Can you write a novel without knowing the story question?
The short answer is, “yes”. I’ve done it.
The interesting fact is that it’s not as difficult to do as you might guess. Point of fact, it’s almost too easy. Anyone who has done NaNoWriMo without a plan knows it first hand!
Decide on your characters.
Decide where they are and what they’re doing.
Decide what happens to them.
Write about it.
Decide what happens next and to whom.
Write about it.
Repeat until you have the right number of words and a reasonable conclusion.
But it’s just like going on a road trip and making a course decision every time you come to an intersection. You may end up someplace nice. You may end up in a swamp!
What Is Story Question?
When most of us travel, we don’t set out just to see where we end up. Even when my husband and I go on day trips in which we decide on the route as we go, we have a general idea of direction and destination. Sometimes it’s very general, but there is one.
The same is true for writing. It’s easier to write a novel if you have a destination in mind when you begin. The destination for a story is the story question.
The reason story question is so important is that it’s the thing that motivates your lead character to engage in the story. It jars him out of his daily routine and into the action.
Without it, he’s just a normal guy.
With it, he’s a hero.
Finding Story Question
So how do you figure out what the basic story question is? Ask yourself one ultra simple question:
What does your lead character want badly enough to leave his or her normal life for?
It doesn’t need to be a big thing. In fact, it could seem quite mundane to a lot of other people. All that’s important is that it’s important to your lead character.
A Few Personal Examples
I always have plenty of story ideas milling around in the back of my mind. It’s my biggest blessing as a writer. I don’t know a lot about most of the lead characters in that crowd, but I do know what some of them want.
A middle-aged widow wants to paint the picture her late husband always encouraged her to paint.
One smart aleck twenty-something wants to leave behind the mess he’s made of his life and start over.
One thirty-something once-redeemed ne’er-do-well is looking for purpose after life as he’s known it crashes and burns.
One late-middle-age guy is trying to forget the betrayal of a best friend and the loss of the company he built from the ground up.
I could go on, but I think that’s enough to show you what a character’s story question might be. Each one of those could be rephrased into a story question.
How can a middle-aged widow overcome personal and emotional challenges to create the painting her late husband always encouraged her to paint?
Can a man who has spent all his life taking advantage of others rehabilitate his life?
A successful professional loses everything and is left homeless and penniless. How does he recover?
When a corporate titan is betrayed by a friend and loses his company, can he start over again?
These are not the same thing as a single-sentence summary. A single-sentence summary is a more concise and complete description of the story. It contains a unique character, an interesting goal, and an obstacle.
These sentences could be revised into single-sentence summaries, but that’s not what they are.
Nor do they serve the same purpose.
But they spring from a common source. The one thing your character wants badly enough to risk everything for.
The story question is what drives the lead character to do things that set him up for the story.
What does your lead character wants badly enough to go to all lengths to get?