5 Questions Your Readers Shouldn’t Have To Ask
You need to get readers asking questions to hook them into your story, but you don't want them asking the wrong questions or being so confused that they stop reading altogether. Many authors choose to withhold basic information from the reader in an effort to pique their curiosity, but this doesn't work. So, although the intention is good, it’s the execution that isn’t quite working.
What I mean by this is that you do need to get readers asking questions, but you need to get them asking specific questions about things that matter. Only then will they read forward to get the answers they seek. So, to avoid creating a story full of false suspense, here are 5 questions your readers should never have to ask—and how to give them the proper amount of context so they don't have to ask these questions.
5 Questions Your Readers Shouldn’t Have To Ask
1. Who is this person?
Readers should understand who the point of view character is in every single scene as soon as possible. If readers don’t know who they’re reading about, they won’t be able to engage in what’s happening to that person.
Now, this doesn’t mean you have to spell out every character’s age, physical description, and entire backstory right away, but readers do need to know who they’re reading about at any given moment.
So, make sure the POV character is crystal clear at the start of each new scene—and at the start of your story. And then in terms of a character’s appearance and backstory, in some stories, you can get away without ever mentioning a thing about your character’s appearance. But most readers like a few hints about what the character looks like, especially if it’s relevant to the story.
That being said, it’s always a good idea to look for some kind of character hook to help flesh them out (and to keep them clear) in readers’ mind. This could be his occupation, a prominent personality trait, a defining action, or anything like that.
And then in terms of backstory you’ll just want to make sure you’re only giving readers what’s relevant in the present moment. So, readers don’t need a whole download about everything that has happened to your character up until this point, but they do need just enough to understand what’s happening in any given scene or moment.
So, that’s the first thing readers should never have to ask at any point in your novel—they should never have to ask who the POV character is. That should always be crystal clear.
2. Where is this scene taking place?
The second thing readers should never have to ask is, "Where is this scene taking place? How much time has passed?" So, at any given time, readers should know where and when they are in the story. Is the scene they’re reading taking place immediately after the previous scene? Or has the location changed? Also how much time has passed since the previous scene (or since we were last in this character’s perspective)? Is it right after the previous scene or is it now five months later?
Whatever the case, you’ll want to make the time and location clear as soon as possible in every scene–ideally in the first paragraph of every scene.
This is important because the goal of fiction is to keep readers immersed in a story. And when readers don’t have the context they need, they disengage from what’s happening in the story and get pulled back into their own reality.
You'll also want to consider your overarching timeline. If you have a ticking clock element or a story where dates and times matter, be aware of this and make sure to communicate it to your readers as soon as possible.
So, that’s the second thing a reader should never have to ask—they should never have to wonder where and when the scene is taking place.
3. Who is the character interacting with?
The third thing a reader should never have to ask is, "Who is the POV character interacting with?" If other characters are present in a scene, give readers a little help by naming them. Don’t leave it vague, sticking with pronouns only. Pronouns don’t give readers much to work with—especially the first time they’re introduced to a character, whether that’s in a scene or in the bigger story.
I read drafts where writers rely on pronouns too much when a new character is introduced. For example, imagine a protagonist is walking through a crowd and “she spots him, walking towards her.” There is zero context for who the guy in this scenario is, and because of that, readers don’t know how to feel. Should we be worried for the main character? Should we feel excited? Something else?
With few exceptions, readers should know everything the narrating character does. Unless the other characters in the scene are strangers to the protagonist, you'll want to fill readers in on how the narrator knows these people and what she’s doing with them in this scene. Again, this doesn’t mean you need to include a ton of backstory or context, but my point is that it shouldn’t be something readers are confused about.
So, that's the third thing a reader should never have to ask—they should never have to wonder who else is in the scene or who your character is interacting with at any given time.
4. What’s the point of this?
The fourth question a reader should never have to ask is, "What's the point of this?!"
In every scene, reader should understand what that point of view character is trying to accomplish. This is what drives your scene! This is what gives birth to the concrete questions you want readers to be asking throughout each scene and throughout your overarching story.
If you’ve structured your scenes correctly, your POV character will have made a choice in the previous scene that resulted in the consequences they now must act on. So, you might already know your character’s initial scene goal based on the work you did in the previous scene.
There are caveats to this, like let’s say a lot of time has passed, but for the most part, you should be following the same central thread from scene to scene.
Now, sometimes a character’s goal and motivation are obvious. For example, let’s say in the last scene, a character is trying to escape a crime scene unnoticed, but someone sees them and pursues them on foot. In the next scene, it might be obvious that their goal is to escape whoever is pursuing them.
But other times, it’s not as obvious, and you’ll need to make it clear for the reader.
Either way, you’ll want to make sure their initial scene goal is explicitly put on the page within the first few paragraphs of a new scene so that the reader knows what to care about. And then you’ll want to make sure they have enough agency to actually go after their goals. If readers don’t have this information, it will be hard for them to feel fully immersed and engaged in a story.
So, that's the fourth thing a reader should never have to ask—they should never wonder what the point of something is or feel like they're reading something that has no point.
5. Why should I care about this?
And finally, the last question a reader should never have to ask is, "Why should I care?"
This is KEY when it comes to engaging readers and getting them to keep turning the page. You need to give readers a reason to care about finding out what happens to your characters—and ou’ll do this is by making sure your character has a goal (like we just talked about) as well as something to lose or gain if they succeed or fail in accomplishing that goal.
In other words, there must be concrete stakes in your overarching story and in each one of your scenes. Whether those stakes create curiosity about how something will turn out, or more of an emotional investment like concern or sympathy, you have to supply readers a personal reason to care about finding out what’s going to happen.
Ideally, each scene in your story should present your character with two options that both carry equal weight.
For a really easy example, consider being given a choice between going to Disneyland or Knotts Berry Farm—they’re both theme parks and they both have their advantages and disadvantages. And imagine you only have the time and/or budget to go to one before they close, and you like both equally. The stakes in this equation are that by choosing one theme park to visit, you’re giving up the chance to visit the other. So, you win because you get to visit one, but you lose because you don’t get to visit the other.
I know that was kind of a simple example, but consider how something like this can play out in each scene in your story.
And to take it a step further, imagine if the choice between theme parks was rooted in a character’s emotional journey. For example, if this is the last chance to visit Disneyland… And if Disneyland was the last place you saw your dad who abandoned you when you were five… A trip to Disneyland might represent something a lot more significant than just choosing a theme park, right? But on the flip side, going to Knotts Berry Farm could be easier on one hand—because you don’t have to face your past… But harder in the long run because you’re not facing a significant moment in your past.
So, anyway, readers need to have a reason to care about what’s happening. And to give them one, you need to make sure your character has a concrete goal and concrete stakes within each scene and within your overarching story. Readers should never have to wonder why they should care about something happening in any given scene.
If you’ve satisfactorily given readers the answers to these five questions (without info dumping!) at the beginning of each scene, you’ll allow the reader to feel fully immersed in your story. And in doing so, you'll give readers the freedom to focus on the questions that really matter without creating false suspense.