In the same vein as several previous articles, this week I’m going to discuss getting your draft manuscript (possibly the one you worked on for NaNoWriMo just past) ready for other eyes. This might be when you are self-editing, or getting the work ready for beta readers or a professional editor.
Stories are driven by questions – what if? why? how? where? WTF? If you, the author, raise a question, by the end of the story, it’s your responsibility to the reader’s expectations that you answer it. Maybe not completely, maybe just obliquely, maybe only in a satisfactory enough way for the moment. But you must answer it.
In some genres there are reader expectations about how some of these questions should be answered: end of a murder mystery, an explanation for the death must be shared. If it’s a poisoning, get those lab results. If it was self-inflicted, explaining how, if not necessarily why, is required. If the murder was done by a killer, that killer doesn’t necessarily need to be caught (if you’re writing a series) but they should be identified – or profiled – so that the reader knows vaguely “whodunit?” which is the central question of a mystery.
If you are writing a romance, there’s a central question you play with throughout the tensions of the story: “will they or won’t they get together?” as they face separately and together obstacles to their happiness as a pair. That’s why the only acceptable ending for a romance genre book is HEA (happily ever after) or HFN (happy for now). If there is not this sort of ending, you’re not writing a romance – calling it that is going to be breaking the unspoken contract you have with readers when they pick up a book marketed as romance. You may be writing general (or historical, or paranormal, or fantasy adventure) fiction with a strong romantic arc, but it should not be primarily marketed as a romance. Lead with the main story line’s genre and you’ll market to the readers expectations much better.
Checking your story
But back to loose ends… As you read through your manuscript, on a separate sheet of paper, write down all the questions your story raises – and the chapter/scene/page where you introduce them. Also note how many times you refer to the question, have the character fret (silently) about it or mention it.
If the question is raised early and often, it should definitely be one you have answered by the end. If the question is raised briefly, the answer to it can also be brief. Answers don’t have to be immediate, and can linger as an “irritation” or “fretting” for the character for some time.
Finally, note which chapter/scene/page contains the answer(s) – or partial answers. Also note if you repeatedly answer the question. Unless a character is psychologically wounded and carrying the question as their wound (read K.M. Weiland for more about this) – and constantly needs reassurance – then you should generally only need to answer the question once. Because the character will learn and grow and no longer need the question asked/answered.
Any question you wrote down as “raised” that does not have a corresponding answer, ask yourself when do you intend to answer it and how vital that question is to the central conflict of THIS story. If it IS vital, then it must be answered by the end of THIS book.
Character questions ARE reader questions. You should not be raising questions in your story that are solely for the reader’s benefit. You should always have a character who needs that question answered for themselves.