Welcome back to our ongoing series about things to ask your Beta readers. Check out last week’s post, questions about characterization.
This week, we delve into the nuts and bolts of your book – the plot, the conflicts, and the structure. I’m focusing on this in order of what is most essential for a story. Good characters can carry a bad story better than anything else, and poorly handled characters will kill an otherwise good story like a knife to a heart. If you survive the character challenge, however, the next thing that will choke your story to death is if it falls apart in the analysis.
What’s interesting about these kinds of structural things is, if you do them well, the reader won’t notice them. Outside of the most hardcore bookworms, most people don’t praise a book for having good pacing, or a well-drawn conflict. Plot is really the only thing that most people will talk and care about. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t notice them. Think of the structural stuff like the CGI in a movie – if it’s well done, you’ll completely overlook it. If it’s poorly done, it will be painfully obvious. And if it’s amazingly done, it will draw attention for all the right reasons
Let’s get to the questions you’ll want to ask.
What were any consistencies you noticed?
This is a broad question that covers a lot, and you’ll definitely want to plan some follow-up questions to make sure you hit all the angles it has to offer.
First of all is checking to make sure things besides characters were consistent throughout. Did the reader have a good sense of where things were and what was going on in them? Were there breaks in the internal consistency of your novel, or did it all hold together well? This will also cover plot holes, although you might want to read this post to decide when it’s actually important.
The next thing to check is if the things you meant to have consistent were, in fact, consistent. Did you have a symbol you wanted the reader to notice through repetition? This is where you check for that. Same goes for motifs or themes (which we’ll cover more later.) Were they noticeable enough?
Finally…this is also where you find out if you had repeated phrases or ‘ticks’ that were distracting or annoying. This one is easiest to explain with examples. When I was first starting off as a writer, I tended to have people quirk their eyebrows all the time. Surprised? Quirk an eyebrow. Curious? Quirk an eyebrow. Annoyed? Quirk an eyebrow. Flirty? Quirk that thing! Confused? How else do you express that besides quirking your damn eyebrow?
It could get that bad. I once had, in a room with five characters having a conversation, every single one quirk their eyebrow at least once.
I fixed that particular tick years ago but developed a new one that my editor had to point out to me. In the first draft of Strange Cosmology, I had a habit of my characters only emoting through either their eyes or through smiling. Sometimes, occasionally, foreheads. I almost never utilized body posture, breathing patterns, or hand gestures. It’s something I’m working on currently, and it’s helping my characters feel even more human and organic.
What is the primary conflict of the book?
And after that complicated question, we’re moving onto a fairly straightforward one. Like the protagonist and antagonist question from last time, this one should be obvious to you. Odds are good you already know exactly what you have in mind for your primary conflict. However, that doesn’t mean the reader knows.
Let’s pick an example from a movie that just so happens to give me an excuse to use my favorite gif. What was the primary conflict on Spider-Man 3?
Was it Spider-Man vs Sandman? It can’t be that, because he spent the second act of the movie pretty much gone. Was it Spider-Man vs Venom? You’d think so, but Venom wasn’t actually a character until act three – and Venom becoming a character in act three meant that Spider-Man’s internal conflict with the symbiot definitely wasn’t the primary conflict, because it gets resolved before the climax. Also, Harry was an antagonist in that movie, although it made no damn sense and was just a mess even by Spider-Man 3’s standards.
If a beta-reader had been asked that question, they could have pointed out that the movie was a disaster in this regard. The movie should have picked one of those to be the primary conflict, then relegated the others to secondary or tertiary conflicts. This question will help you make sure you didn’t create a Spider-Man 3.
No one wants to create a Spider-Man 3.
What would you call the climax of the book?
You might start picking up another trend here. These questions are a bit like what you might have answered in English class, and that’s not accidental. Your reader should be able to break it down like a classroom assignment because anything they can’t answer is something you need to revisit.
This is especially true of the climax.
If your climax isn’t easy to spot, it doesn’t have the impact it needs. Perhaps it’s because you don’t have a clear primary conflict, or perhaps the climax doesn’t hit the way it should. Maybe you need to make the resolution clearer or ensure it has a solid impact. Or perhaps the problem isn’t in the climax itself.
If the reader points to the wrong thing as the climax, or can’t identify it, ask probing questions to find where you went wrong. Is it in the climax itself? Did you not build up to it properly?
That latter one is a common problem even among famous and talented authors. For example, I love Brandon Sanderson’s books. However, they sometimes have…problems in the climax. My personal favorite example is for Elantris. I’ve talked about this before, but Brandon Sanderson spent the entire book building up an interesting political conflict and an intriguing mystery. Then, right at the climax we are introduced to…well, I don’t want to spoil, so imagine that season 8 of Game of Thrones had ended with a sudden attack by Xenomorphs, and the climactic battle had been Drogon vs. the Xenomorphs. That’s how out of the blue it felt.
Although admittedly, that would have been rad as hell.
Also, I got through that entire segment without making a joke about climaxes. I just wanted to get proper recognition for that.
What were the themes of the book?
It’s a bit of writing wisdom that revision is where you develop the themes. That’s very true, but when you’re writing a book themes tend to begin to emerge organically, especially in the early drafts. Unless you’re actively avoiding putting in themes, you’re going to have some part of your story develop them – and even if you were, they probably still arose.
For an example I’ve cited before, J.R.R. Tolkien famously said that he “disliked allegory in all its forms.” Yet so many people have pointed out that there is a clear theme of naturalism vs industrialization, especially in The Two Towers.
This is where you check your themes. If you put some in deliberately, it’s good to know that they can be identified. You’ll still want to strengthen them in the revision process, but if you were writing a dystopia where the evil government controls its citizens through hypnotic cat videos, and you’re trying to make a point about how much time we spend online, it’d be good to know that you’d laid the groundwork properly.
On the other hands, if you weren’t trying to introduce any particular theme, it’s good to know what themes you were letting into your novel accidentally. Maybe those are the themes you want to develop in revisions to expand and give more depth too. Maybe, on the other hand, you’re accidentally including a theme you didn’t mean. For example…well, the Star Wars prequels are a fertile ground for bad writing decisions.
I don’t think George Lucas is racist. I don’t think he meant to code Jar Jar Binks as an offensive minstrel character straight out of the 1920’s, Watto as a flying greedy Jewish caricature, and the Trade Federation as a hodge-podge of Asian stereotypes. I’m sure that was not his intention.
And yet, this is where he would have found out that he’d actually done that, and thus created the accidental theme that other races are stupid or dangerous.
Which segues nicely into the last question you should ask your Beta Readers…
Was there anything that really bothered or offended you?
Never, ever skip this question. It’s vital to know if there’s something offensive in your books. For me personally, you know who I want to read every single one of my early drafts? A woman. Why? Because I’m a male, and I’ve read enough twitter threads about male authors writing women and how often it goes wrong. I don’t want to be that guy. If I’ve got male gaze going on, I want to know about it, and this question is where I could find out.
Now, I’m not saying that something bothering someone or offending them means you should delete it or change it. These days, it’s very difficult to avoid offending someone. If you really want to see how hard it is, go to the review section of any major book and look for the one star reviews.
You’ll start seeing some that are offended in some way or another. Some people get offended because a book has too much swearing. Some get offended because it has any kind of sex scene. You’ll see people who take horrific offense to anything that depicts – even in a negative light – violence against children or animals. There will be people offended by too much violence. And if your book does none of those things, there will be people who are offended you’re ‘playing it safe.’
Once you know where your book is offensive, if anywhere, you can make a decision about if you are going to leave it in or take it out. No matter what you find here, the important thing is to discuss it and be aware of it – you need to know what is offensive so you don’t do it accidentally. It should always be a conscious choice.
And once you know about it, you have to decide if you’re going to keep it. I’ve talked about this before, but in more vague terms. Let’s get blunt this time – In Weird Theology, my editor and I fought about two things. One was how much Enki swore, and one was about Crystal and Ryan having sex. Both parts bothered her. We really went back and forth about those two bits. By the time we were done, I realized she was absolutely right about removing Enki’s verbal tick of dropping the word ‘fuck’ at least once a sentence, but I stood by and stand by the fade-to-black sex scene – although I did agree that it needed the rewrites it got to work better.
The point is, you are the author. You have decisions to make. Ultimately, it is your work.
Just don’t let this one become something that happens by accident.
Come back in the future, where we will go over the last critical questions you ask your beta readers – how immersive your story is.
Any you’d like to add in this category? Tired of me using the Spider-Man 3 gif? For the first one, let me know in the comments below! For the second, all I have to say to that is…