t, you might want to lose the scene.

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4 comments

  1. What makes a story interesting where the ending is assured (a romance: the girl will get the girl), is the HOW. All scenes should contain forward motion (small success — she accepted the flowers), or backward motion (small obstacle — she threw a past lover’s flirtations in my face) while heading toward the overriding goal. Anything else is meandering, and like you said, Jae, should be considered as dispensable. With interweaving subplots, or multi-pronged goals, some scenes can serve one goal, and others the other, but every scene should have a story function.


    • I agree. Every scene should have a scene goal or a scene question that is related to the big story question.


  2. Writing often reminds me of doing a puzzle. As a writer you (often) know what the picture shall look like in the end. But before you have to bring all the little pieces together – if not or if a piece doesn’t fit or if it is even put into the wrong place… well, then the big beautiful picture will not be as beautiful in the end.
    Damn, puzzles drive me crazy 😉


    • Yes, but they are also addictive, aren’t they? “Just one more piece…” 🙂



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