Readers pick up a story or a novel expecting it to be good. They want to care about the people in your story. They want to believe. They’re on your side. That honeymoon with the reader lasts about three paragraphs with a short story, two pages or so with a novel. In that time, you have to give the reader some reason to read on.
The Three Questions
All readers unconsciously ask three challenging questions throughout every story they read. To hook your readers and keep them hooked, you need to answer each one of them. When each question isn’t answered well enough, doubts begin to arise in the reader’s mind, and the all-important tapestry of verisimilitude begins to fray. Once the doubts outweigh the delights, the balance of verisimilitude is lost, and so is your reader.
With rare exceptions, stories are about people and what they do. With even rarer exceptions, a story should focus on only a few characters. These major characters have to satisfy these three questions the audience is constantly and unconsciously asking.
Question 1: So What?
The very first question that readers ask of your characters is: “Why should I care about what’s going on in this story? Why is this important? Why shouldn’t I binge-watch The Real Housewives on Netflix? I’ve seen this kind of thing happen in stories a thousand times before. If this is all the story’s about, I’m through with it.” Most readers ask this question before they’ve even left the book store, or while they’re still paging through the “Look Inside” sample online. They haven’t even bought the book or story yet.
Answer 1: Whenever the readers unconsciously ask “so what?” your story will give them a reason to care.
In a recent project of my own, the story begins as follows:
“Don’t ‘cousin’ me, Eowain.” Tnúthgal stood in the hall of the fort of Dúnsciath.
The first question my reader is asking is “So what?” Some guy is standing in the fort of a hall, addressing his cousin. So what? So I have to give the reader a reason to care, and I follow those introductory lines thus:
He had five armed men at his back, and all of them had just come in from the road. Behind them, a flutter of terrified servants gawked from the courtyard…
With any luck, the readers’ reaction now is “Oh. Whoa. Five armed men? Now this is getting interesting. Where are they from? Why are they here? And why are the servants terrified?” If you’re doing your job well as a writer, you’re answering the readers’ subconscious question in a way that provokes interest and propels the story forward toward the next question.
Question 2: Oh Yeah?
One of the fundamental truisms of fiction is that your mission as a writer is to chase your poor characters up a tree. You, as a writer, are then encouraged to throw rocks at your poor characters until they figure out how to get down out of that damn tree. But let me ask you this: When was the last time anyone actually chased you (or anyone you know) up a tree and threw rocks at you?
Sooner or later, you are going to get your characters into a damned unlikely situation. And if you write genre fiction like I do, the sooner, the better. But the moment your characters find themselves up a tree, or floating through space, or charging into the lair of a dragon, or meeting a young, handsome, wealthy, foreign prince, the reader will ask the dreaded Question 2:
“Oh yeah? Come on, I don’t believe anybody would do that. That isn’t the way things work. That was pretty convenient, wasn’t it? How dumb does this author think I am? Give me a break. This author doesn’t know anything. I’m through with this story.”
Answer 2: Whenever a doubt arises in the reader’s mind and they’re about to say “oh yeah?” your story will include a clue or an explanation that persuades the reader to go on trusting you.
In my own project, shortly after the moment described above, a new character, the Lord Drymyn, is introduced. He’s unarmed and not particularly war-like, yet he immediately goes toe to toe with the Lord Tnúthgal and his five armed men.
“…The king’s not taking visitors, so unless you have some business before the court, out with you. And take your truncheon-wielding thugs with you. Go on. Out.”
The five armed men bristled behind Lord Tnúthgal but he raised his hand to allay them. “You’re lucky you’re a drymyn, little man.”
“Out.” Eowain felt his brow twitch. The Lord-Drymyn had a seldom-heard edge in his voice.
The eyes of Tnúthgal’s men widened. No doubt they feared the Lord-Drymyn’s curse on them. But Tnúthgal only sneered. With disdain for the courtesies, he and his men went from the hall in a flurry of winter cloaks and ringing mail.
This becomes an example of an “Oh yeah?” moment. Why on earth would five armed men and their burly leader back down from this character? Because he’s lucky to be “a drymyn” and “they feared the Lord-Drymyn’s curse on them.” The narrative introduces a small clue or explanation that persuades the reader to go on trusting in the narrative. The reader doesn’t yet know what a drymyn is, and may not know whether he actually has the power to lay a curse on anyone. But the characters know, and the reader senses their fear. Why would five armed men and their burly leader back down from a non-threatening, unarmed antagonist? Because they’re afraid of something else about him, afraid of something he has the power to do to them, something beyond the merely physical.
With such an answer, the reader’s faith in the narrative is reaffirmed. The reader hand-waves his doubts as unimportant and continues on with the story. The story answered the reader’s question. It’s only a small answer, a barest part of an answer, even an incomplete answer. But it’s enough to satisfy the reader for the moment, and so the page is turned.
Question 3: Huh?
This is where clarity and skillful precision of language comes to the forefront. The story depicts a lot of action happening all at once. Or several characters are speaking together, interrupting one another. Or the scene has shifted, and the reader is encountering a previously unfamiliar story setting.
“Huh? What’s happening? This doesn’t make any sense. I don’t know who’s talking or what they’re talking about. Where is this stuff happening? I don’t get it. This is just a bunch of words, it doesn’t amount to anything. Either I can’t read or this author can’t write, but either way, I’m through with this book.”
Answer 3: Of course, you’ll make certain there’s never a moment of uncertainty, confusion, or muddiness in your story. On those rare but vital occasions when suspense requires the withholding of a bit of information from your readers, you’ll make sure they know exactly what the question is, even if they don’t know the answer. Even the uncertainties in your story must be clear, so readers will know you meant it to be that way, so they’ll continue to trust your competence to deliver the story you promised them.
For example, in the first draft of my project, the scene above continues on as follows. The original draft was written in 1st person point of view.
…Medyr scolded the servants back to their duties.
Then Lord Eowain and my master stood a while in conversation in the hall, beneath the mounted head of the Great Elk that the dead king had once brought down.
“Medyr, we can’t keep lying to people.”
“We’re not lying. He’s alive, he’s recuperating, and we have the government well in hand until he recovers.”
“I don’t understand you. He’s crippled. You know better than anyone that a crippled man can’t be king of Droma. It’s in the tribe’s by-laws.” Eowain seemed piqued.
Medyr nodded. “I also know we need someone of Findtan’s blood on the throne now. The coelbreni have told me so.”
At the mention of them, I touched the pouch at my belt containing my own coelbreni, wooden tiles inscribed with signs in the ancient language of the drymyn, and used for divination.
“As have I.” Lord Eowain’s aunt, the grizzle-haired widow Lady Rathtyen, emerged from the kitchen into the hall. She’d been aloft in the tower when my master and I left her to attend to Tnúthgal.
The original point-of-view character was a spectator to the main events of the story, lacking agency. As a consequence, his actions (touching the pouch at his belt) and thoughts (exposition of the form and use of the “coelbreni”) interrupted the action between the real main characters in the scene. Additionally, the structure of the setting description (“in the hall, beneath the mounted head of the Great Elk…”) provides unnecessary detail, it’s presented awkwardly, and the character’s placement in the setting is vague.
Together, these conditions were confusing my readers. “Where are they? Who’s speaking? Huh?” So back to the drawing board, and the next revision dispensed with the unnecessary viewpoint character, adopted a third-person perspective centered on Lord Eowain, put the characters into action in the setting, and introduced significant details about the characters and their place in the world. Here is the same moment in the story, revised for better clarity:
Medyr scolded the servants back to their duties. “Go on, then, all of you.”
As the gathered household whispered away like diligent mice, Eowain took the Lord-Drymyn’s shoulder and led him to the northern hearth, over which was mounted the mighty crest of a great elk. A trophy won by his father, who had once been king, as Eowain’s brother now was king.
“Medyr?” The Lord-Drymyn was a scholarly man of some thirty summers, his red beard only lately mottled with grey. But Eowain felt how deceptively strong his arm was beneath his priestly robes, and knew the drymyn was allowing himself to be led. And Eowain had learned well from Medyr as a young man. The gods despised those that harmed their servants. All the sacred tales said so.
But Eowain himself grew terse as they came away from the casual hearing of others. “Medyr, we can’t keep lying to people.”
By improving the clarity of the passage, eliminating the uncertainty around the main character’s thoughts and feelings, and placing the characters more specifically in the scene, the reader’s experience of the scene is smoothed. I’ve tightened the narrative from seven paragraphs to just four. The narrative also conveys more important information, such as the relationship between the characters. The reader learns more about the Lord Drymyn (“a scholarly man”) and his ability to intimidate the five armed men (“The gods despised those that harmed their servants”). The identity of the main character, Eowain, is further clarified (he’s the king’s brother). And we also see that Eowain is not intimidated by the Lord Drymyn, despite his authority and power. Eowain’s concerns in this moment are more important to him than the Drymyn’s ability to blast him with a curse.
Eliminating uncertainty, confusion, and muddiness from the narrative encourages readers to continue to trust your ability to deliver the story you promised to them.
Stream-of-Consciousness Character Development Exercise
One more bonus tip, before I wrap this up.
Characters with a story to tell are fairly easy to find. Look around. They’re everywhere. In the library. At the supermarket. In the gym. But how do you know what the story is, and how do you find the answers to these fundamental three questions? A good thing to do is to start asking questions. Interrogate these characters.
One exercise that I find to be extremely valuable is the stream-of-consciousness character development exercise. In fact, it’s so fundamental to my own method that I use it every day, whether I’m actively working on a new story or not.
Through these stream-of-consciousness exercises, you can interrogate and learn more about your characters. You answer these questions in first person from the character’s point of view, as if you were the character. This allows you to get into your characters, mind, body, and soul.
From the point of view of a character (i.e., in first person “I”), have the character answer the following question. Write for five minutes without stopping.
Your Character said: “One thing I feel strongly about is…”
Write as fast as you can. Do not lift your pen from the page or your hands from the keyboard. The operative word is FEEL. Focus on ONE thing about which the character FEELS strongly for the ENTIRE five minutes.
If you’re comfortable with sharing, please feel free to use the comment box below and I’ll post your results for everyone to see. I’ll go first…
Ready…? Steady…? GO!
Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. His poetry and short fiction have appeared in literary journals such as The Backporch Review, The Harbinger, Idiom, and Venture. His poetry has also appeared in the anthologies The Golden Treasury of Great Poems and Dance on the Horizon, and he is a two-time winner of the Golden Poet Award from World of Poetry Press. He is currently working independently as a freelance writer, editor, and publishing consultant. He lives in the Greater New York City area.
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