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The Story Question is Vital

October 15, 2016 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified October 15, 2016

In my interactions with writers, the topic of the story question has come up at least half a dozen times in the last few months. It’s a topic I haven’t addressed here at the blog, so this is obviously the time for a discussion of the subject.

The story question and story problem are major components of the foundation of your story. They get a story started, they give it focus, they guide characters and readers through story events, and they even declare when the story’s end has arrived.

The story problem is what gets your protagonist involved in the events that make up your book. A problem may be a murder or the kidnapping of the president’s daughter or the meeting of a new lover who may prove to be more than just a fling.

To solve the story problem, the protagonist has to fix something, find something, prevent something, do something.

The story question arises out of the problem. Will our character—let’s call her Abigail—find the murderer or the kidnapped child? Will Abigail fall in love with Donnell? Will Abigail prevent the overthrow of the government, find the treasure, find herself?

The story problem is the impetus behind story events; it drives your main character’s actions. Needing the answer to the story question is what keeps readers turning pages.

Story events and character thoughts and dialogue should be all about solving the story problem—from the characters’ point of view—and answering the story question—from the readers’ point of view. All the elements of the story should serve the story problem and question.

There’s little time for incidentals and rabbit trails.

Absent some direct connection, a chapter about slavery in Peru has no place in a science fiction novel about time travel to the twenty-fourth century. A treatise on the making of leather shoes doesn’t belong in a lighthearted romance.

Yes, some story events serve to reveal character and increase tension or conflict and may only tangentially seem to be “about” the plot, yet you’ll find that you can’t continually serve tangents to your readers. They’ll wonder what such events and details have to do with the story, with this story.

You’ve likely run into the problem yourself. You’re reading and suddenly wonder why the main character has stopped for a vacation in Greece. If nothing from the vacation has to do with the character resolving the story problem, you lose interest. The story has lost its focus and no matter how interesting the digression, if it doesn’t lead toward solving the story problem and answering the story question, it doesn’t have a place in the story.

This doesn’t mean that a story can’t have multiple story threads and a secondary plot. It does mean that the story as a whole needs to be cohesive and that each scene should be part of the mechanism that moves the main character closer to solving the story problem.

We need secondary characters to add comic relief or to help flesh out our main characters. And we certainly need to show our characters doing more than making a beeline toward solving the problem—major characters are not one-dimensional, with only one thought on their minds at all times. And yet stories don’t wander all over the map. Characters don’t—can’t—involve themselves in every issue under the sun. Major characters focus on solving the story problem, and readers focus on seeing how the story question is answered.

And writers have to make sure that both characters are readers are satisfied.

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As you write and especially as you rewrite, the story question should always be at the back of your mind. You may need to write it on a piece of paper and tape it to your computer monitor.

To get a better idea of what a story question looks like, let’s examine one.

For a modern romance with its expected happily ever after, the story question probably isn’t are Abigail and Donnell going to fall in love but how are Abigail and Donnell possibly going to find love when she’s a Democratic state senator and he’s a Republican policy wonk.

This question will help you write scenes and events that serve to highlight the couple’s differences while at the same time reminding you that you also need to write ways for them to overcome their differences in a believable way. You have to highlight the couple’s challenges as well as their victories.

Keep in mind that once the story question is established—either stated directly by a character or made clear so that it can be inferred by the reader—that question is a very big part of what’s going to keep readers reading. A compelling question has to be answered. And since the story question isn’t answered until the end of the story, readers will stay with your story—as long as you’re entertaining them—to see what happens.

This means that the story question must be asked fairly early. Having it in front of readers gets them involved. Reminding readers about the story question periodically keeps them not only turning pages but interested in the outcome. And when you put challenge after challenge between your main character and the solution to the story problem, the reader will continue to ask the story question, a detailed version of how is Abigail going to solve the problem.

 

Story-Question Specifics

•  Ask the story question early; it’s often introduced with the inciting incident. It’s at this moment that the main character commits to solving the problem, and this is the perfect time to make the story question clear.

•  In some stories and genres, the story question can be stated overtly, without subterfuge—Abigail wondered how the hell she was going to find the Weeping Star of Kasama [the world’s most famous emerald] before Zane did.

In other stories you may need to be oblique. In a literary novel, for example, or in a story in which the protagonist is searching for her lost self (a personality lost as she gave herself 24 hours a day to her family or job), you may not want a character or the narrator to baldly state the story question, even though you want the reader to ask it. So you might try something such as—Abigail read through each of the journals she’d kept through high school and college, the most recent written forty years ago. After a second read, she bought herself a couple of new notebooks, an expensive pen, and boldly wrote on the first page of one notebook Abby’s Life Today. When for two hours she  couldn’t think of anything more to add, she picked up her purse and her phone and marched out the door. In the car she turned off her GPS, exhaled a shaky sigh, and looked to the west.

For the first example, you’ll want the reader to ask something like this: Will (or how will) Abigail find the Weeping Star of Kasama before Zane does?

In the second example, you may want readers asking something like this question: Will Abby be able to discover her true self again?

You’ll need more information to set up both questions and you could add more details to your question, but by this point you’ll have shown the story problem and some details of the character’s life, all necessary to help frame the question. All giving readers hints about what the story question will be.

•  A great place to spell out the story question is at the end of the chapter in which you’ve included the inciting incident. The character’s statement of the question makes a great chapter-ending hook.

•  Scenes and events must address the story question and problem in some way. So a character does something at the beginning of a scene that she hopes will bring her closer to the solution to the problem, and the reader can see why the character would try such a tactic. You don’t have to tell readers right off why the character is doing something, of course; there can be some mystery. But characters should have reasons for what they do, and those reasons should have to do with solving the story problem. And readers should understand why a character does what he does

As I already mentioned, you’ll want to keep digressions to a minimum except when they serve the main story problem.

By the end of a scene, the character should be even farther from a solution to the story problem, and the reader should still be wondering how he or she will succeed.

•  Characters will be faced with multiple problems, but there is typically only one major story problem that moves the character from the opening to the ending.

•  We don’t change story problems midstory. So don’t set up one story problem at the beginning, have the protagonist solve it midstory, and then introduce an entirely different problem. Make your story problem big enough to last the entire story.

Once the reader’s main question is answered, the reader is done with that book.

•  Don’t drag the story on once the question is answered. Wrap up loose ends quickly and type the end. With nothing compelling them to read on, readers can quickly grow bored.

•  Be sure the story problem is solved by the end. Even books in a series have a story problem that must be solved by the final page of that book. Now, there may be a series problem that goes unanswered until the end of book 3, but each individual book must include a solution for its story problem and an answer for the story question in the reader’s mind.

Serials are different from series books. In a series, you have standalone stories which may or may not also be part of a bigger story. In a serial, there is no answer to the story question until the final installment.

Some readers love serials, others hate not being able to read the solution to the problem when they reach the final page. Be careful to provide an answer to a story question in each book of a series, and be careful to tell readers when you’re giving them not a book in a series but a serial instead.

•  You must know the story question. Devising a story question may be harder for pantsers than plotters, but it must be done. Maybe the pantser doesn’t know the  story question right away, but the sooner it’s known, the sooner he can write events and scenes that focus on that question and the story problem. Until you have a story question, you can’t include all the necessary story elements that will keep readers needing to read until the end. Without a story question, what will readers be asking themselves? Without an overarching question, the book may end up a series of related vignettes rather than one connected story.

Readers like to know what will happen to a character in a particular scene, but their main question has to do with the story as a whole: will Sam rescue the president, will Ellen prove she is innocent, how will Jamie get back to the Earth of 2017?

Don’t write a story thinking that the reader gets to devise his own story question; that doesn’t work. A story question isn’t like a theme that each reader can independently pull out of your fiction. Your events and the focus of every scene won’t match just any question, they will match one question. And you must craft your story to make this happen, to make all the parts work together.

•  The story question must be precise, not fuzzy or vague.

The story ends when the story question is answered, so you and the reader will need to know when the question has been answered. A vague question doesn’t lend itself to explicit answers. If the question asks how Abigail will find the emerald, once she finds it, the story is done. If the story question asks how her life would change if she found the emerald, you’d have to show how her life had changed, and when you do, then the story is over.

A vague question also won’t give readers that sense of needing to discover what happens, not the way a clear and precise question will.

And without a clear question, you will have trouble knowing what to include in your scenes, trouble knowing exactly what to focus on.

•  Make sure that the answer you provide at the end fits the question that you asked at the beginning. Remember too that you’re writing one cohesive story. That means that story problem, story question, events, focus, and story solution should all fit. The story problem, the story question, and your solution should all be of one piece, and you use story events and scenes and all the other fiction elements to link those three components from beginning to end.

•  Rewrite and edit to focus both the story question and the story elements that address it. Check scenes to determine how each one tackles the story question, how it keeps the question churning in the reader’s mind.

Remember that characters are trying to solve a problem while readers are reading to see the story question answered (among other reasons for reading). Scenes and events can move characters closer or farther away from a solution to their problem. At the same time, scenes and events will keep readers asking some version of the story question: now that Abby is in jail and Zane has the map, how is she going to find the emerald before he does? Now that Abigail has accused Donnell’s boss of graft, how will they fall in love? Since the police told Abigail to butt out of the case, how will she help her best friend get revenge on her husband’s murderer as she had promised to do?

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Check your works in progress for a story question. It’s likely that the story problem is clear, but make sure that the story question is posed early and in a way that captures the reader’s attention. Make sure that the question comes up in the reader’s mind fairly regularly throughout the story by reminding them of the question. Make sure that the question is clear and that the answer at the end actually addresses the question. And make sure that the question doesn’t change midstory.

Give your characters a problem worth solving and your readers a question worth asking.

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7 Responses to “The Story Question is Vital”

  1. MKB Graham says:

    Best example of this I’ve ever read is “Sarah’s Key” by de Rosnay. The question, “What happened to the little boy?” dominates the first half of the book. When that question is answered, the author presents another question, “What will happen to the unborn child?”

    • MKB, I haven’t read Sarah’s Key, so I’m not sure what the story question is, but I see from a quick search that the book contains parallel stories.

      All stories contain multiple questions, and yet even in parallel stories, there’s probably one main story question even if each section has its own question. From what I can tell, the overarching story question of Sarah’s Key might be some variation of how will Julia be changed as she learns about Sarah’s life.

      For the type of story this seems to be, “what will happen to the unborn child” doesn’t seem to be a sufficient story question. It’s a solid question and readers will likely be asking it, but it doesn’t speak to the story as a whole. And since the story seems to be about Julia, not her unborn baby—and not even mainly about Sarah—the story question likely revolves around Julia.

      Julia is so affected by Sarah’s story that she names her child Sarah. Julia is the one influenced and changed by story events, even those that took place 60 years earlier. I’d look for the story question to focus on Julia as the base.

      Again, it’s likely that in the plot thread featuring Sarah, the story question is what happened to the boy. If this had been Sarah’s story alone, that question would likely be the story question too. But there’s so much more to the story, and Julia’s life seems to be the focus of the main story. I suggest that the story question focuses on Julia and what happens to her.

  2. Shared at Just Can’t Help Writing with this comment:
    This article addresses what I find is the most pressing issue in developing a novel. It’s the one I come back to again and again, hoping I’ve made it work and struggling if I think I haven’t.

    In some ways, I think this article may distill the question down a bit more than I like; sometimes there’s a story question embedded in another story question, and both have to be answered. In Blood Lies, the obvious story question is whether Ted will find out who murdered Alejo. But the larger question that drives and even overrides this one is whether, in the process, Ted will become the man he needs to be to respect himself. So a corollary question to ask in working on story questions is whether the two (or more) questions serve each other. Does finding his best self help Ted find the murderer? Does finding the murderer help Ted find his best self?

    In any case, in many unpublished novels I read, it’s the story question that’s missing–or just isn’t compelling. So this article is an excellent primer on this central issue in fiction.

    Terrific discussion! Thanks!

    • Virginia, you brought up good points to consider.

      As I mentioned to MKB, there are multiple questions to be answered in every story. Some are considered character questions—will he do this, will she do that? Sometimes a story question can at the same time be a character question, but it doesn’t have to be.

      I also think that the story question can be related to genre or story style. In a plot-driven book, the story question is likely to be about what happens—does the protagonist accomplish X. In a literary novel or a character-driven story, the story question is likely to be closer to your second question—will (or how does) the protagonist become the man he needs to be to respect himself.

      Both types of questions come up in most stories because they relate to a character’s internal and external goals, and stories need both types of goals. Still, one story will highlight one goal over the other. And that means the story question will be slanted toward one goal and question over the other. That doesn’t mean that both questions aren’t answered, because they often are. It’s just that one type of story focuses on one goal and one type of story question rather than the other one.

      The writer should be framing story events, tone, and the storytelling style in a way that answers as well as fits the story question. So while there are multiple questions asked and answered in a story, only one story question drives every element. A story can’t successfully be two stories—I don’t mean for this to sound absolutist, because of course a story can have multiple facets and fulfill multiple goals—as we already said, a story deals with both internal and external goals of the main characters. But one story is ultimately one story, no matter how many characters or plot threads or questions it raises.

      To test which question actually drives a story, answer one of the questions well before the final page. Does the story stop at that point? Would readers care what happens afterwards? Try answering the other question early—what happens to the story then? Does it stop? Can one of the questions be answered before the end without bringing the story to a halt?

      If answering the question early doesn’t stop the story, that question probably isn’t the story question. And I’m guessing that in most plot-driven stories, a character might discover himself to be the man he needs to be to respect himself before the story concludes. That is, his determination to be a success or to step up to the plate could be realized well before the climax, before he discovers whether or not he succeeds at what he set out to do. He might come into his own at the story’s midpoint or at the dark moment. At any point where he doesn’t give up when he’s faced with yet another challenge, the character could become the man he’s always wanted to be. And if the story doesn’t end at that point, then the question about himself wasn’t the main story question.

      ————–
      I’m with you that some manuscripts are missing the story question. It’s necessary for both writers and readers.

      Thanks so much for your insights.

  3. Beth, can the story question be thought of as the point of the novel? What do you think?
    Thanks for sharing your writing knowledge with your followers. I’ve shared this post online.

  4. Two examples:

    1) ‘One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich’ – A. Solzhenitsyn
    2) ‘Solaris’ – S. Lem

    Neither has a story problem or story question. Both consist entirely of digression. Both are great novels.

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