Don't Ask, Don't Tell

No, that’s not exactly what we’re talking about today. We’re talking about questions in a manuscript (lines literally ending in “?”) that slow pacing. Yes, questions slow down reading.

So here's my message to writers: stop asking.

Did you already know this? (Sorry, had to do it.) Questions cause readers to stall. It’s a natural response by the brain to switch gears when we are asked a question and start searching for an answer. The computer inside your noggin translates the question then flips through relevant files, even when there isn’t really a need to answer the question. Unfortunately, this brings the story to a halt, however brief.

Many genre writers, especially romance and thriller/suspense writers I’ve been reading lately, use questions in the course of their story in 2 places: dialogue and narrative.

BETTER TO SHOW THAN ASK IN NARRATIVE

When questions are used in the narrative (even if it's internal dialogue), they can help relay the characters confusion or the necessary motivation/conflict that is driving the character and/or situation.

For example (this is made up, of course): “....his chest armor was bulletproof, so which would I go for, the blade to the throat, or a club to the head?”

Silly, I know, but useful in exemplifying where one could simply show the scene playing out without all the internal squabble. When you truly put a reader in the scene, embed them in the action and in the throes of danger, and then just show the reader their options (blade or club)...they will be asking the question for the character. That’s the difference between showing and telling.

But let’s say that we must keep this internal squabbling for clarity. Then state it, don’t ask it: “.......his chest armor was bulletproof, so only two options remained: a blade to the throat, or a club to the head.” This keeps the story moving forward.

Don’t believe that questions stop a story? Here’s another example... You’re reading a story about a young boy. He gets on his bike and rolls down the driveway, turns into a lane, and races toward a stop sign. Which way will he turn? Worse, will he stop? And did dad fix his brakes?

The minute the questions began, the bike stopped moving. Often writers believe it creates more suspense or tension, but only rarely is this effective or necessary. There are other, better ways to achieve tension. Have him daydreaming. Show another vehicle approaching the intersection. The driver spills coffee. Then we will be asking the questions for the writer. That's what you want: the reader to ask the questions, not the manuscript.

FEWER QUESTIONS IN DIALOGUE MEANS LESS PROMPTING

The other place writers shouldn’t use so many questions is in dialogue.

When characters ask each other too many questions, it sounds like the writer is using the characters to prompt for storyline. “So, Barney, how did you become purple? Well, Ed, let me explain it to you...”

New Rule: don't let the reader see the seams of your novel.

I’m reading a thriller where the detectives are asking repeated questions. The constant questions make me feel like I’m reading a job application more than a thriller. First of all, most humans don’t work this way. Secondly, I don’t get much of a sense of these characters because they sound like mindless automatons. People typically remark/comment more than they ask/question. And detectives often bait their subjects without asking direct questions. This is more interesting, more suspenseful.

And remember this: asking is weak energy, whether it’s in narrative or dialogue. So if you have an alpha character, only have them ask questions when they are revealing their weakness or vulnerability. Then a question can be wildly effective.

So hunt and destroy, dear writers. Search for every “?” in your manuscript and see if you can change it into a statement or action. It’s a challenge, but typically a productive one.