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.
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:
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.
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.