Between myself and my students, I've had to think about confusion quite a bit.
We all know that feeling of being drawn through a story because we have to know. Of course, when I started writing with the serious intention of sharing my work with readers, I wanted to provide that same experience. Thus, I withheld key information any chance I could. I threw in rabbit trails and detours and mysterious floating orbs.
"What is that?" my characters would ask.
Someone else would raise an intriguing eyebrow. "We'll have to find out!"
It didn't take my critique group long to point out that no one wants to read a kichen-sink novel. No one wants to be confused, or overwhelmed, or worse, finish a whole book to find the question they thought was important isn't even answered. The trouble was, if I didn't toss in mysteries whenever they popped to mind, I had no other strategy for building suspense. At the time, this problem was intensely frustrating... almost to the point of making me give up writing. Now, I'm absolutely grateful for the struggle. I can completely relate to my students when they face similar problems. Also, I have a hard-won strategy that transforms confusion into page-turning suspense.
I call it the Question Map. It's one of the most helpful tools in my writing AND my teaching tool-kit.
When I draft, I let my subconscious play without worrying whether I'm setting up rabbit trails or not. Like many of my students, part of the joy of writing for me is being my own first reader. I love those moments that surprise me and make me wonder ... what's that? What might happen there? While I do use a loose storyboard as a plot, I make room for any small mysteries that show up to hang around and add layers and richness to the overall narrative.
As I draft, I refine my loose plot on a storyboard. If mysteries have shown up that seem important enough to shift my plans, I remove, add or change scenes. For me, the first draft is a discovery process.
3. Question Mapping
Once my first draft is done, I read through the story. As I read, I note key questions in the margin. I make sure to note when they are raised, and when they are resolved. If my story is particularly complex, I might use color to visualize the number of lingering questions at any given time. In this way, I can gain a suspense map of my story.
- How many questions are introduced in chapter one?
- How many questions pile up on top of one another?
- Have I overwhelmed or confused my reader?
- Are they reading to find answers to mundane questions that aren't important to the overall plot?
- Do I ever answer the immediate, burning question and then leave the reader without any suspense for too long?
My rule of thumb is to allow up to two major story questions to linger, plus up to two scene or chapter questions. I also pay attention to how the major story questions shift. As the story progresses, the unfolding information should help readers build theories and refine their questions. I know the suspense in my story works when my question map shows a series of evolving questions that each build to a climax before providing an answer. Along with each answer comes at least one new question ... until the book's resolution. Plus, I look for some wild-card questions and answers along the way, to keep things interesting.
I used to treat suspense with caution, as though if I paid it too much attention, I'd ruin it. Now, suspense is an area of my writing craft over which I intentionally exercise control. Even so, I feel as though I'm always discovering something new about suspense, and that's part of what makes writing such a delight. There's no end to the learning process.