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On Storytelling Terminology: Questions (1 of 2)

At long last, I’m going to fulfill a promise made weeks ago. I’m going to teach you some storytelling terminology.

As I admitted to Joshua Unruh yesterday, I tend to work off a couple different writing glossaries that use some overlapping but non-identical terms. That means when I say “plot point” in one context it might not adhere to the same strict definition I’m using when I refer to the “Plot Point One” in a three-act narrative.

For this series, though, I’m working off the glossary we’re using in my Masters program — that’s the glossary I’m learning from Deborah Chester, much of which she learned from Jack Bickham.

I’m going to start today with a discussion of questions. Questions are the fuel that drive readers through a story, and as writers we need to manage those questions on every page of the manuscript. There are several kinds of questions, and each of them works in its own context and scale.


In storytelling terminology, “hooks” are questions that keep readers reading. Or, if we want to get really pedantic, “hooks” might be the situations that present those questions to the reader. Either way, this phrase should give a pretty clear indication what I meant about questions driving readers through the story.

From scene to scene, chapter to chapter, we always want to have the reader “hooked” on our story. That’s the point of having an incredibly compelling first line. That’s the point of cliffhanger endings. That’s much of the point of the whole scene-and-sequel setup.

Essentially, every question in a book can act as a hook. The biggest are usually, “What’s going to happen next?” and “How are they going to get out of this?” But a hook can be as simple as, “What’s with the creepy dude in the glasses?” As long as it keeps the reader turning pages to find out more, it’s an effective hook.

The problem with that definition of “hooks” is that it largely overlaps with my definition of “questions” (in the storytelling context). I’m going to talk about “plates” and “scene questions” and “story questions,” and in essence all of those do exactly what I just said hooks do.

So we refine the definition to make the phrase useful in its own context. In that more limited usage, “hooks” are the questions specifically used to bridge narrative gaps. In a TV show, it’s the big question raised right before throwing to commercial, or the cliff-hanger at the end of the season finale, meant to guarantee readers will come back in the fall to find out what happens.

In a novel, hooks are invaluable tools for closing chapters. A strong hook can tie up a scene and then hurl a reader right on into the (slower) sequel at the beginning of the next chapter and keep them reading until the next scene kicks into gear.

Hooks are also handy tools before point-of-view shifts. Let’s consider a hypothetical situation:

You’re writing an epic fantasy novel that follows a massive cast of characters as they meander through an extraordinarily convoluted plot that reaches across a whole continent. You’ve just finished four chapters following one of the protagonists–we’ll call him “Nat”–and now you’re going to switch to an important-but-less-interesting character who we’ll call “Berrin.”

Before you spend three chapters talking about…I dunno, local politics among some dirt farmers, you set up some big scary event for Nat. Show him preparing for a battle he can’t possibly win. And instead of telling the readers how it turns out, leave them with the question.

That can be an effective use of a hook. The reader will put up with your diversion because they want so badly to know what happens next.

It’s a tricky balance, though. If your hook is too strong (say, you went ahead and showed Nat leading that army into the hopeless fight before cutting away), your readers might skip on ahead in their desperate need to know more. Hitting just the right level of need requires a bit of a delicate touch, and that mostly comes from experience.


But, as I said, there are lots of ways to use questions to keep people reading. If hooks are the short-term questions that bridge readers across narrative gaps, “plates” are the medium-term questions that entertain readers within the narrative.

The term refers to a bizarre kind of juggling act you may have seen in clips from old variety shows or possibly as part of a circus act: spinning plates. From that wikipedia article:

Plate spinning is a circus manipulation art where a person spins plates, bowls and other flat objects on poles, without them falling off. Plate spinning relies on the gyroscopic effect, in the same way a top stays upright while spinning.

The challenge of it (and the part that makes it enough of a spectacle to merit a show) is to have lots of plates spinning. A juggler can get one plate spinning and rely on its gyroscopic effect to keep it up while he sets up three or four more.

Of course, eventually that effect is going to wear off and the first plate will start to wobble. A talented juggler knows just when that’s starting to happen and goes back to the first one to steady it with another little twitch, spinning it faster again and setting it right.

That’s a great metaphor for the role effective questions can play in a story. “Plates” are unresolved story issues that keep a reader interested. The trick is to get lots of them going, and to keep them all spinning until you’re ready to bring them down.

Some plates only last for a page. The question “Wait, who’s this guy?” might only need to keep someone reading down to the bottom of the page where “this guy” steps forward and introduces himself as the shady loan shark. Once that’s resolved, though, “How’s the protagonist going to pay off the loan shark?” might well become a plate that keeps the reader intrigued all the way through the story.

But the trick is to keep the plate spinning. There’s going to be so much going on in your story, that any one setup might get lost way back in the murky mists of Act I. A talented storyteller, just like a talented juggler, will know when to go back to an already-spinning plate and give it another little nudge.

Maybe the loan agent shows up again. Maybe the protagonist is looking through his wallet for a business card and comes across the loan slip. It doesn’t take much to get it going again, but that little comment can suddenly evoke a flood of questions and sympathetic concern in your readers that will keep them deeply engaged with the story.

Of course, the biggest questions don’t just drive your reader; they drive your protagonist, too. Those are the ones that describe the shape of the story’s plot: scene questions and story questions. Come back tomorrow and we’ll talk about those in detail.

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