How to Use Story Questions to Captivate Readers

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We’ve all had the experience of reading the first chapter of a book and saying to ourselves, “This is going to be good.” This is how I felt when listening to the first chapter of Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi for the first time.

What makes us feel this way? A magical amalgam of relatable and interesting characters, language that sings to the heart, and awakened curiosity draw us into a world that is not our own.

Although Adeyemi created an irresistible character in Zélie and her use of language is elegant and beautiful, I’d like to take a look at how she piques the reader’s curiosity by making the reader ask questions. I call these story questions, and they come in all sizes and strengths. The small ones will pull you from paragraph to paragraph and the big ones pull you right through the book.

Adeyemi opens her novel with “Pick me,” and immediately the questions begin flying through your mind. Who is this person that wants to be picked? What do they want to be picked for and why? These questions aren’t answered immediately. There is a slow revealing, always layered with more questions, about who Zélie is and why she wants to be picked.

By the end of the chapter, you have your answer, but you are left with the big underlying question of the book, the one that will carry you through the entirety of Zélie’s story… How in the world is this confident, passionate, feisty, and angry woman going to survive in the world she lives in?

I have always used story questions in my writing in one way or another. It is one of those things that most writers do without thinking about it, but now that I recognize them, I can use them intentionally. I am still learning and studying this topic, but here are some things I’ve observed so far.

  1. Do not answer the question too quickly. Allow the reader to lust after the answer even if it is just a paragraph or two.
  2. Especially in the first few pages, layer your questions and answers so that the reader is always being pulled forward and always wants to know more.
  3. One effective way to answer a question is to reveal the answer by showing, not telling. Adeyemi never actually says that Zélie wanted to be picked to fight. Instead Adeyemi shows Zélie clutching her staff, another girl spinning hers, mention of a ring, and finally, she shows the fight. The reader gets the satisfaction of discovering the answer for themselves.
  4. Finally, the reader’s curiosity can’t be sparked without the help of an interesting main character and solid writing.

I see story questions everywhere now, when I’m reading or listening to an audiobook, and when I am writing my own fiction. I wonder how I never noticed them before?

Let me know in the comments below anything you might have noticed about how writers use story questions or otherwise pique reader curiosity!

2 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Ooh I hadn’t thought about it quite like this before. But I can definitely see the questions littered all through my current read, The Water Cure. And my WIP is all about these! Thanks for making me see them intentionally… I wonder how that will change the way I approach!

    1. It has been enlightening for me! Especially when I think about how I answer the questions… I want to make it as satisfying for the reader as possible. I hope you see some positive changes in your own writing as well.

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