After discussing the power of curiosity and why writers need to harness it, here’s the first instalment of four articles that explore exactly how we can do that. The first week is all about questions…
The most basic foundation of curiosity is the question. The human drive for questions gave us wonders like planes that can carry cars and cameras you can hide in your tie. Our brain doesn’t stop asking questions because it knows that’s how it learns and evolves.
This means your book needs to be driven by questions. Questions raise uncertainty. Unknowns. And if there’s an unknown, then humans want to make it known. There will be a big question that will drive your story—such as will Frodo get to Mount Doom and save Middle Earth?
But there will also be all the little interesting questions along the way—like, holy heck, did Gandalf really just die? Ah, who was that hot elven-chick that just rescued Strider? And, gosh, what will happen to sad, twisted Golum? Your book will need a variety of whos, whens, whys, and wheres to keep your reader engaged.
Let’s have a look at some examples. Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s classic The Little Prince is about a young boy far from his small planet. Throughout the story he describes his life to the narrator, a man stranded in the desert after his plane has crashed. The big questions powering the story centre around how the Little Prince came to be on Earth, but also how will he get home. But there are also lots of little questions to keep the reader immersed, like this short excerpt from early in the book:
As each day passed I would learn, in our talk, something about the little prince’s planet, his departure from it, his journey. The information would come very slowly, as it might chance to fall from his thoughts. It was in this way that I heard, on the third day, about the catastrophe of the boababs.
The author promptly segways to some delightful, meandering dialogue between the Little Prince and the narrator, most definitely leaving us with the question—what is the catastrophe of the baobabs? If you delve a little deeper, you appreciate that the reader is also likely to wonder about the Little Prince’s planet itself, along with the boy’s departure and journey. Just a hint of information has generated a need for answers that will power us over the next few pages.
Consider Harlan Coben’s novel The Woods, a thrilling whodunnit about four missing teens (yep, there’s your big question). Readers are there to discover what happened in the woods twenty-two years ago, but Coben knows that seeding smaller questions will keep readers reading. Early in the story, the protagonist, Paul Copeland, is watching his daughter at gymnastics when his mind begins to wander:
I have learned over the years—in the most horrible way imaginable—that the wall between life and death, between extraordinary beauty and mind-boggling ugliness, between the innocent setting and the frightening bloodbath, is flimsy. It takes a second to tear through it. One moment, life appears idyllic. You are in a place as chaste an elementary school gymnasium. Your little girl is twirling. Her voice is giddy. Her eyes are closed. You see her mother’s face there, the way her mother used to close her eyes and smile, and you remember how flimsy that wall really is.
It was my sister-in-law, Greta. I turned to her. Greta looked at me with her normal concern. I smiled through it.
‘What are you thinking about?’ she whispered.
She knew. I lied anyway.
‘Handheld video cameras,’ I said.
Whoa, there’s a minefield of questions in that little excerpt! Stop to consider the largely subconscious process that was just sparked. For me, I’m wondering how has Cope learned that life is such a fragile balance of joy and pain (and with such poignancy)? How did his wife die? Is there a reason Greta is concerned about him? Why does he hide what he was thinking from his sister-in-law? Cope hasn’t asked a question directly himself, but the incomplete information peppered throughout those lines generated them very effectively.
And finally, in the world of romance, we have Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. In the very first scene our heroine, Clare, is visiting the Newberry Library when she unexpectedly runs into our hero, Henry.
I am speechless. Here is Henry, calm, clothed, younger than I have ever seen him. Henry is working at the Newberry Library, standing in front of me, in the present. Here and now. I am jubilant. Henry is looking at me patiently, uncertain but polite.
“Is there something I can help you with?” he asks.
“Henry!” I can barely refrain from throwing my arms around him. It is obvious he has never seen me before in his life.
“Have we met? I’m sorry, I don’t…” Henry is glancing around us, worrying that readers, co-workers are noticing us, searching his memory and realising that some future self of his has met this radiantly happy girl standing in front of him. The last time I saw him he was sucking my toes in the Meadow.
Yep, questions galore. There’s certainly the big question—how will the time-travelling thing work in this story? What does it mean for this couple, especially when Clare seems so in love? But in this particular scene, we begin to wonder what it’s like for Clare to meet a younger version of Henry? How is Henry going to respond to this ‘radiantly happy girl’ before him? And hello—he was sucking her toes the last time she saw him?!?
What most readers would be hard-pressed to articulate, is that at the same time that our brains are germinating these questions (and what those questions are will be different for each individual), they’re also coming up with hypotheses. Based on our prior experiences in the genre, suspicions based on the cover and blurb, and even what we’ve learned through the journey we call life, our brains are already thinking ahead, trying to predict. We try to see if we can answer those questions.
It’s discovering whether we’re right (and glorying in that sense of pride and superiority that comes with ‘I knew it!’) or finding our predictions challenged (and experiencing the novel feeling of our horizons being stretched and broadened), that keeps readers turning pages.
It’s that beautiful, fascinating process that you can capture simply by incorporating questions in your book. (A quick caveat—make sure you give your reader the pay off. If you’ve asked a question in your story, make sure it gets answered. We’ve all been left with the feeling of not having the answer, and it’s not a pleasant or rewarding state. A reader left holding that feeling isn’t going to be motivated to read more of your books.)
When you think about it, there’s one ultimate mega-question that every one of these can be classified under. It’s the mother-question that drives your reader like astrophysics drove Einstein and dust-filled homes drove Hoover. And I propose that every scene in your book needs to have this question underlie it. I’m suggesting that each chapter needs to finish on this question (in fact, cliff-hangers are this mother-question!). I say that your protagonist, and even your secondary characters, need to have this question hanging over them. It’s what will keep your reader turning those pages. Because their mind will be asking the most important question of all—OMG, what happens next???
Next week we’ll be diving into the next sure-fire way to capture curiosity – surprise! Until then, how have you woven questions into your current manuscript? Are there big ones and little ones? Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook or Twitter.
Have a wonderful week,
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