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.
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Inveterate pantser here, but I got a lot out of this! I do my 'planning' (which is mostly daydreaming about the character, and her problems) before I start - and this will stay anchored firmly in my brain!
Oh good, I'm glad! I always worry about my pantser friends when I talk about outlines and templates 🙂 I want you guys to benefit, too.
Thank you for your great suggestions. I'm doing my third rewrite of my first novel, and will use your suggestions to assess my scenes.
Most welcome. I hope it helps make your rewrite easier!
Another pantser (actually, the "new" term I've heard from some Big Name Authors is "organic") here, and I do pretty much what you've outlined above as I write each scene. I do have an overall plan (I call myself a "Planster") although it's very loose. As the book progresses and I know more about where things are going, your questions definitely drive each scene. I recall Deb Dixon's GMC workshop from years ago. "Give your protagonist choices, but make sure they're choices between "it sucks" and "it's suckier."
I use to hear organic a lot a number of years ago, but it did seem to vanish for a bit. Nice to hear it's returning, as it does sum up the process well. I like Plantser! A nice mix of the two extremes.
Great quote. I need to get that framed and hang it over my writing desk.
Definitely prefer the term 'organic' to pantser which I loath (perhaps it's the Brit in me) and that's how I shall describe myself in future! Thanks for that, Terry.
These are great comments. I'm pretty much a pantster but always have goals in mind - like character arc, the logline, and final, "What do I want to convey?" I always think of leaving a suggestion or question in the reader's minds after every chapter, but your suggestions are very helpful, especially since I write mainly YA historical fiction. I have an editor who keeps me focused on what a Young Adult would be interested in. What will keep her/him turning the pages, not just the facts.
I can certainly see this being valuable for a YA historical writer. As you mentioned, half the book is about the history, but the other half is full of YA emotions. Maintaining that balance would be much tougher than either alone.
Pantster here, although I thought I knew where I was going as I wrote. Ha! But, this is exactly where I have been struggling in revision. Critique partners almost universally said, "Great writing, but where's the story?" Also reading "The Emotional Craft of Fiction" by Donald Maass. He focuses on the reader's experience.
It really is all about the story. What's going to keep someone reading? I'm already seeing such a difference in my outline by thinking about that in the planning stages.
Pantser with suspenders here. I can't plot the first draft but I'm a neurotic organizer when it comes to revisions. 🙂
Great tips, Janice!!!
More pantsers! I'm seriously outnumbered here today, LOL. Actually, I hear a lot of pantsers say they do some form of outlining or planing during revisions, which makes sense. Once you have the story down, then you can work with it and make it better.
Thank you for this! This makes so much sense to me!
Most welcome, I'm glad it helped 🙂
I love the idea of the reader focus. You always have ideas that make me evaluate and improve my process. Thanks, Janice!
My pleasure 🙂 I'm always evaluating my own process, so I'm constantly finding new things to share!
I'm doing revisions right now and this is AWESOME. Such a big help for those moments when I'm feeling overwhelmed, Janice!
Oh good! Revisions are so much easier when taken one step at a time. Trying to think about it all at once is too much sometimes.
It's too much for me A LOT of the time. I detest revisions.
Ohhhh ... see, and I LOVE revisions. 🙂
I love them, too. I finally have the story down and now I can really dig in there and make it shine.
Excellent--I'm going to use this.
Hope it works as well for you as it has for me!
I love the emphasis on the reader. I am deep in the midst of my second novel and my critique group, AKA as my first readers, are teaching me a lot about how readers react to what I've written -- and what I should do to reach them. It has certainly made me think differently about my characters (much as I love 'em). Your questions are really making me think. Thanks
Most welcome. It's so good to have real readers, as opposed to writers who beta read. We writers just think differently. We know too much about the process.
Nice little technique for checking your work. And anything that focuses on the reader can't be bad.Thanks.
Excellent post today. Got me thinking about my current WIP.
I am a pantser, but this sounds a lot like the way I think while I'm writing. In my novel RED FLAGS, the protagonist's goal is to win an Olympic gold medal. But there is so much more going on. Eventually, she has to choose between the original goal and a different goal that was unthinkable when she started out on her journey.
I like that--the unthinkable goal.
makes a lot of sense, thanks!
Most welcome 🙂
As usual, a blog to keep and remember. Thanks, Janice. Add one more layer to every scene!!
Thanks! My scene summaries are so layered they look like cakes!
Wow, this is a "just in time" post for me as I'm struggling to outline my sequel novel. I've been a classic pantser in the past, but feel it may be time to try something new, to have a road map going forward. This is just the element that was missing from my outlines and I believe is the key to good plotting no matter one's technique. Thanks. I'm printing this out, studying, and making sure I can answer each point. THANKS.
Oh good, I love when the right post finds the right writer when they need it 🙂 Hope it works well for you in your new planning endeavor!
Great tips... ☺
A great post - lots of food for thought - I shall add the column to my analysis spread sheet at an early stage in the rewrite!
Thanks! I hope it works well for you
Thank you Janice - a timely article for me. I'm going to use this idea with the revision I'm currently struggling with. A fresh look at what I'm doing should give my story a good workout. Cheers, Wendy
Great! I can see this working well for revisions, too. Best of luck on yours!
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Janice, I love your lines for making sure you take care of the reader issues along the way. This would have saved me so much revision time! Of four completed books, I've only done a brief outline for one of them. I'm like Laura, I've got most of the book in my head before I start writing, but there's enough that comes out in the typing to make the whole process interesting. After spending lots of time revising and learning much more about structure, my next book may end up with a hybrid pantser/plotter style. I'll note that certain things need to happen, even though I may not know at the time what they'll be. Thanks for another enlightening post!
Thanks so much! That mix works for me, so I hope you have equal luck. I like to know where I'm going, but I don't always need to know how I get there.
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