The Key Question by Fay Sampson

A Guest Blog from Fay Sampson. Fay is the author of numerous books for both adults and children. She has been shortlisted three times for the Guardian Children’s Book award, and is winner of the Barco de Vapor award for The Watch on Patterick Fell. More recently she has been writing Crime Novels, like the Suzie Fezwings series, with a genealogical or historical interest. She also writes non-fiction books on historical themes.

I belong to a writers’ group at which we regularly try out our work-in-progress on each other. It includes one excellent friend and critic who has twice stopped me dead in my tracks with the comment: “So what?”

That goes straight to the heart of what makes a piece of work a page-turner. Everything needs to be there for a reason.

There is some fine literary writing where the joy of the language is enough to make you want more. That can be true, too, of less literary authors, like P.G.Wodehouse. Fans devour his books for the comic style, not for the plot.

But with the majority of novels it is the plot which drives the book. And the surest way to around curiosity is the unanswered question.

Every novel needs a key question, raised early on, to which the rest of the book is the answer. Classic examples are: Whodunit? Will she marry him? Can they save the planet from annihilation?

Ideally, curiosity should be aroused on the first page. The full details of the key question won’t be laid out just yet, but we should feel the first stirrings that will make the reader want to turn the page.

From then on, every chapter should contribute, first to elucidating the question, and then to answering it. The answer won’t be arrived at easily. There will be steps forward, helpful characters to meet, initial successes. But if the plot is any good there will also be antagonists and setbacks, soemtimes disaster. There can be unexpected twists and subplots, but everything in the book must ultimately be tied in to that one main question. Never let the reader lose sight of it. It’s up to you to sustain that curiosity which will keep them turning the pages from beginning to end. So ask yourself at the end of every scene: So what? What did that have to do with the question I posed at the beginning? Did it further the plot? Is it just a piece of self-indulgent writing that I need to delete?

. I have a theory that all children’s stories can be summed up in seven words: Something goes wrong; it is put right. Adult novels, of course, can be more subtle: Something goes wrong; it is put right – or not. Even at the end, the question doesn’t have to be fully answered and all the loose strands neatly knotted up. Life is not always like that. The answer to your question may be: Maybe. A problem may be overcome, a success achieved, but there may still be a bigger question which remains unresolved. Your first volume could be only part of a larger story.

What matters is that, even if the characters don’t necessarily live happily ever after, the reader should be left with the sense of a fitting conclusion. The situation is not as it was in the beginning. Following the key question has got us somewhere. Nothing that the reader has read should be felt to be a wasted experience. It should all prove to be ultimately to do with the question you have posed at the start. A satisfying novel is one in which every part is finally seen as contributing to a single whole

Keep focussed. Make sure you know at the outset what the key question of your novel is. Never let your readers lose sight of it. And lead up to a satisfying answer, even if it is partial and open-ended.

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  • Accordionist

    Many thanks – a valuable reminder, always ask the question.

  • Alanboy

    I appreciate your advice, too. The “So what” question sems to me to be a vital one, and enables you to cut out anything that is padding.