How awesome is it when you’re reading a book and something dramatic, shocking or intriguing happens and you’re like: “Wow, I can’t wait to read on and find out what THAT was all about!”?
Stories make you feel this way because they introduce narrative questions which keep the reader engaged and in a state of suspense, waiting to find out what happens.
There’s the main narrative question that drives the plot (for example, in a murder mystery it may be “Whodunit?”) and this question is generally answered in the climax of the story.
Other narrative questions may be dramatic questions that aren’t the main narrative question, such as: “Why did Miles get dismissed from the police force?” Or emotional questions, like: “How will Bianca feel when she finds out Sylvie betrayed her?” (Pen and the Pad describes four types of narrative questions here).
Each time something happens in the story that raises a question in the mind of the reader, that question must be answered at some point in the novel.
Sounds obvious, right?
However, you might be a writer like me. I have a habit of thinking: “Wouldn’t it be cool if …?” and then raising loads of narrative questions by making characters do weird and wonderful things, but forgetting to answer half of them, or failing to elaborate how these actions make the characters feel.
Or, I will write about a character doing something or behaving in a certain way because they need to do something to drive the plot forward, only I haven’t thought about the logistics of what they need to do.
At the end of my first draft, I had a lot of great events happening, many of which remained unexplained. (To be fair, I’m writing a mystery and a lot of these were red herrings and thus, not directly related to the main plot).
For example, in the first scene of my novel, the main character observes a man wearing a blood-stained shirt emerge from the front door of his house, struggling to carry a mysterious bundle. He then proceeds to drag the bundle around the side of the house. This raises several questions, an obvious one being: “What is in the bundle?” This is not the main narrative question of the novel, but the answer ties back into the main plot line and is revealed in the climax of the novel.
Another question is: “Why does he bring the bundle out the front of his house and drag it around the side, instead of taking it out the back of his house where he is less likely to be seen?” The actual answer to this question is – because I needed the main character, who is parked outside the house, to see him with the bundle. I had to come up with a plausible explanation for why the character does that, within the context of the story.
I’m currently undertaking a process of making sure all of the questions I’ve raised in my story get answered at some point before the final pages. This involves reading through my manuscript and writing down each narrative question as it arises under the relevant chapter heading. I then mark off whether the narrative question has been answered later in the story, and where it has been answered (e.g. page number, chapter number).
It’s then easier for me to see which narrative questions haven’t been answered, so I know that I have to devise some mind-blowing plot reveals to explain them. Ha ha, no problem, she says.
Don’t I sound organised? I assure you, I’m not quite there yet. On my list of narrative questions, there’s a lot of: “Why does such-and-such do this?” And I don’t know yet. But having this checklist makes me feel a bit better and for me, is a step in the right direction to ensuring all loose ends are tied up.
How do you make sure you don’t leave your reader hanging with unanswered narrative questions? Please let me know in the comments below.