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  • cherylhardacre

Writer, Throttle Your Reader

Updated: Feb 5, 2019


How to grab your reader by the throat with THE QUESTION. How to grab them at the start of your story so they cannot put it down and MUST get to its end. What do I mean by THE QUESTION? Read on if you dare (dare to be a better storyteller, that is).

Who lives here? Hell, I don't know. It’s a photo I took in France. But don't you want to know WHY I took the photo and who lives behind these walls? WHAT clicked on the light in the tiny, upper casement? WHO is hiding in the half dark behind that beautiful shuttered window? There’s a story here, you simply have to raise THE QUESTION in your reader's mind, you simply have to add mystery to WHO lives here and WHAT is going on behind this elegant, stuccoed facade.


Every good story has a great question hanging over it. A question that inspires

you to begin your reading quest (after all, this is two/ten/twenty hours of your

life that you won’t get back), a question that keeps you tantalised along the way,

a question that causes you to hunger for the finale.

Think about it. What drives you to the end of that book? It ain’t the pretty

description, the lyrical prose, or the fascinating character that drives you

towards the ending … it’s THE QUESTION. That big WHAT, WHERE, WHO, HOW

or WHY set up at the start of the tale that makes you want to keep going in order

to find out WHO did it, WHY it happened, WHERE your character is, HOW this

occurred, and WHY the story was told at all.

Why am I ranting about this? Because every satisfying story begins with a

question that grips its reader around the throat and has them gasping and

hungering, the whole journey long, for its answer: every satisfying story. This

question sits around THE HOOK, that striking incident at the first turning point

of your story that sends your lead character/s off on their journey. And it’s not

only thrillers or mysteries, the “who-done-its”, that begin with an overriding

question, EVERY satisfying story does, no matter how subtle that question is.

This was highlighted to me recently upon reading a book that was shortlisted for

the Booker Prize. Now I shan’t name the book (the author’s life is tough enough

without being dissed by other authors, besides “people in glass houses”), suffice it

to say that the book is very well written, extremely well-researched, it has

history and bloodshed and passion and some wonderful descriptive phrases but

…. but … I kept putting it down and not wanting to pick it up again.

Why, Why? I asked myself. What’s wrong with you? “Booker Prize Shortlist” there on the

cover, can’t you read? (I would ask this when once again, having tucked myself

up in bed and clicked on the bedside lamp, I was reluctant to pick up the book). I

had no hunger to finish it, I realised, because there was no question, nothing I

needed answered, so why go on? The lead character was interesting, but not

interesting enough that I wanted to read scene after scene, scenes that would

often jump into differing storylines, with no idea in which direction the story was

taking me. What was I seeking? Where is the story going? There was no clear

question-that-must-be-answered anywhere and I was not interested in joining

the author on random scene after random scene, I’m sorry, no matter how well

written those scenes may be. To begin with I had guilt about this realisation

because here was an accomplished writer and, being an author myself I

understand the agonising labour that goes into writing interesting scenes, but on

a positive note it was good learning. The question-that-must-be-answered is

critical to a captivating story: that was my learning.

This overriding question is what drives the through-line or plot, what gives the

story its backbone, what threads all the disparate pieces together (a bit like a

loose thread on your shirt that you pull and it quickly squishes all the fabric

tightly together in a way that you don’t want … except in a story you DO want).

And when you don’t have this question, you’ll find that what’s also missing is a

clearly defined story structure.

Now YOU may like your jelly tipped out from its mould far too runny, landing in an undefined blob on your plate (and likely slipping out over its sides) but hey, I like my jelly to hold its shape. I like to see the turrets of the castle, the pattern on the pineapple, the rabbit’s face; I like my jelly-from-a-mould to tell me what it is, to have structure and form. Same with a story: I want a structure and form that I can enjoy myself within. If a story is too unwieldy I will spend all of my time trying to mentally set the story boundaries the writer should have set, instead of relaxing and playing around inside this

terrifying/wondrous/magical zone.

Now am I going to get into plotting and story structure here? No way. Such a

complex and essential part of the story process this is, and possibly the most

difficult. (Well, for me it is. Write a scene? Yes, in a flash. Develop a complex

character? Done. Formulate the plotting and story structure? Oh god, ask a

certain Frenchman what living with me through that is like. I was glad to hear

that even Dickens had his yelling, cursing, slammed-door tantrums.)

But don’t despair. You are not me, and I am not me … well not the slamming-door

me once I get myself back on track … and that means referring once more to

those with the know-how. So if you’re new to this, or an old hand who’s still

struggling with plot and storyline, then get reading. Below find listed several

books on plotting and story structure but research well beyond this; there are many

good books out there. Be discerning and ensure respected people in the industry

endorse the book before buying it (the website of your national authors’ union or

professional body can be a good starting point).

And remember that question. There should be an overriding question in your story, set up at the very start, that your reader wants answered, a question that invites them to stay involved and hunger for the finale, for the denouement, that lovely French word

that means a coming together of all the elements. And don’t kid yourself that your writing is so beautiful your reader won’t need that drive, that they’ll simply want to linger on each page, and that will be enough to keep them with you until the very end; unless you’re Maya Angelou, Garcia Marquez or Shakespeare that belief is a load of steaming, aromatic bull-crap. (Not convinced? Read STORY by the brilliant McKee to quickly have that illusion quickly smashed.)

So read up on plotting and story structure… that is, learn your craft … and put in

place very early on THAT OVERRIDING QUESTION that will make your reader

eager to enter your world and hungry to stay alongside you on the tantalising,

thrilling, agonising or moving journey that you’ve created for them.

~ Cheryl

Good Books on Plotting and Story Structure:

STORY by Robert McKee, in my opinion (and in the opinion of many others) the

seminal book on story structure. McKee focuses on scripts, but the same

elements apply to the structure and plotting of a book.

BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott, a warm, amusing and soulful book on story

structure and the writer’s life.

First Draft in 30 Days by Karen Wiesner


Story Building by Karen Wiesner

ON WRITING by Stephen King


PLOT AND STRUCTURE by James Scott Bell


© All TEXT and PHOTOS Copyright CHERYL HARDACRE 2019

For more writing tips and book/art/France & Italy bits go to:

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