Essential Questions    

Has anyone ever told you a joke only to refuse to tell the punch line?  Makes you crazy doesn’t it?  It’s like those old movies of the 1970’s where the directors thought it was cool to end the last scene without the audience really knowing what happened.  They don’t make those movies anymore for a very good reason.  The audience hated it.

It is referred to in education as dis-equilibrium.  A good science teacher will use that to trap the interest of their students by doing a demonstration then asking the question, “Why did that happen?”  If the demonstration is interesting enough, the students will go crazy until they answer the question.  Why?  Because of dis-equilibrium.  They can’t stand not filling in the blanks.  They can’t stand being left with an unanswered question.

By now, hopefully, you’re asking yourself what this has to do with your book (because you are currently in dis-equilibrium, and you don’t like it.)  Well, here’s the punch line.  A good book has strong essential questions that compel the reader to keep reading until they’re answered.  Seems simple doesn’t it?  Then why do so many books fail to do that? Have you ever started a book that you didn’t finish because somewhere along the way you lost interest?  We all have.  You lost that interest because the remaining questions were not compelling enough to answer, or because you already knew the answer and fixing dinner or doing the laundry was more compelling than finishing the book.  To an author, that is a death nail.  If a reader isn’t interested enough to finish your book, they probably will not buy your next one either.  So the essential question here is, “What are the essential questions of your story?” and those fall into several categories.

Character questions

This is not an article about character development.  There are tons of books written on this subject and any author should probably read a few at some point in her learning, but there are some important questions that must be answered in order to keep your reader.

  1. Who are these people and why should I care about them?  If the characters are not dimensional or have any redeeming qualities, the reader won’t care what happens to them.  It is also important that they have flaws or shortcomings that require mending before the characters can attain their goals.

  2. What is the character’s goal?  What does she want to attain?  This can be in both the romantic thread and in the secondary plot thread.

  3. What is the character’s motivation?  Why is she doing what she’s doing?  If there is not a strong and believable reason for her to be doing what she’s doing, the reader will not care about her or your story.

  4. What are the conflicts?  No conflict, no story.  Without strong conflicts the story is boring and predictable.


Romantic Plot questions

For romance readers, this is the big question.  It’s why they picked up that book with the torso shot of some hunk on the cover to begin with.  They want to be swept into his arms and out of the laundry room …for a few hours, anyway.  Ironically, all romance novels have the same basic question and the same basic answer.  But it’s how that question is answered that keeps us turning the pages.  What is that question?

  1. Are they ever going to make love?  When, where and how they get into the sack is the underlying question of all romance novels.  Your reader knows it when she picks up the book, and she’ll be highly disappointed if it’s not answered.  That’s why it’s important to drag it out, teasing as you go, until it is answered.  Once this happens, she’ll smile and then the real danger begins.  If your remaining questions aren’t compelling enough, she will quit reading your book now.

  2. Okay, they’ve made love, now why should the reader keep reading?  The first love scene is reason enough for most romance readers to keep turning the pages, but it is not enough to finish the book even if she really liked your characters.  Many writers are of the mistaken opinion that since they love their characters, the reader will continue on out of loyalty.  They won’t.  At this point the writer can depend on the secondary plot to maintain the interest level or focus on another aspect of the romance element.
  3. Will he/she allow herself to actually fall in love?  This is where the danger lurks.  Most romance novels ask this question after the hero and heroine have sex.  It’s a common theme and because of that, isn’t very effective in keeping your reader on the hook.  Why?  Because the answer is always “yes” and your reader knows that.  If they are kept apart only because of something that requires a change of heart, it’s not very interesting.  For example, if the heroine is insecure because she feels ugly or she can’t trust a man again because one ‘done her wrong’ somewhere in the past, any romance aficionado knows she’s going to get over that.  Why finish the book?  This question is still good and almost necessary in a romance novel, but it cannot stand on its own.

    If the obligatory separation is based on an outside threat, now there is suspense.  It is important, however that this outside threat be made evident before the love scene or it will feel contrived.  It will look as though the author knew she needed another conflict so she made one up in the nick of time.  Your reader is savvy; she’ll pick up on that.  This outside threat does not have to be a killer or stalker or anything along those lines (though they do make for good suspense building) but whatever it is, it has to remove the conflict from a simple “change of heart” resolution. 

    Lets take the above example of the insecure heroine.  If after the love scene, she sees our hero flirting with a woman the heroine has been suspicious of from the start (maybe an old fiancé or flame) it reinforces her insecurities, but that is not enough.  She has to act on that insecurity in a manner that causes a serious threat to the happily ever after ending the romance reader is waiting for.  Our heroine decides to leave the county or run off with an old flame of her own – one that she doesn’t love but feels worthy of—etc.  Now our hero must figure out what’s going on and win fair maiden before she does this stupid thing.  This plot device is known as a ticking bomb.  By adding a time element (she’s marrying this loser on Saturday, etc) the reader’s anxiety level picks up. (“I can’t believe he’s going to let her marry her fiancé on Saturday!  Can the hero stop her in time?” or “He has to find her before she gets on that plane to New Guinea on Saturday!  If she does, she’ll disappear forever.”  Woe!)
    They keep turning pages because even though deep down they know it’s going to work out, they want to see how.  Kind of like the love scene.  We want to know how, why and when.
  1. Are they going to make love again?  If your story doesn’t have a strong secondary plot to keep the tension moving, another way to increase suspense is to have the hero/heroine regret making love, and swear it’s never going to happen with that person again.  The reasons can be varied and must be strong, but it allows the romance plot to return to square one, so to speak, and thus the reader is back to answering the first question.  For romance buffs, that is often a strong enough question to keep reading.  For example, the hero feels like a heel because he’s fallen for his dead buddy’s widow or little sister etc.  So after they make love, he decides to do the decent thing and back off.  Now the tension is back because no matter how hard he tries, we know he can’t keep his hands off the little vixen and the “I don’t want to, but I can’t stop myself” syndrome is very sexy in a hero.  However, don’t forget to add the ticking bomb element to his decision.  He’s going to back away and take that new job in Peoria.  He’s leaving Saturday.  Gasp!

So the essential question of this article is, what are the essential questions of your story?  Are they compelling enough to keep your reader turning the pages or will they likely leave her yawning and contemplating the laundry?  Look it over, ask for input, but most importantly, keep writing.





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