“When the questions are answered, the play is over.”
Playwright Louis Catron said that and it has since become one of our bedrock literary concepts. By keeping the questions we’re posing in our writing clear, we can answer some, while leaving others pending, creating a satisfying sense of forward progress as certain reader expectations are met and new ones arise. This narrative tool is simple, powerful, and applicable to all genres.
Where To Start?
All writers are familiar with the concept of the inciting incident. This is where we pose the first question, or set of questions, to the reader. This could be done with nuance; perhaps we’re given a glimpse into the mind of a complicated character and we come to the end of the opening scene wanting to understand: “Why is she this way?” Sometimes it’s done with a heavier hand, such as a spy novel that begins with a chaotic action scene; here our question is more like: “Why is he being hunted?” In either case, the question or questions are responsible for engaging our interest.
This touches on the commonly used–and commonly misunderstood–writing axiom in media res which means “in the middle of things.” Writers sometimes attempt this by plucking a lone, out-of-sequence scene from the middle of their story, chronologically speaking, and put it at the start of the narrative. Then, they spend the next chunk of the work leading up to it again, until the reader can finally figure out exactly what the first scene meant after all. This is not how the literary device was originally used and there are better ways to hook the reader.
While it is important to capture the reader’s attention quickly, without wasting too many precious words on exposition or setting the scene, curiosity can be suitably piqued through the creation of compelling questions. It isn’t necessary to backtrack. If your first scene engenders interest, if it implies a world where something is at stake and immediately transports the reader into a situation with dramatic tension, why not just continue from there?
Carrying Questions Through The Narrative
An end to our questions is an end to your narrative, which readers will need at some point. At the same time, readers want the questions to unfold slowly; they want things to play themselves out.
If all questions start at the beginning and all are answered at the end, the work will likely feel static and rote. Establishing the most effective rhythm of asking the right questions means knowing when to leave them for the time being while weaving in reminders of what needs to be answered — and then providing those answers in turn. All of this requires thoughtful mapping.
Sometimes we get answers to questions before the end of the book, which is very satisfying. It gives us a sense that things will get resolved. Conversely, we might get a new question in the middle that brings a fresh sense of beginnings to the narrative. Maybe a question is answered in a way that immediately poses another, or else leads to a deeper question off its back.
When enough questions that we didn’t see coming are being asked, or creative resolutions we didn’t expect are being provided, or layers of questions are being woven into a tapestry of intrigue, there comes a point when the reader gives themselves over to the mastery of the author. This is where the “Eh, we’ll see” energy –- the natural skepticism we all bring to new books or other forms of narrative -– gives way to, “What?!” And they’re all in. You’ve hooked them.