A while back, my husband and writing partner, the D of C.D. Hersh, built me a new cabinet pantry. We spent the better part of an afternoon talking about the size and construction of the pantry to make sure it was exactly like I wanted it. Afterwards, he went to Home Depot to get the lumber.
While holding the front door open so he could carry the lumber in I noticed the first piece was shorter than I thought it should be. When I commented, he answered as he went back out the door saying, “Didn’t you want it counter height?”
No, I thought as I closed the door behind him. I don’t. Didn’t he remember what we’d discussed? I peeked through the side window curtain anxiously wondering what he’d bring in next.
The next piece was short, too, and I became concerned. He laid the second piece on the floor next to the first and my angst jumped. They were definitely the wrong size. Had he cut all the pieces wrong? I awaited the next piece, hoping it wasn’t going to be short, too.
The third piece came in and I gave a sigh of relief. It looked like the right length. Then fourth and final piece came in and I could envision the size of the cabinet we had discussed.
“You scared me,” I said. “I thought you’d cut it wrong.”
He laughed and replied, “The other two pieces are the top and the bottom.”
My husband had purposely led me on, leaving me with a new question each time he brought in a piece of lumber.
As writers it is our job to lead our readers on, posing new story questions that will make them want to turn the pages. Each scene and each chapter should leave your reader with new questions about the plot you are constructing, the reasons your characters are acting and reacting, and how they are going to resolve their conflicts.
For example, in The Wizard of Oz, the over arching story question is will Dorothy ever get home? But along her journey in Oz a number of other questions pop up like:
- What is going happen to her because her house fell on the Wicked Witch of the East and killed her?
- Are the characters she meets along the way going to be friends or foes?
- How do Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion and the Tin Man figure in the story?
- Will the Cowardly Lion sleep forever in the poppy field because his companions couldn’t carry him out in time?
- Who is the Wizard …really?
- How will the Wizard grant their wishes? Or can he even do that?
- Will the Wicked Witch of the West get Dorothy before Dorothy and her companions get the witch, and thus secure Dorothy’s way home, a heart for Tin Man, a brain for Scarecrow, and courage for The Cowardly Lion?
- When the Wizard’s hot air balloon leaves without Dorothy is she going to be stuck in Oz forever?
Each one of these questions moves the story forward, posing new problems that the characters must solve in order to reach their final goals—going home, getting a heart, a brain, and courage. A story with only one question is a simple story that will not hold readers’ interest for 300 or more pages. Baum answers his story questions fairly quickly after he has posed them, but it’s not necessary, nor desirable to do so, in today’s stories. We want our readers to keep turning those pages to find those answers.
But beware one thing—the questions you pose must be answered before the book ends. There is nothing more frustrating to a reader than to finish a book and discover you, the writer, have left out an important answer to a burning question you posed.
I forgave my husband his little joke, but only because he got the pieces right. Make sure you do the same thing for your readers.