Monday, January 9, 2012

Driver Wanted

224 of 365- Driving home from Milwaukee.
Image courtesy: pahz

What drives a story forward?

My favorite books are moved by an unanswered question or series of questions. In The Poisonwood Bible, author Barbara Kingsolver tells the story from the point of view of five different characters: a mother and her four daughters. Early in the book, the mother is recalling their time in Africa (her husband is a Baptist missionary) and mourning the child she left behind, buried in red dust. The reader wants to know which daughter died, or perhaps, did the mother get pregnant with a fifth?

As the story continues, each of the four daughters is put into mortal danger. The reader knows one must perish. Who will it be? This construct excels at keeping the reader on the edge of their seat. Yet, as soon as I recognized the manipulation, it started to annoy me—a hazard, I suppose, of thinking too deeply about the inner workings of writing while reading.

Another book does something similar. Gail Godwin’s Unfinished Desires takes place in girl’s boarding school run by nuns. The former headmistress is charged with reciting the school’s history and she fears what to do about the ‘toxic year’ of 1951/1952. The reader knows something horrible is going to happen. Girls will be expelled, secrets will be revealed, and all who star in this troubled year will not be alive in the end.

In Heather Gudenkauf's The Weight of Silence, we are introduced to a young girl (age seven) who refuses to speak even though there is nothing physically wrong with her. What a great question. What would cause a child to go mute? Then you learn she’s having trouble controlling her bladder and is terrified of her abusive, beer-chugging father. Assumptions are made. Will they turn out correct? Or will there be a twist?

So this goes to the top of my 'to-do' list as I near to end of the first draft of my current manuscript. Which questions can I tantalize my readers with in the beginning that will cause them to stay up late to find the answers? Does your manuscript have these burning questions to push to plot forward?


  1. Good luck with your mansucript. Finishing that draft is a major milestone and one to celebrate! I use conflict to move the story forward as mine is an action adventure. Mixing elements of other genres also helps keep things fresh, unexpected, and moving forward.

  2. I didn't know much about these books, so thank you for this post!

  3. I'm putting the Barbara Kingsolver book on my library hold list right now! Good look with the writing!!

  4. I don't think I've tantalized my readers to that extreme. My books tend to be more of a personal journey.

  5. I'm putting some of these on my to-read list. Good luck with the question-making.

  6. These books sound interesting... definitely worth checking out esp. the Kingsolver one! Thanks for sharing!


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