Questions, questions...

Recently, I’ve been talking about questions in fiction with my online writing group. Our starting point was that the desire for an answer to an interesting question is one of the key things that keeps a reader going to the end of a book. I have, on occasion, persevered with a book simply because I want to know the answer to a particular question. I’ve even continued with a series beyond the point when I might otherwise have abandoned it, because I’ve become invested in a question that’s emerged over the course of the previous books.

Since we’ve started talking about how to ask effective narrative questions, we’ve realised that it’s one of those topics that links into many other aspects of writing. Here are a few of the things we’ve covered.

How openly is a question asked?

Some questions are at the very front of the narrative. The characters are actively pursuing answers to them.

Who murdered the victim?

Is there really a ghost in the attic?

What is the meaning of the strange messages coming from Mars?

Where is the treasure buried?

What happened to the missing girl?

These kind of explicitly articulated questions tend to be central to the plot. Without them, the story wouldn’t function, or would be something very different. They’re the kind of questions that are often posed in a book’s blurb.

There are also questions that are asked more quietly. The reader is probably aware there is something they haven’t been told, but the characters aren’t actively engaged in seeking answers as part of the core plot of the book. These quiet questions can be harder to manage than a simple whodunnit, but they are key to creating rounded characters and layered stories. For me, the most effective narratives are those where the main plot questions and the quieter questions weave together as the story unfolds towards a conclusion that sees them all answered in some way.

There are also questions that are almost silent – and that almost is very important when it comes to this type of question. These are the questions that are answered in the form of a twist. They’re the questions that the reader doesn’t realise are being asked until the moment when the answer turns the whole story on its head. Books are often advertised as having ‘a twist you’ll never see coming.’ Unfortunately, all too often, ‘the twist you’ll never see coming’ is either ‘the twist you saw coming from page two’ or ‘the twist you couldn’t possibly have seen coming because it involved something that was never mentioned, hinted at, seeded or foreshadowed, and has no absolutely no relationship with anything that has gone before.’ The best twists are the ones you don’t see coming but which, as soon as they are revealed, make perfect sense. These are the twists that have been quietly seeded. They’re the answers to questions that you now realise were being asked very quietly throughout the book. Quietly, but not silently. Unreliable narrators are a very good example of almost silent questions. Without naming and spoiling it, I read a very good recent book with an unreliable narrator, where the very quiet question was why did no one other than the main character ever interact with a particular family member? The answer was that the relative had died some years ago, and the main character was talking to them only in her own head. The question was asked, but it was asked in the negative spaces within the narrative, rather than in any active way.

When should a question be asked?

This aspect of our discussions threw up a fairly clear answer, which was that the more important the question, the earlier it needed to be posed. In the case of questions that are central to the plot, such as the identity of a killer or the meaning of a mysterious message, it would be strange not to ask it early on – possibly even on the cover of the book! There’s more scope to slide things in later when it comes to questions about character. In crime fiction, for example, it’s not uncommon for the story to open with the discovery of a body and the question of who killed the victim, and for questions about the investigating officer to emerge later, when they have time to think about their own circumstances, rather than being focused on the dead body in front of them. You can also have questions that emerge as the story unfolds, with the reader gradually becoming aware that there is more going on than was initially apparent.

You don’t just need to think about when questions should be asked – you also need to consider when they should be answered. As a general rule, if a central question is posed early on, its answer should probably form part of the climax of the book. If it’s answered earlier, as part of a misdirection or twist, whatever question emerges to take its place needs to have been set up really well if the reader is going to accept the change of direction. Bear in mind that there is also more than one way to answer a question. Some answers are delivered in a single, shocking moment, while others are formed slowly, as part of a growing realisation.

How many questions can you ask?

Every book is different, but it’s worth giving some thought to how many questions you are going to throw at the reader. I’ve read books where what seems to be a key question is asked in the first chapter, only to be followed up by a different one a couple of chapters later, and another a chapter or two after that, with the answers appearing at various points in the narrative. This needs real skill to avoid it feeling as though the story is jumping all over the place. There’s obviously more flexibility in books with multiple perspectives and storylines, but you should still be careful not to overload the reader.

You also need to think about how the various questions connect. The most satisfying stories are those where the various narrative strands all come together, with character, setting and plot all acting together to produce an outcome. If a book’s central question is about the identity of a serial murderer of bookmakers, it would make thematic sense for the secret the investigating detective has been hiding to be a gambling addiction. It would be a bit jarring, however, if he spent most of the book pointedly not thinking about something, that turned out to be his regret that he’d left his first girlfriend because she didn’t like avocados.

Does every question need to be answered?

This is an interesting issue, and very much depends on the kind of story it is, and the kind of questions that are being posed.

With some literary fiction, the questions that are raised are the kind that can only be answered by the reader. How important is love? How do you define happiness? Stories like that can be more open-ended than crime fiction, for example, where the reader will have a very clear expectation that the murderer will be unmasked before the end of the book.

As a general rule, I think the main questions should be answered – with the possible exception of something intended to set up the next book in a series – but that there are some things that can be left to the reader, particularly when it comes to books with a lot of world building. If every tiny aspect of a fictional setting is carefully explained, the reader is given little scope to let their imagination roam beyond the events of the specific story they’re being told. A few unexplained things can actually help build a sense of a fully-developed world beyond the page. It’s like walking  down a road and glancing into side turns. You catch a glimpse of what’s down there, but you don’t see everything.

As writers, we all want to create compelling stories that a draw a reader in and don’t let them go until the final page. Thinking about the questions to which the reader will want answers is a really good way to approach the task of constructing a narrative from an initial idea.