By Janice Hardy
I’m working on a new novel, so I’ve been deep in the brainstorming and planning. In an effort to boost my productivity, I did something a little differently this time that could benefit other writers. I’ve added an extra “story clarification” line to my template. It’s a way to remind myself what I want my readers to wonder about in every scene that will make them want to read that scene—and turn the page to the next scene.
For you pantsers out there—this might not be a technique that fits your drafting process, but it would probably help in your revision process. It’s a handy way to double check if your story and plot are working to draw your reader into the novel.
I’m definitely Team Outliner, and like to have my plot worked out before I ever start writing. I used multiple templates at various stages of the process, and the final one is to summarize the entire book scene by scene. I usually write one or two paragraphs that cover what the scene is about and what happens in it.
At the end of those summaries, I’ve added this line:
Goal: x Motivation: x Conflict: x Stakes: x Hand-off: x
Although this might seem like the classic plot structure, I skew the focus toward readers. It’s not so much, “what’s the protagonist’s goal,” but, “what is the protagonist doing that will pique a reader’s curiosity?” What about the goal will cause my reader to wonder what happens next.
It’s also a good reminder of what I want for the scene and helps keep me focused on the “behind the scenes” aspects of storytelling. If I want readers to wonder why my protagonist is acting nervous, I’ll need to give her reasons to be nervous—and then show that nervousness in the scene.
Let’s take a closer look at how this works:
Goal: What’s the protagonist doing that readers will be interested in? I’ve found this slightly different perspective on the “what’s the goal?” question allows me to clarify why a reader would want to read about whatever my protagonist is doing. I ask myself, “Am I just stating the goal and the outcome is obvious, or am I leaving enough mystery to pique a reader’s curiosity?” If the outcome of the goal is predictable, there’s little for readers to wonder about—or care about—to want to read on. If I can’t say why they’d want to read this scene, I know it needs more thought.
Motivation: Why would readers care that the protagonist is doing this? The reasons behind an action are usually far more interesting to readers than the action itself. They love the characters and want to know what’s going on in their heads. I like to clarify what about the protagonist’s motivations will capture reader interest and empathy. Will they feel for this character? Will they want to see if she gets what she needs or wants? It’s an answer to that harsh, but useful question: “So what?”
Conflict: What’s keeping the problem interesting and unpredictable for readers? This goes hand in hand with the goal—now that I have readers curious about what the protagonist is trying to do, and they’re curious as to why, then I determine if the problem preventing that action is interesting. Since conflict is such a key factor in keeping readers hooked, I like to know that whatever I’m throwing at my protagonist is a challenge worth reading about. Will readers worry that the protagonist might fail or it is obvious she won’t? Will they want to see how the protagonist resolves this conflict? Are there any ethical or moral questions in the conflict that will make readers think? Should there be?
Stakes: What will make readers worry that the protagonist might fail? Consequences raise the tension, which makes everything feel more immediate and gripping. Seeing what could be the protagonist’s downfall, or what might cause trouble is more interesting than just knowing “if she fails she dies.” It’s like watching the killer sneak up on the unsuspecting victim versus the killer jumping out of nowhere with no warning. One creates worry and tension, the other does not. I also like to find ways to slip in consequences for an action even if the protagonist succeeds—how will this scene change things for the protagonist? What will readers worry about because of the events in this scene?
Hand-off: What’s going to make readers want to keep reading? This is the biggest helper of the bunch, because this leads directly to the next scene in a way that should make readers want to turn the page. I like to know what will trigger the next scene. What happens at the end of the scene that will create a goal or conflict to drive the plot forward? What will readers want to see happen, or fear might happen, or want to see the resolution to?
Some of these piece will be stronger than others in any given scene based on what the scene’s purpose is. A highly charged emotional scene will likely make readers wonder more about motivations or stakes, while an action-packed scene will probably have stronger goal or conflict questions. Not every scene needs to have a strong “reader wonder” in every aspect, but if the scene is missing a lot of them, that’s a red flag there’s trouble with the scene.
I’m still in the experimental stages with this, but so far, it’s working well. I’ve caught holes I know would have tripped me up during the first-draft stage, and I’ve been able to add compelling hooks for readers right from the start. I suspect this draft will be much easier to write since every scene is leading the reader forward on multiple levels.
It’s easy to get lost in the plot mechanics of a story and lose sight of why readers would care in the first place, but wondering, “what happens next?” is the biggest reason readers stick with us. They care about what’s going on in our stories and want to see if their guesses or assumptions are true. Reminding ourselves to write in that “reader wonder” from the start can save us a lot of revision time and help us craft cleaner, more compelling first drafts.
Do you think about what readers will wonder about? Do you plan for it or does it happen naturally?
Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of The Healing Wars trilogy, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. She's also the author of multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft. She lives in Central Florida with her husband, one yard zombie, two cats, and a very nervous freshwater eel. Find out more at Fiction University, where she shares advice to help writers improve their craft and navigate the crazy world of publishing.