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Award Winning

Sia Huff

hope and healing with heart

What Is A Story Question?

What's the purpose of your book? To entertain…yes…but that’s the whole picture with a wide angle lens. Change your lens and you’ll see your character… now bring it in closer…ahh… that’s their goal, motivation and conflict – good. Now focus the lens just on the top left hand corner of your masterpiece. Moving it down, past your character’s everyday world, past their change and there… there's where your story question should be.

A story question should be stated in the early stages of your manuscript. Jack Bickman explains in Scene and Structure, that goal and story question are interrelated (entwined). Your character must have a goal that the reader in turn will change into the story question.

The sooner you state the character’s goal, the quicker the reader will have the story question in their mind. They will continue to read seeking the answer to that story question.

Examples:

  • The Proposal – Will Margaret figure out a way to stay in the US and keep her job?
  • Independence Day – Will mankind survive an alien invasion against the human race?
  • Twister – Will Dorothy, Bill & Jo’s tornado warning system capture data to saves lives?
  • Pirates of the Caribbean – Who will get to the treasure first?
  • Guys and Dolls – Will Nathan Detroit find a secure place to have the floating crap game?

Please don’t get confused, the story question's the overall arcing goal of the story. Yet each of your characters will have personal goals as well.

In Pirates of the Caribbean, all the major characters want to find the treasure first but their reasons are different. Jack Sparrow’s real goal is to get back his ship, The Black Pearl. But first, he must avoid getting hung. Then he needs to find the treasure in order to find The Black Pearl. Will Turner’s goal is to save the fair Elizabeth. Her kidnappers are looking for the treasure and that’s where he hopes to intercept them. Captain Barbossa’s goal is to reverse the curse and become a human again. In order to reverse the curse, he must return the missing piece of gold and spill the blood of the descendant who took it (which Barbossa believes is Elizabeth).  Notice they are all interrelated, but none are for the obvious reason – to get rich.

So when do you answer the story question? The answer must be near the end of your book, at the climax or soon afterward. Once the question's answered the story's complete.

Return to the Examples:

  • The Proposal – Before for her wedding to Andrew takes place, Margaret confesses to the wedding guests of her deception & how she can’t use someone she’s come to care about. No marriage, so she’s unable to stay in the US. The story question's answered.
  • Independence Day – The black moment culminates with a final attack on the alien invaders after Steve (Will Smith) and David (Jeff Goldblum) deliver a virus to take out the alien’s shield. So mankind does survive.
  • Twister – Dorothy, placed the in path of a tornado is lifted and the sensors do their data gathering job – answering the story question.
  • Pirates of the Caribbean – Jack Sparrow, Will Turner & Captain Barbossa find the treasure all about the same time and then fight over it.
  • Guys and Dolls – During the climax Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando) & Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra) are on their knees shooting craps in the NYC sewer. So yes, Nathan does find a secure place for the gamblers and the story question's answered.

Be aware that genre and length of the book will determine how quickly the story question must be introduced. There's a huge difference in reader expectation between Fantasy & Futuristic and Short Contemporary. In the Fantasy & Futuristic genre, the reader expects world building which takes time and words, but in a Short Contemporary the author must get to the meat of her story quickly.

Your Turn:

Last and most important – try to define your story question and write it out. It should be a fairly simple question. Tape it to your computer monitor to remind you where your character needs to go or what they need to accomplish.

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