This is a guest post by Jed Herne, author of the forthcoming novel, The Aeon Academy.
Suspense: a state or condition of mental uncertainty or excitement, as in awaiting a decision or outcome, accompanied by apprehension or anxiety.
The desire to know the answers to riddles or mysteries will keep many readers hooked. Let’s look at how a question arc captivates readers in Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince.
What are Question Arcs?
When readers have a question and are waiting for the answer, you have a question arc.
Question arcs run from when the question is first raised to when it is fully answered.
One question that propels the plot in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is: What is Draco Malfoy’s mission?
This question arc begins on page 37 (Bloomsbury Children’s Paperback Edition, published 2006) in chapter 2. It concludes 511 pages later on page 548 in chapter 27. Thus, it lasts 85% of the book’s length.
All up, readers are reminded of the question arc 36 times (through internal dialogue, conversation, narrative events, etc.). The below chart shows each reminder’s location in the book:
|Total of 36 Reminders of this Question Arc|
|37||Chapter 2: Spinner's End||Question raised for Reader|
|122||Chapter 6: Draco's Detour||Question raised for main characters|
|123||Chapter 7: The Slug Club|
|134||Chapter 7: The Slug Club|
|146||Chapter 7: The Slug Club|
|221||Chapter 11: Hermoine's Helping Hand|
|236||Chapter 12: Silver and Opals||Cursed Necklace|
|244||Chapter 13: The Secret Riddle|
|275||Chapter 14: Felix Felicis|
|287||Chapter 15: The Unbreakable Vow|
|302||Chapter 15: The Unbreakable Vow||Harry overhears Snape and Draco|
|308||Chapter 16: A Very Frosty Christmas|
|310||Chapter 16: A Very Frosty Christmas|
|330||Chapter 17: A Sluggish Memory|
|335||Chapter 17: A Sluggish Memory|
|359||Chapter 18: Birthday Surprises|
|364||Chapter 18: Birthday Surprises||Draco argues with Crabbe and Goyle|
|379||Chapter 19 :Elf Tails|
|381||Chapter 19: Elf Tails||Hagrid says Snape and Dumbledore have argued|
|383||Chapter 19: Elf Tails|
|386||Chapter 19: Elf Tails|
|391||Chapter 19: Elf Tails|
|394||Chapter 19: Elf Tails||Harry gets elves to follow Malfoy|
|400||Chapter 20: Lord Voldemort's Request|
|423||Chapter 21: The Unknowable Room|
|424||Chapter 21: The Unknowable Room||Dobby says Malfoy is using the Room of Requirements|
|428||Chapter 21: The Unknowable Room|
|435||Chapter 21: The Unknowable Room|
|439||Chapter 22: After the Burial|
|483||Chapter 24: Sectumsempra|
|487||Chapter 24: Sectumsempra|
|489||Chapter 24: Sectumsempra||Harry and Malfoy duel in bathroom|
|506||Chapter 25: The Seer Overheard||Malfoy succesful in task|
|513||Chapter 25: The Seer Overheard|
|515||Chapter 25: The Seer Overheard||Harry gets Dumbledore's Army to defend Hogwarts before leaving|
|548||Chapter 19: The Lightning-Struck Tower||Question arc resolved|
Notice that these 36 reminders aren’t evenly spaced.
There are barely five in the first third of the novel.
Why? Well, for one, minor plotlines and secondary question arcs propel readers through the first bit of the novel.
Also, reader curiosity and excitement is at a high at the start, especially when they’ve been waiting months for the book.
After the initial burst of excitement, readers want the story to go somewhere. Rowling delivers with a cluster of four reminders around the 20-24% mark.
This affirms the importance of this question arc, suggesting it will form the story’s backbone.
How Rowling used a Question Arc to Avoid a Soggy Middle
Many novels suffer from soggy middles, with plot stagnation a key cause. By cramming a whopping fourteen reminders (38% of the total) between pages 300-400 (only 16% of the book’s length), Rowling makes sure the suspense stays at a high, avoiding reader letdown.
What’s more, four of these reminders are key points – events which twist the plot, morph the question arc and/or raise the suspense.
- Harry overhears Snape interrogating Draco about his mission. This raises the suspense and twists the question arc as both characters are acting unusually: “What had happened to make Malfoy speak to Snape like this, Snape, towards whom he had always shown respect, even liking?” (Ch. 15, p. 302).
- Harry discovers Malfoy has fallen out with his best friends over his mission: “‘Look, it’s none of your business what I’m doing, Crabbe, you and Goyle just do as you’re told and keep a lookout!’” (Ch. 18, p. 359). This raises the stakes by increasing the secrecy of Malfoy’s mission – if he won’t even tell his friends, Harry knows it’s bad news.
- Hagrid reveals Snape and Dumbledore argued: “‘Dumbledore told him flat out he’d agreed to do it and that was all there was to it … he said summat abou’ Snape makin’ investigations in his house.’” (Ch. 19, p. 380). This reminds readers of Draco’s mission (which Snape pledged to assist) and raises the stakes by showing Dumbledore distrusts Snape, despite insisting otherwise to Harry.
- Harry gets Dobby and Kreacher to follow Malfoy. “‘I want to know where he’s going, who he’s meeting and what he’s doing.’” (Ch. 19, p. 395). This event is particularly effective in increasing reader engagement by indicating that some elements of the question arc will soon be resolved. As readers have high anticipation of this partial resolution, suspense increases.
There are two more clumps of question arc reminders in the last 30% of the novel. Since readers are sure they will discover what is Malfoy’s mission before the novel’s end, anticipation and suspense is at a high as readers race towards the climax.
What We Can Learn from the Question Arcs in Half-Blood Prince
Here are some takeaways to apply in our own novels, based on the above research.
- Use at least one “long” question arc running during the first 80-90% of the novel to sustain interest. Don’t give readers the answer on a silver platter– make them work for it! The last 10-20% should be where the question arcs are resolved.
- Vary your question arcs. They don’t all have to be life-threatening or relationship-destroying. Throw in lighter arcs to break up tension. Chuck in short, chapter-length question arcs to vary the pace. Spread a low-consequence question arc over the course of the novel.For example, in Half-Blood, romantic question arcs (will Harry get with Ginny? Will Ron and Hermione become more than friends?) provide welcome relief from the darkness of Voldemort’s rise.
- Alternate your major question arcs with more relaxing scenes. Along with heart-pounding, page turning suspense, there should be periods of humor and low tension, where the desire to know the answers is put on the backseat – but not thrown from the car.In Half-Blood, the trip to Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes gives readers a break from worrying about the question arc. Light-hearted scenes also throw darker scenes into greater contrast.
- Have credible reasons for withholding a question arc’s resolution. Readers might get peeved if a character takes 300 pages to reveal a non-consequential answer.
- Pack most of your question arc reminders (35-40%) into your novel’s middle to avoid sagging. When readers reach the middle, they should be totally immersed in the plot, with plenty of questions but not many answers.
- Drip feed clues; don’t drown them in deluge. Gradually revealing answers will keep readers intrigued. By having readers and characters slowly grow aware of what’s happening, suspense increases and the stakes are raised.
- Aim for every one in four reminders to morph the question arc, raise the price of failure or twist the plot. For example, in Half-Blood, 9 of 36 reminders did this (Cursed Necklace injures Katie; Harry overhears Snape & Draco; Draco argues with Crabbe & Goyle; Hagrid says Snape & Dumbledore have argued; Harry gets elves to follow Malfoy; Dobby says Malfoy is using the Room of Requirement; Harry and Malfoy duel in bathroom; Malfoy successful in Task; Harry gets D.A. to defend Hogwarts before leaving). To work out roughly how many question arc reminders you need, write down all your key plot points and multiply this number by four.
Why it Works
Ensuring readers have questions/worries/concerns throughout the novel creates suspense: a state or condition of mental uncertainty or excitement, as in awaiting a decision or outcome, accompanied by apprehension or anxiety.
In other words, anticipation creates suspense, and writers achieve this through question arcs.
Make sure there are plenty of things for readers to wonder and worry about by not answering their questions upfront. Instead, drip feed clues to ensure story involvement.
Done right, strategically-placed reminders will enhance suspense and emotionally captivate your audience.
A big thanks to Jed Herne for stopping by!