Answer story questions before you get to the end

When we first started talking about plot, I mentioned the “story problem” or “major dramatic question.” A good story will raise multiple questions. They don’t all need to be—in fact, shouldn’t be—answered at once, but they do need to be answered for the ending to be satisfying.

We’ll talk more about satisfying endings later, but for now, let’s consider this point:

Questions that arise are left tantalizingly open as long as feasible

You do need to answer your story questions, but the longer you can reasonably delay the character’s discovery of the answer, the more tension you’ll create. That keeps the reader turning pages, because she wants to know the answer, too. And ideally, each answer leads to a new question, until you reach the end.

story question speech bubble
Illustration by Marish • iStockphoto

If story questions are wrapped up too quickly—raised in chapter three and solved by chapter five—your protagonist is probably having too easy a time of it, and you’d do well to have the villain create some obstacles for him.

To the reverse, you don’t want a story question left hanging beyond all reason, either. Writing coaches are fond of this saying:

Any story problem that could be solved with one honest conversation between your characters isn’t a real problem.

If Heroine has a question and Hero has the answer, and the only thing keeping him from revealing it is the author’s determined will to save that for the last chapter, your authorial hands are showing behind your puppets.

There are people who genuinely refuse to have honest conversations for either nefarious or misguided reasons of their own. But this kind of refusal to be honest is not healthy, so you’ll need to address it.

If someone is keeping a secret, that will put a strain on their psyche and on their relationships with other people. That can be good for story tension, but you have to guard against the secret being kept unrealistically long. Eventually people are found out.

If Hero refuses to talk, he needs either a story reason, e.g., he’s protecting someone, or a psychological reason, e.g., he’s in denial or has trust issues. Too often, what we see in new writers’ manuscripts is the character whose refusal to talk is attributable to no discernable reason. Characters must have realistic reasons for their behavior.

Consider this: examining the psychological ramifications of a person who’s incapable of having an honest conversation is much more interesting than just watching a guy who won’t talk because…well, because the author won’t let him.

A story that unfolds organically and realistically will have its story questions answered in reasonable time. You want to get as many of them out of the way as possible before you get to the climax, otherwise your denouement will run on too long as you tie up the ends. Resolve as many as you realistically can before you get to the climax, leaving only one or two to be resolved then and in the conclusion.


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