by Janet Kobobel Grant
Some authors choose to write discussion questions that will appear at the back of a book or to be available on the writer’s website. Having written a slew of such questions and having been trained in writing curriculum, I have a few thoughts to offer that will enable you to write relevant questions that actually result in good discussions.
Why Write a Readers Guide
A couple of motivations occur to me that make writing a readers guide a good choice.
- The author wants to communicate that this book would make a great book club selection. Some books lend themselves well to being a book club choice. Most novels, for example, give club members plenty of fodder for discussion. Not all nonfiction would rank as viable for a book club–a denser, heavily footnoted title, for example. Or a humorous book on growing old. Ask yourself: What material exists in the book that would lead to a good conversation?
- As a way to drive readers to the author’s website. By offering discussion questions on a website rather than at the back of the book, the writer offers the questions as an added benefit. Bonus material is viewed as more valuable than material at the back of a book–but not as many readers will make the extra effort of traveling to a website. The benefit to the author is that the reader might discover more ways to connect with the writer–listen to a podcast; follow on social media; ask the writer to speak at a gathering; find out about other books by the author; sign up for the author’s newsletter.
Discussion Questions for Fiction
- Avoid questions that can be answered yes or no. Such questions don’t lead the responder anywhere but to a one-word answer. Ask expansive questions that the reader must ponder before answering.
For example, don’t remind the reader of the challenges the protagonist faced in the novel and then ask, “Did you sympathize with the character’s response to these conflicts?”
Instead, turn the question into an answer requiring more than a yes or no: “Which of the character’s responses were you most sympathetic with and why? Which were you most unsympathetic with and why?”
- Be careful to phrase your questions in such a way that the reader is forced back into the story to provide an answer.
If, say, your book includes an exploration of a mother abandoning her children, don’t ask a question that focuses solely on the issue: “Have you ever felt abandoned in some way by your mother?” This query doesn’t push the reader back into the story; you want the reader to interact with the issue as told in the story.
A better way to phrase the question would be, “When Jerusha left her children, which child handled the situation in the healthiest way possible? Which one made choices that were most damaging?”
- Ask open-ended questions that invite readers to express their overall impressions of the story. Lori Benton, in her Readers Guide for Many Sparrows, asks such a question: “The struggle over land between settlers and natives is a long one….What was the most interesting thing you learned about this pre-Revolutionary War period?”
Discussion Questions for Nonfiction
The same guidelines exist in nonfiction as in fiction, but the way to think about questions varies.
- Avoid yes or no questions for the same reason as in fiction–you want the reader to probe the book’s content to come up with a more thoughtful answer.
Joanna Weaver, in your Study Questions at the back of Having a Mary Spirit, asks, “Consider the ‘good dog/bad dog’ story on page 35. How do you feed the good dog in your life? How can you weaken the influence of the bad dog?”
- Make sure the questions push the reader back into the book rather than into discussing the book’s points with no reference to the book.
If you’re writing about a social justice issue, it can be easy to phrase questions to center on the reader’s experience or observations rather than to interact with the book’s content.
For example, the author could write, “In what ways have you encountered or witnessed someone encountering racial prejudice?” But the writer will push the reader back into the book by asking, “When you read about Rhonda’s encounter with the TSA employee, in what ways did she correctly perceived the subtle prejudices? In what ways might she have been hyper-sensitive?”
The Best Discusssion Question I’ve Ever Asked
- The final point for nonfiction questions is to ask open-ended questions to give readers space to explain their overall thoughts on the book.
I recently lead a discussion for the book club I belong to when we talked about Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky. I had found it to be a maddeningly wonderful–and terrible–reading experience. The structure struck me as a mess, and he kept circling back to repeat himself. On the other hand, oh, my word, salt has influenced so much of human history, it’s mind-boggingly interesting.
So one of the questions I asked the other book club members gave them room to express their thoughts and feelings about the book: “What did you like best about the book, and what did you like least?”
Boy, howdy, did they have opinions! That one question led us to laugh, cry, and even high-five each other. Best. Discussion. We’ve. Ever. Had.
What do you think makes for good discussion questions? Which of the “don’t-do-this” types of questions do you tend to fall into?
Avoid these errors in writing great discussion questions for your book. Click to tweet.
Writers: If you don’t know what makes for great book discussion questions, this blog post can help you. Click to tweet.