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Your Novel’s All-Important Lead—Begin With Questions

There is no Ah-ha moment without its unnamed counterpart, which elicits such phrases as—What?, What the?, What the heck?, or simply Huh?

While a good novel might deliver several Ah-ha moments, every novel consists of a chain of head-scratching huhs. Narrative depends on the Huh? moment as its writer plots cause and effect scenes that prompt the reader to ask, What will happen next? Suspense, tension, even pacing, derive their oomph from the lag between questions raised and the strategic unfolding of answers.

And some writers capitalize on this mechanism from the onset.

This is the saddest story I have ever heard. We had known the Ashburnhams for nine seasons of the town of Nauheim with an extreme intimacy—or, rather, with an acquaintanceship as loose and easy and yet as close as a good glove’s with your hand. My wife and I knew Captain and Mrs. Ashburnham as well as it was possible to know anybody, and yet, in another sense, we knew nothing at all about them. This is, I believe, a state of things only possible with English people of whom, till today, when I sit down to puzzle out what I know of this sad affair, I knew nothing whatever. Six months ago I had never been to England, and, certainly, I had never sounded the depths of an English heart. I had known the shallows.

Thus begins Ford Madox Ford’s novel, The Good Soldier, with Huh? overlapping Huh? What is the saddest story the narrator has ever heard? Who is the narrator? Why had he and his wife spent nine season in the town Nauheim with Captain and Mrs. Ashburnham? How is it that he has known the English couple with extreme intimacy—and not at all? How has he known them for nine years and known nothing about the English? Did he hear the story, as he claims, or might he have witnessed it? Is he involved in the events that took place? Perhaps the story has implications for him and his statement reflects more than empathy.

In so short a paragraph Ford Madox Ford has readers mystified. No doubt they read the second paragraph. Across various lists naming the 100 Best Novels of the Twentieth Century, The Good Soldier, published in 1915, ranks in the top third.

Chuck Wendig—

“You ever turn the television on and find a show you’ve never seen before but you catch like, 30 seconds of it and suddenly you’re hunkering down and watching the thing like you’re a long-time viewer? It’s the question that hooks you. ‘Wait, is Gary the secret father of Juniper’s baby? What does the symbol of the winged armadillo mean? WHO SHOT BOBO’S PONY?’ It’s mystery that grabs you. It’s the big swoop of the question mark that hooks you around the throat and forces you to sit. While action needs context, mystery doesn’t—in fact, one of mystery’s strengths is that it demands the reader wait for context.”

To create curiosity, a writer poses a question, inviting the reader to turn the page. In the process of discovery, a new question presents itself, and the movement continues.

Where now? Who now? When now? —The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. —David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

Of course, the question needn’t be literal.

I woke up this morning with a stranger in my bed.  The head of blond hair beside me was decidedly not my husband’s. I did not know whether to be shocked or amused.  —Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier

The reader is hooked. How could the woman not know she was sleeping with a stranger—nor how to react to such a realization?

Call me Ishmael. —Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Why does this character introduce himself with a pseudonym of biblical proportion?

The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen. The sun low in the sky, a minor light, a cooling star. Gust after gust of disorder. Trees restless, temperatures falling… of things coming to an end. No children in the yards here. Shadows lengthened on yellowing zoysia. Red oaks and pin oaks and swamp white oaks rained acorns on houses with no mortgage. Storm windows shuddered in the empty bedrooms. And the drone and hiccup of a clothes dryer, the nasal contention of a leaf blower, the ripening of local apples in a paper bag, the smell of the gasoline with which Alfred Lambert had cleaned the paintbrush from his morning painting of the wicker love seat. … An ominous storm was developing somewhere. …And the stuff you plan, the stuff you simply assume is the plan, is never the stuff that happens. —The Corrections: A Novel by Jonathan Franzen

My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973. —The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

Once an angry man dragged his father along the ground through his own orchard. “Stop!” cried the groaning old man at last, “Stop! I did not drag my father beyond this tree.” —The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein

124 was spiteful. —Beloved by Toni Morrison

Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu. —Waiting by Ha Jin

I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story. —Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. —City of Glass by Paul Auster

Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person. —Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive….”  And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?” — Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

Francis Marion Tarwater’s uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up. —The Violent Bear it Away by Flannery O’Connor

In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street. —Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson

Make the first line an attention-grabber, and let details of your plot and setting wait for the next few paragraphs. You’ll have a great start on your novel.

Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist