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My beta readers are family and friends - people who read a lot, but do not write. They are people whose opinion I trust, and who are genuinely trying to be helpful. (And I haven't found a writing group.)

Here's the problem: sometimes the critique I get is: "I understand the character's motivations, but I don't really connect, don't know why." Or, "something's off, can't really put my finger on what".

How can I help my beta readers figure out what it is that doesn't work for them? What kind of questions can I ask them, to help me understand what's wrong with my story?

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I'd try some of these:

Do you feel the character is a 'real person?' If not, would you say the problem might be down to language, their behavior, inconsistency, contradiction between description and action, or anything like these?

Do you feel any instances in the writing of what you might call 'authorial intrusion?' (Where you think I am talking, instead of the book?)

Is the setting description sufficient--not too much and not too little?

Is the pacing OK--not too slow or not too fast?

Does the language match the overall story and its intent?

When did you want to stop reading?

Another thing you might try is to ask for their favorite and least favorite scene, character, idea, turn of phrase, and so on.

Were there any portions where the writing disappeared and you were simply 'in the story?

^^ If they can identify where things work and where things don't work, even if they don't know why, you might be able to work backwards.

Did you feel that the prose had a directionality to it (a focus, a point, a route it was following), or did it feel unfocused and all over the place?

Some of these might get at a few issues that many unpublished novels suffer from.


But... FWIW... my main suggestion is to look side-by-side between your writing and your favorite author.

And there are books like "How not to write a novel" that are great for identifying rookie issues.

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I recognize that it's difficult to ask your beta readers to be more specific, because you already feeling in debt to them. After all they're doing you a favour. I'll mention a few points:

(Critical) Awareness

What you'd want is to make them more aware before reading. If they are avid readers, they are probably sensible enough to notice mistakes or problems, but they need to be in the right mind set to do that.

Generally, if I'm reading something for my own pleasure, I tend to skip over the nitty-gritty details and when I'm finished I do have only general impressions. When I'm reading something with the goal of giving feedback, I tend to be more alert.

So, you could tell them something of the like:

"I really need feedback on this one, so feel free to tell me anything you stumble upon"

"I'm not sure about the main character, can you read and tell me if it works?"

"So, here's the last chapter. Can you tell me if it flows nicely? Also don't be afraid to tell me if it's too boring to read."

What you would be really doing with this questions is leading them to focus on specific issues. It's efficiency may vary, since there's no guarantee that they will remember what you asked when they'll start reading, but it's worth a shot.

On the other hand, the raw feedback that you are receiving right now is important too, since it mimicks the mindset that a general audience would have.

Seek Writers

As I stated in the sentence above: raw feedback from a "reader" point of view is really important. So, what you may want is to add to your beta-readers some writer. Writers are more in the "editing loop" and will be used to get in a more analytical mindset when reading.

I know, you just mentioned that you don't have a writing group yet, but it's not too late to find one. You could, alternatively, find some writer up to the task.

Ask for clarification

DPT already gave good examples of this. Basically, you want to have some follow-up questions ready. When a vague feedback comes in, you want to ask the why&what questions (without appearing defensive or confrontational, of course).

I understand the character's motivations, but I don't really connect, don't know why.

"I see, maybe its the character personality?"

"Was it boring following a character you couldn't connect with?"

"Do you think it's a matter of personal tastes, or there's something wrong with the novel?"

or, in the other example:

something's off, can't really put my finger on what

"Ah, I'm sorry. I hope it wasn't boring/slow/uninteresting to read."

"Hm, I see. Do you think it may be a problem of pacing?"

"Hm, I see. Do you find the narration a bit off?"

So basically you would be trying to make them be more specific. Chances are that someone will be able to answer. More well-inclined readers will be willing to go back on their steps and finding what gave them that impression. Some others won't be able to give reasons behind their gut feelings, but that is what gut feelings are, by definition.

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    @Galastel I know that writing can be very personal, but if you're writing in English I could help with the lack of feedbacks. Just gimme a call. – Liquid - Reinstate Monica Jun 4 '19 at 13:07

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