Monday, January 12, 2009

But Why? When a Reader Asks Questions

[Don't leave the reader with too many questions]

When a reader sits down to read your manuscript (obviously once it's all been polished and reshaped into a rectangle box filled with yank-free toilet paper) they do so on the pretense of a good story.

However, the one way street we all so assume we're creating here. Listening to one of Peter's Pitch responses recently and also in a discussion I had last night with MG, it is clear that the act of reading is a one way experience certainly: the acceptance and absorption of story. However the total experience does not end with boredom, annoyance, tears, joy, or thrills.

There is a separate and entirely essential element: questioning.

Writers are constantly looking for ways to hook the reader, if it's not simply to get them to start reading, then it's to keep them reading, keep them thinking, keep them guessing. The easy genre for this to work in is mystery and crime: Who dunn'it, will the cops get the badguys? Will the detective rescue the heroine in time?

But, these are your standard quizzies - look closer, there are more important, more basic questions that pop up in a reader's head as you woo them with story. Questions whose answers - answered / ignored /alluded to but put off - may have a stronger bearing on whether or not the reader gives up.

In my latest attempt at a manuscript I've started very late in the plot's development. So much so that MG asked why would I do that, considering the important facets I was leaving behind and would therefore have to deal with in flashback - not a great dramatic tool (and remember we're trying to be dramatic to hold the reader's attention.

But then, I've taken the choice to unveil the flashback as a series of vignettes throughout the novel to force the reader into changing their view of a couple of characters. Let's hope that works.

In doing this what I'm essentially doing is making my reader have to deal with a lot of unexplained issues, background elements and character motivations that I may elude to but not wholeheartedly explain (for fear of giving the game away). I cannot, however, ignore the fact that as a reader reads, questions are raised, points of interest that they instinctively want dealt with so that they can file it and move on in the narrative.

If I avoid considering these questions, and then fail to answer them at the point in the narrative when the reader thinks of them, then I'm going annoy them. Certainly, I won't be deemed the authority on my own work and therefore why should the reader keep reading?

How many books have you read that failed to tie up certain niggling plot points - and you were happy about that? None. Because we want resolution, we want to know - it's the gossip in all of us, the need to understand the truth of the matter.

Same principle with those little questions, that wish for the author not to skip ahead while the reader is still dwelling on the brief mention of the dead mother, the lesbian who used to be friends with the protagonist, what kind of town the characters live in, how that character got from A to B.

If you can't consider these for yourself it may be worth asking your beta readers to write down questions that emerge in their head as they read your work - they may not all be relevant, or the same. You may specifically wish to hold back. But if you raise too many unanswered questions, you're not on a winning streak.


solv said...

Good points ricardo.

Sunset Bickham refers to the 'scene question' which is the question that the reader expects to have answered by the end of the scene, and which must then be twisted into another 'scene question'.

Questions and mysteries are staples of expectation, which itself is the key to page-turning.
However, let's not forget that there are questions that the reader will happily and obliviously answer himself (how many legs does this protag have?), and questions that the reader must have answers to (who/what is the protag running from?).
Part of our job is to pre-empt the reader's expectations of us. Beta readers will certainly help.

Watched Castaway last night. A guy washes up on a beach. What do I want to know first? How about: What is this place? Are there people here? How big is this island? Chuck climbs to the highest point and looks around and my initial questions are answered. And I wonder what he is going to eat and drink, and Chuck finds a coconut and eats a small fish. Chuck even poos behind a bush and kicks sand over it. You'll remember the exact same question being answered in Forrest Gump, when Forrest is running, and he explains that when he needs to go to the bathroom, he goes.

The big question is: How well can we coerce and subsequently predict our readers' responses?
We might want to make them wait for an answer, or we might want to give them no answer, but only by understanding our readers will we be able to make informed choices.

solv said...

Permit me to give an example from The Commuters.
Here, I'm raising a question:
What did Knot see in the kitchen? (This question follows from previous answers.)
I know the reader wants to know the answer, but I deliberately tease him by holding an answer at bay, replacing the answer with the mundanity of Corus eating. (However, the mundanity juxtaposes the reader's tension!)
And then I offer a resolution.

* * *
Knot hurries from the kitchen, spilling hot coffee in her haste.
‘Jeez Corus, you’ve got a right old infestation!’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Some pretty fat spiders in your kitchen.’
‘Oh, that’s Quincy and Quatermass. They’re harmless.’
‘No, there’s loads - hundreds - all over the place! They came at me as I put the milk back into the fridge.’

I sit at the table and Q and Q watch me eat. I decided to compose hot-and-sour monkfish to accompany my potatoes, with tricolour spaghetti, courgettes and green chillis. My mouth waters and I think my appetite has returned.
* * *

Soon after, I temper the tension with:

* * *
I wonder what Knot might have seen that frightened her so.
* * *

Although an answer has still not been offered, a resolution has, and that should be enough to satisfy the reader for the time being. As long as the reader finds the author compassionate and respectful to his needs, he'll be cool.
With the stop-gap resolution in place, I then move swiftly into another mystery.

solv said...

Incidentally, this ties in to my other question:
How can we demonstrate that our story is actually going somewhere?
My solution is:

Apologies for being a comment-hog! :-)

R1X said...

Never apologise when you've filled a blogpost worth of your own thoughts.


I need to consider this more.