Questions Aren’t Always Feedback

A few years ago, I brought the first chapter of a new project to a writing conference. We’re talking brand-spankin’-new—as in, written less than a week before the conference, with a quick polish right before I printed out the reader copies.

I had no illusions that it was a masterpiece. But as I’d recently been heads-down in major revisions on another project, I was thrilled at the prospect of getting fresh feedback on something I wasn’t super invested in yet. I was ready and eager to get to work, gosh darn it!

But my takeaway from that conference was:
Not all questions have to be answered in the first chapter.

Well, duh, Cori, you might be thinking. And I knew that on a cerebral level, but that conference really put it into context for me.

The chapter opens with the main character, a 17-year-old boy named Taylor, getting dumped by his cheating jerk of a boyfriend. The breakup takes place the day Taylor is set to leave for his family’s annual summer vacation to the Outer Banks—a summer he now gets to spend wallowing in heartbreak. But the breakup is quickly forgotten when, at the end of the chapter, Taylor meets Sam, a cute girl he accidentally beans in the head with a soccer ball.

During the feedback session, I was bombarded with questions:

  1. Is Taylor bisexual?
  2. Does he already know he’s bi, or does his attraction to a girl take him by surprise?
  3. Is he out of the closet at school?
  4. Is he bullied at school for his sexuality?
  5. Do his parents know he’s bi?
  6. What was his coming out like?
  7. Are his parents accepting of his sexuality?
  8. Is Taylor planning to go to college on a soccer scholarship?
  9. I’m getting Cinderella vibes because of [x]. Is this a retelling?
  10. Are Taylor and Sam going to get together?

…so on, and so forth, until we ran out of time and moved on to the next attendee’s chapter. I left that session completely overwhelmed. How the heck am I going to answer all of these questions in the first chapter without bogging down the story with unnecessary detail?

Animated math equations superimposed over Winona Ryder looking confused at the SAG Awards
Source: Giphy

Well…I’m not.

Don’t get me wrong, the above are perfectly valid questions. But that’s all they are: questions.

It’s easy to mistake questions like the above as actionable feedback, whether they are received in a conference setting or otherwise. One could take the position that it’s vital all these questions are addressed immediately so it’s clear to the reader. Sure, maybe some of them. But I would argue that a writer should hope the reader has at least a few questions at the end of the first chapter, since wanting answers to those questions is what gets them to turn the page.

Writers, you have the entire manuscript with which to answer your readers’ questions. If the answers are important to the story, answer them when it makes the most sense to do so. You don’t need to answer them all upfront—you wouldn’t have much of a story if you did.

After all, “what happens next?” is the ultimate question. It’s our job to make sure the reader keeps asking it.