Hook Readers by Dodging their Questions

Sat Jul 22 2017

One of the toughest things for new writers to do is resist the temptation to reveal answers in their novels. Far too often, I find passages like this in clients' novels:

Sydney unpacked clothes into her new apartment's closet, her mind wandering away from whatever song the radio was playing, thinking about the guy in 4A. She'd been pleasantly surprised to find such a cute guy living next door. A shame his personality didn't match. The radio droned on. What had happened to him to make him into such a jerk? She couldn't imagine what he had gone through that had left him so scarred inside.

You may be wondering what's being revealed here? Sydney is specifically wondering about information she doesn't have, so where's the question that's being answered?

Its lurking in how the writer's knowledge about 4A's past leaks through into Sydney's thoughts.

Specifically, how does Sydney know that anything at all happened to Mr. 4A? Maybe he's just a jerk? Maybe he always has been? Suppose the writer is leading up to revealing the secret tragedy in 4A's past that raised such a brusque wall around him.

The mere fact that something did in fact happen is an answer to a smaller question. It's part of the solution to the mystery of 4A, but not the whole thing. And here the passage gives away that bit of the mystery--spoilers!--without making Sydney work for it. Without letting the reader be curious about it. We're never left to stew in the initial question of why he's a jerk, because the narrative immediately jumps to a conclusion about the answer.

Dodge the question

In any story where the plot involves characters doing a bit of sleuthing--perhaps Sydney decides she has to figure out why he's like that--you can drive the plot forward and sustain readers' interest by holding off on the answers.

Don't go from "he's a jerk" directly to "what happened to him." Dodge the question for a while. Turn it into as many steps as you can. Those steps are your plot. Some may be missteps, where Sydney thinks she knows what the deal is, but finds out later that she's wrong. Some may be straightforward advancements towards the eventual solution. But whatever they are, break the ultimate answer down into as many steps as you can.

TV shows do this all the time. Most modern TV dramas--and many sit-coms as well--have a layered structure of episodes set against a season-arc. Each episode involves some plot that will be resolved by the end of the episode, but each season has its own plot that arcs over some larger question or mystery. And thus, every episode includes some tidbit that relates to the larger arc.

Maybe it's just a hint about the solution to the larger arc. Maybe it's a big, dramatic revelation about who one of the major players is, or some key piece of evidence. Either way, the show's writers break the ultimate solution to the season-arc into as many little pieces as they can.

Baby steps

Ok, so how do you do that? If you don't want Sydney to go from "he's a jerk" straight to "what happened?", what goes in between?

You look for what's the smallest increment of information you can realistically give the character. And it's probably smaller than you think. Instead of this:

  1. "he's a jerk" → "what happened to him?"

You might do this:

  1. "He's a jerk" → "Why's he a jerk?"
  2. "Why's he a jerk?" → "something happened."
  3. "Oh? What was it?"

Notice, we still don't have the answer. We still don't know why, exactly, 4A is a jerk. But notice, that instead of arriving at "what happened to him" in the very first step, we can delay that until the third step.

The start of each step represents whatever question is top-of-mind based on the information the character already has. The conclusion of each step is when the character learns the smallest next crumb of information you can get away with giving them.

Driving plot with questions

The steps become your plot, because each one corresponds to a scene.

For example, in scene 1, the unpacking scene, Sydney starts with the observation that he's a jerk. Her own musings can lead her to the conclusion of that step, wondering why. She has no information to help her answer that. She just met this 4A guy. If we didn't see that scene already, she'll probably think over her earlier interaction with him. Maybe he didn't hold the building open for her while she was coming in with a heavy box, even though she called out, "hey, can you hold the door for me?" Maybe he just totally ignored her and let the door close in her face.

At any rate, the scene simply lets her be stuck on the question of why. And thus, it lets the reader be stuck on the question too. We get to be just as curious as her.

In scene 2, she gets some kind of tidbit. Maybe she's in the laundry room, plugging quarters into the washing machine, chit-chatting with somebody else who lives in the building:

"Hey, do you know the guy in 4A?" Sydney asked.

The other woman rolled her eyes. "Oh, yes. Evan."

Sydney leaned conspiratorially towards her. "Why's he such a jerk?"

The other woman glanced quickly at the laundry room door. They were alone. "Well, I heard something happened. I don't really know the details, but evidently he wasn't always like this. I heard he used to be a pretty nice guy."

After two scenes, Sydney has learned a tiny bit. But it's enough to deepen the mystery. It's enough to ramp-up the reader's curiosity. And it was enough to write two whole scenes of your story. And we're just getting started! The full set of baby steps might continue on:

  1. "He's a jerk" → "Why's he a jerk?"
  2. "Why's he a jerk?" → "something happened."
  3. "Oh? What was it?" → "Well, I should't say. He did something bad."
  4. "What did he do?" → "Let's just say there's a reason he doesn't drink anymore."
  5. "Oh, jeez! What did he do???" → "DUI. There was an accident."
  6. "Was anybody hurt?" → "Yes"
  7. "Who? Were they killed?" → "I've never heard the whole story, but Mrs. Collins in 6B was here when it happened."
  8. "Mrs. C, you gotta tell me what happened!" → "Oh, honey. He left for work one day, drunk as a skunk, and ran over a kid coming out of the parking garage. He barely avoided jail, but guilt is absolutely killing the man. My advice? Stay away from him."
  9. "Now I get it! He pushes everybody away by being a jerk, because he feels like he's an unredeemable monster." -> "I wonder if I can redeem him..."

To keep this post from running on forever, I've made Mrs. Collins a gossip who spills-all, but you can readily imagine taking many additional steps to unravel the rest of it, and how the resolution of the mystery might the story in a whole new direction afterwards.

And each of those steps plays out in one or more scenes. Some might be dialogue scenes, some might be chance discoveries, some might be explicit sleuthing on Sydney's part.

The formula, if you can even call it that, is simple. Don't answer a question with an answer. Answer it with a tantalizing tidbit that raises another question, suggests additional layers to the initial question, or redirects the character along a different path of inquiry.

The questions keep readers hooked, while finding the answers drives your plot forward.