5 Reasons to Track Questions & Answers in Your Novel

This week while flushing out my novel’s outline, I decided to track where I raised and answered questions in the story. Why? Because questions are crucial to a good story; they ensure it has enough intrigue and suspense to keep readers reading. Have you ever set down a book and not been compelled to pick it back up? That’s probably because you weren’t dying to know the answer to a question! Questions and their elusive answers keep us reading. For the A to Z Challenge, I blogged about big and little story questions and gave tips for how to make these questions engage readers all the way to The End. Check out the full post here. For today’s post, I will illustrate how tracking questions and answers can improve your story.

To start, I created a numbered list of questions raised and questions answered alongside my outline. I used Document Notes in Scrivener so that this list is in the Inspector right beside my outline and I can see both simultaneously. I numbered each question (Q1, Q2, Q3, etc.) and the corresponding answer (A1, A2, A3, etc.). Then I went through my outline, tracking where questions were raised and how quickly/slowly they were answered. As I did this, I came up with a bunch of reasons why this exercise is helpful…

questions-answers

1. To avoid info dumps. During the set up scenes of Act I, it’s easy to think you need to explain everything or the reader will be confused. However, when I sat down and asked myself, “What will readers be wondering in this opening scene?” it became clear that a lot of the stuff I thought I needed to tell readers wouldn’t even be on their radar yet! The takeaway? Don’t give away answers to questions your readers haven’t even asked! That’s a sure sign you’re info dumping.

2. To check story pacing. When I started tracking my questions, I noticed that the first few scenes, especially the opening scene, raised many more questions than other scenes. This is normal. After all, questions make for intrigue, and we all want intriguing question-laden openings! But all good things have limits. So I decided to delay asking some questions and added them to later scenes, and to answer some more quickly to get them out of the way and make room for new questions. That resulted in a more evenly paced story.

3. To make sure each scene has suspense. No matter what genre you write, stories need suspense in the form of questions to keep the reader wondering and engaged. So every scene should raise at least one new question. If a scene doesn’t have a question in it, you risk boring your readers. And don’t think that if you raised a question in the previous scene, you don’t need to include one the next scene. That’s hogwash! Every scene must ask a question to keep the story moving and the readers engaged.

4. To keep track of The Big Question. This is the overall question that the reader will wonder throughout the entire novel until the very end. The big question is fed by dozens of little questions that are brought up throughout the story. Here are some examples:

BOOK BIG QUESTION LITTLE QUESTIONS
The Hunger Games Will Katniss win the Games? In training, will Katniss get a low ranking? In the arena, will Katniss get her hands on the bow and arrow? Will Peeta betray her? Will Katniss find water or die of thirst? Will Haymitch send medicine?
Harry Potter Will Harry defeat Voldemort? In each book, the little questions of whether Harry will make the right decisions, or trust the wrong people, or get in trouble, etc., all connect to the big question of whether he has what it takes to defeat Voldemort.
Eleanor & Park Will their high school romance last? Will Park accept Eleanor’s weirdness? Will Eleanor learn to trust Park? Will Eleanor’s stepdad find out about Park and forbid her from seeing him?

Once you know your Big Question, you can track it and make sure each little question connects to it in some way. In other words, all the little questions must have the power to affect the big question. If you have a scene where a question is raised that doesn’t connect to the big question, you either need to make it relevant or cut it. Never lose sight of The Big Question, lest you veer off the goat path into boring territory (as I talked about in this post on Mushy Middles).

5. To make sure you don’t leave questions hanging. And finally… sometimes we lose track of all the little questions asked along the way. If you find out that you raised a question and never answered it, you have two options: 1) Answer it, or 2) Cut it. After all, if you forgot about it, maybe it’s not important and is just cluttering up your story.

So that’s what I’ve been up to this week. Do you track your story questions? I feel like this is something that mystery writers probably do all the time, but could be helpful for writers of all genres. Let me know in the comments!

PS – Next Monday I’ll have another Audiobook Pitfall post coming up.

Author: Heather Jackson

Heather is a cartoon screenwriter, YA novelist, small town fugitive, and late-blooming gymnast. For more, visit her website at heatherjacksonwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW

16 thoughts on “5 Reasons to Track Questions & Answers in Your Novel”

  1. This is a really great post and a wonderful way to keep track of the story line. I just realized I hadn’t given my character a chance to forgive her father for betraying her and had to go back and write new stuff into several scenes to make the final forgiveness believable.

  2. I have a whole notebook dedicated to raised questions…. because I always find I am forgetting the small things that eventually morph into potentially awesome plot points. Plus, no one likes a Chekov’s Gun. 😛

    Great post, as always, Heather!

  3. Very helpful, thanks! I just realized that my novel would work better if one of the subplots became the main plot and now I’m trying to decide if I keep the original plot as a subplot. So #4 is pertinent: if my entire subplot doesn’t answer questions about the main plot, maybe I should just drop it?

    1. Subplots should always connect in some way to the main plot, and if not that means you probably have two separate stories! Maybe two novels? Or two novellas? But as for the novel you’re working on now, yes, if it doesn’t answer questions relevant to the main plot, that subplot will feel like filler to the reader and they’ll be impatient to return to the main plot, so dropping it is a good idea. On the bright side, it the subplot works on it’s own, you have another story!

  4. Thank you so much for this blog post. I’m actually doing some “studying” tonight. This where I break from writing and I go over learning tools, notes from lectures I’ve attended, go over grammar stuff. Now I’ll add this to my reading material tonight. Perfect timing.
    I write women’s fiction with strong romantic elements and sometimes I feel as though I’m giving away a lot of info in the beginning. A lot of times, in romance, it’s expected to have the boy meets girl, they fall in love, etc so that’s kind of understood. My issue is I want the reader to understand the complexity of the hero/heroine’s past and how that relates to their future without sounding heavy-handed. Afterall, in romance, happily ever afters are a given. The reader knows this. I guess it’s all about pacing, plus the story I’m working on alternates from hero/heroine pov and I have what I call “mini-chapters” that flashback to a certain part of both their pasts that is crucial to the story.
    I need to ask the big question and set up the little ones before I go in over my head. (smile)

    Thanks again for the post!

    1. Haha, yes! Well, I made the #writetips into little graphics first. They were pretty cool, but Robin suggested using the Tweet plugin, so I did that instead. Lots of readers tweeted them, so I guess the new plugin is a success! 🙂

  5. Heather, for me it’s #5 first. Hopefully I’m doing the others, and it’s really BAD if you miss out on answering the BIG question (as in, angry mob with pitchforks at the door-style mad) but readers get steamed if you ask things you don’t answer. They lose trust and they are much less likely to pick up another one of your books.

    I don’t use Scrivener because I have a simple (ha!) but effective system in Word where each chapter is its own file and any questions raised are noted in all-caps highlights for me at the end of each chapter, plus I create additional files of questions as a backup. This all goes into one main book folder. As I later compile the chapters into one big file for Ammy, I can ensure I took care of questions raised. But any system for tracking questions would work as long as we use it.

    The final thing is this: sometimes we answer a (relatively minor) question but we waited so long or did it so subtly that some readers missed it. My experience has been that roughly 15% don’t mind (guessing), 75% or more catch it (they found the answer as I intended), and 10% miss it. It’s a fine line to answer a question and not spoon feed the reader, but more than once I’ve had to explain to a beta reader or a critique partner that we DID answer a question they had!

    1. Yes, trust is a big issue with readers, and it’s a good thing to remember that unanswered questions break that trust.

      Your final point is a tricky one. It is definitely a fine line between being subtle and spoon-feeding. I guess that is what beta readers are for!

      Thanks for the comment!

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