Your Novel’s “Big Question”

I think the biggest thing that makes readers keep reading is….

Mystery.

No, it doesn’t mean you have to write a “who-done-it,” but the best novels start out with a “Big Question” that the rest of the novel must answer. Here are a few examples:

Pride and Prejudice: Can Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters make “good matches” despite their family circumstances?

The Lord of the Rings: Will Frodo and company destroy the ring of power?

Great Expectations: Will Pip’s expectations about life and love be met?

A Christmas Carol: Can Scrooge avoid Marley’s fate and learn true generosity for others?

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Some stories start with a smaller, temporary question so the writer can get far enough into the story for the “Big Question.” For example, in Divergent, the first question is “What faction will Beatrice choose?” The Big Question is  “Can Tris survive being Divergent?” but until we know that she is Divergent, we have the first question to keep us reading.

Star Wars uses this structure, too. We have the first question “Will the droids make it off the ship?” followed by “Will the droids survive the desert?” followed by “Will Luke ever make it off Tatooine?” But overall, the Big Question is “Can Leia, Luke, and the rebellion beat Darth Vader and the Death Star?” and the minor questions are there to keep us interested as the pieces of the Big Question fall into place.

Even episodic books with a much more wandering narrative structure have a Big Question.

Little Women:  How will the four sisters grow and change during their father’s absence?

Pickwick Papers: What adventures will Pickwick and his friends have as they tour England?

Regardless of genre, if you don’t have a “Big Question,” you won’t know when your novel is done. The Big Question always dictates the rest of the structure, because it’s what the story is about (and, conveniently, it’s what would go into a story synopsis).

Readers want to keep reading, not just because the characters are interesting or relatable, or the dialogue is good, or the plot interesting, but because they want the answer to the Big Question. They want to know what happens as pertains to that question, and if you wander too far away from that question, they’re bound to start getting impatient.

Writers for television shows know this, and they frequently use it where romances are concerned. They raise the question “Will these two characters get together?” and then spend a whole season (or longer) answering it, hoping that viewers will hang in there for the answer.

Without a Big Question, we really just have a chronicle of unconnected events, with no indication as to why we started where we did and when the story will be over. It becomes like some a diary (or a string of Facebook statuses or Tweets), where there is a record of events, but no unanswered question pushing us forward. The Big Question is what keeps us turning pages, wanting the resolution at the end (and if the book doesn’t resolve the Big Question, as with The Lord of the Rings, it’d better supply some level of resolution so that we at least feel like we’re getting somewhere).

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This is part of what separates a novel from “real life.” Our daily lives are unfiltered, with no particular, unanswered question in mind, so mundane activities get mixed in with exciting, monumental moments. Romance and office work, dishes and disasters get pieced together in a patchwork that creates a rather wandering, disjointed narrative (not something that usually sells).

But sometimes, authors can’t find the Big Question in their novel, buried beneath the little incidents and plot points that they’ve come to expect and love. It’s why Beta readers and editors can be so helpful as they help us pare away the parts that have nothing to do with the story…which just means, they don’t help answer the Big Question. 🙂

The Big Question sends readers on a hunt for clues and suggestions of where the story will go. Without it, we’re left on a road trip with no road map or destination…and the landscape gets looking pretty bleak and boring in a hurry.

Copyright 2016 Andrea Lundgren

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