In the previous post, Can You Write a Novel Without Knowing the Story Question, we talked about what the story question is and why it’s important. You’ll recall that I said it is possible to write a story without knowing the story question at first and that I knew that from personal experience.
But I also said it’s better to have a clear idea of what the story question is before you start writing or shortly into the writing process. For one thing, you’ll know your story is finished when the question has been answered.
So how do you find the story question?
1. What does your character want more than anything?
Remember Joe and his weekly hamburger fetish from a previous post (read about Joe here)? The story question for that little yarn was does Joe get his weekly hamburger? It doesn’t sound like much, but eating a big, juicy hamburger once a week is such a staple of Joe’s life that he’s willing to endure all manner of hardship to get it (which raises the question of characterization, but that’s a discussion for another day).
If your lead character doesn’t want anything that badly, stop writing right now and take time to figure this out. This is important because if all your character is doing is going through life one day at a time, with no special quest, you do not have a story. I repeat:
At least you don’t have one anyone will stick with for very long.
To find the story question, ask yourself these questions.
- What does my lead character want badly enough to go to the ends of the earth for?
- What is keeping my lead from getting or having that thing?
- What happens if my lead succeeds? (How will it change his or her life?)
- What happens if my lead fails? (What will be the cost?)
Remember, the desire for that thing or accomplishment must be strong enough to keep the character going forward against all odds. The time you spend figuring that out now will be time well spent.
But what if this tip leads you nowhere? Here’s another way to look at your character and your story that might help get you headed in the right direction.
2. What unforeseen situation turns your character’s world upside down?
Let’s say your lead character is living life one day at a time. Going through the motions, maybe. Disinterested and disengaged. That’s an okay place to start, but don’t leave him or her there.
A few ideas to get the thought train started are a natural disaster, getting fired, being relocated, a new relationship, the dissolution of a relationship, a death, or an injury. Start with that list and add to it.
When looking for the unforeseen, it’s helpful to have a good working understanding of your character. Not every event will upend every character’s life. While being fired might be catastrophic for some, it might be a blessing to others.
Now ask yourself how your lead character is going to react to this upheaval.
- Does he or she want to get back to normal (whatever that is)?
- Does he or she find ways to make the most of the upheaval?
Those two questions will define the story question. Your story will either be about how Joe gets back to the way things were or how Josephine finds a way to make her new reality work. Either one is a great story question.
The story question will (or should be) as unique as the lead character. Take time to consider as many possibilities as you can think of. When coming up with ideas, don’t discard anything out of hand. I like to make lists and have often spent a couple of days thinking of possible story questions. Only when I get to the end of that list do I begin discarding the lame, ridiculous, or silly.
So what does your lead character want or what upheaval is about to turn everything upside down?