Christian Fiction Writer


Create Suspense with Story Questions

Search for sparks nicholasUsing Story Questions to Create Suspense

How do you grab the readers’ attention and make them keep reading even though the phone’s ringing,
the soufflé’s scorching in the oven, and hubby's boss (and wife) are pounding on the door in the pouring rain? By holding them in suspense created through your expertly-crafted story questions.

Typically, a story question isn’t presented in question form. Rather, it is a statement that causes readers to ask "who, what, when, how, and why" questions. Their interaction makes them care enough to keep reading to answer their questions. Story questions, also called hooks, can be placed at the beginning of a story or a chapter, at the chapter’s end, and just about anywhere you want to build suspense. The goal is the same—to pull the reader in and cause them to care enough about the character’s predicament that they become oblivious to the world around them.

But story questions can become "false advertising"  if used inappropriately, i.e., to "create flashy or irrelevant hooks" which lure readers in only to discover they've been tricked. “Be sure your story questions raise
legitimate questions about the characters and their situation,” writes James N. Frey in his book, How to Write a Damn Good Novel.

He illustrates his warning with this passage: “A writer has to discriminate wisely between the attention-getting device that soon becomes irrelevant to the story and the beginning that genuinely gathers the reader into the arms of the story.”

The best way to learn to write effective story questions is by studying other writers’ work. Let’s consider a couple of examples taken from different genres.

“It would later be called one of the most violent storms in North Carolina history.” (The Rescue, Nicholas Sparks)
This story question asks, What terrible violence has the storm caused? Most readers are interested in natural disasters, and they like to read about survivors and heroes.

“Why had this happened? Why, of all the children, was Kyle the one?” (The Rescue, Sparks)

The story question is obvious. The reader knows that something stressful has happened to a child and will read further to find out what happened and to discover how the child fares.

I chose two story questions from The Rescue because the novel has two beginnings: a prologue, which sets the tone for the overall story, and a question from the first chapter, which introduces a main character.
Interestingly, Sparks, a nine-year bestselling author, breaks a couple of so-called rules for fiction writers in this, his first novel on the New York Times list: (1) Never write prologues, editors hate them, and (2) Story questions are statements, not usually presented in question form. Rules, then, are merely suggestions.

October—Iraq: “‘Ragheads dragged the driver out of the vehicle and took him away,’ the sergeant told the lieutenant, who was sitting in a Humvee.” (Stephen Coonts, political suspense)

Another prologue. The story question is something like, Who are the "ragheads,"  have they killed the driver, and will they kill the sergeant and the lieutenant?

“On the day of her eighteenth birthday, Laura was in love.” (Nora Roberts, romance)

This novel also begins with a prologue. The story questions are Will Laura remain in love? Is Laura’s love returned? Who is Laura's love interest?

Each of these story questions not only hook the reader’s attention, but offer substantive markers that hint at what’s to come. In Sparks’ example, a violent storm is making history in North Carolina. That’s probably enough to hook me to keep a reader reading, but he complicates matters by adding a woman driving a car in that dangerous storm, a young mom preoccupied with worry over her son who sleeps trustingly in the backseat. The other two examples are attention grabbers that present setting and background information in which the author roots for the characters.

Now practice writing your own story questions. Begin by searching your favorite novels for “hooks.” I recommend Reader’s Digest for both fiction and non-fiction writers; uou’ll find excellent examples of opening hooks. Ask questions as you read: How does the writer structure opening sentences and paragraphs?
What about ending paragraphs? Restate them in actual question format. Identify themes that touch on the human condition—themes that affect everyone, not just a few. How deeply into the chapter does the novel advance before answering story questions? Does the writer weave in additional story questions? Now it’s time to re-read your own manuscript, whether it be a novel, short story, article or memoir, and highlight those story questions. Remember that the bulk of writing is revising.


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