What is Story Question?
Every writing craft book or blog, on the chapter of Act I, teaches us about the importance of introducing the protagonist and other characters, establishing the story world—so the reader cares for the protagonist, and, last but not least, pin down the Plot Goal—what the protagonist wants to achieve. However, not many speak about the substantial element of an appealing story, which story dies or lives by it: Story Question or Dramatic Question.
When for the first time I read about the Story Question on a blog, I was sure my manuscripts had Story Questions. I took a pencil and a printed copy of one of my manuscripts that seemed fine. In the margin of the manuscript, I wrote question after question. None of them was the Story Question! I had to confess to myself that the manuscript had no solid Story Question because I had not planned for it!
My biggest mistake was that I had confused “what happens next?” and the Story Question.
Will Romeo and Juliet end up together (the Story Question of any romance story)? Will Harry Potter become a wizard (the Story Question of any adventurer)? Will Dorothy find her way back home (The Wizard of Oz)? Will Hercule Poirot find the murderer (the Story Question of any detective story)? The Story Question is a simple overarching question, and its answer is yes or no!
If you cast your mind back about the stories or the movies you loved and those you didn’t read or watch until the end, you will find out, not surprisingly, that those that succeeded to pursue to the end have had a simple, specific question. You continued because you wanted to watch or read because the Story Question didn’t let your mind slip away: Will the protagonist reach the Plot Goal?
My mistake was that most of my manuscripts had only “what happens next?” No doubt, those questions attract the reader’s attention. However, the question is: how long is the question able to keep the reader’s attention? Here comes the first and foremost inherent characteristic of the Story Question: it is an overarching question. This means the reader is with the writer until she finds the answer to the Story Question. Thus, logically, we need to postpone the answer until the last pages. Imagine if we knew the answer to Harry Potter’s Story Question at the end of volume 4. Who would read volume 5?
I always wondered why some TV series or book series are extremely successful to keep the audience’s attention and some fail after a certain number of seasons or volumes. One of the answers lies in the Story Question. If the writer has planned for, let’s say, 3 volumes, then all of the loosening threads of the story, including the Story Question, should be answered by the end of book 3. If the sale is very good, then the writer is tempted to write the next book, and here comes the difficult part: write about what? Story Question is already answered! I watched an interview with J.K.Rowling after she sold the second Harry Potter book and was writing the third. She said it will be 7 books until Harry is a full wizard! She had planned from the first for 7 books and wrote 7 books, not 8 or 9. But some writers do, and you see the result in the sale or the rating of the season!
Story Question rarely appears in the story’s text. The story conjures it in the reader’s mind and doesn’t let the mind go away. Either in outlining the story or in revision, the Story Question is one of the indispensable elements in the blueprint checklist.
Confusions about Story Question:
- The story Question is NOT the Hook. Hook appears at the beginning of the book, in the first paragraph, or in the first page. It intrigues the reader initially to keep reading until it gets to the Inciting Event. A hook is a welcome drink the host offers the guest, while Story Question is the reason for the visit! Story Question could be masterfully planted in the Hook, but generally speaking, they are NOT the same, especially in long books or series.
- The story Question is NOT the story’s Theme. Story Question is specific about the protagonist and her situation, while Theme is a universal concept. For example, in Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (1936) the Story Question is about Scarlett O’Hara. Would she win Ashley Wilkes? While the Theme is love.
- The story Question is NOT the Story Problem(s) or the Story Conflict. The story Problem(s) occurs on the protagonist’s way towards the Plot Goal. Imagine a hurdle race. You watch it because you want to see your favorite runner wins or not (Story Question), not how many hurdles (Story Conflict) she jumps over!
In a nutshell, the Story Question is:
- The story Question is a specific overarching question if the protagonist reaches the Plot Goal.
- The answer to the Story Question is yes or no. If the answer is, she did that, and then she did this, you are thinking about “what happens next”, not the Story Question.
- Story Question should be answered at the last couple of pages of the story, not any sooner. Otherwise, why would the reader keep reading?!
Analysis of Act I in Picture Books
Sample 1: Raja’s Pet Camel, the magic of hope (2020), by Anita Nahta Amin
This book starts when Raja meets a camel on his way home (Inciting Event), and he wants to keep the camel as his pet (Goal). His father only agrees that it can stay until they find a home for the camel. Now, Raja (the protagonist) learns his wish is not going to be true easily, and this is the key event of the story. He should make the decision. The camel makes many troubles which leads to the next obstacle; Raja’s father decides to sell the camel. Now, achieving the dream becomes harder, and this makes the story more attractive. If his father agreed spontaneously to keep the animal, there was no story at all! Raja comes up with a plan for the next camel’s race (Plot Point I). Raja’s plans to keep the camel form Act II. As you may guess, the Story Question is: will Raja manage to keep the camel? Yes or No?
Sample 2: The Secret Fawn (2021), by Kallie George
This story starts on the first spread with the Inciting Event: the mother and father of the Protagonist saw a deer, but she didn’t (Key Event). This is a painful fact for the Protagonist that “I always miss everything.” Before you turn the page and read further, the Story Question is in your brain: will she give up or will she see the deer? Yes or No? Act II (or the middle) starts when the Protagonist leaves home to find the deer because this matters to her! The reader will turn page after page and follows the journey of the Protagonist to find out the answer to the story Question.
Sample 3: Uncle Bobby’s Wedding, (2020) by Sarah S.Brannen
After a one-spread introduction about the emotional bond between Chloe (Protagonist) and her favorite uncle, on the second spread the Inciting Event strikes: uncle Bobby is going to marry his boyfriend. Everyone is happy except for Chloe (Key Event) because she is worried about losing her uncle. The Story Question is: will she lose her uncle? Yes or No? Remember that we are reading this story from the perspective of Chloe, and for her, this marriage is a dreadful thing! The Story Question should be inherent in the character of the Protagonist; she needs to comprehend and the first step is talking with her mother about the marriage, which is the beginning of Act II. This book shows a very good example of an emotional journey in a picture book.
In the next post, we will go through Act II or the middle. On the 1st of October, I will publish the first newsletter, including a downloadable pdf file of the takeaway from my blog posts so far. If you haven’t subscribed so far and you’d like to receive it, please subscribe here.
This is a terrific article. Hello, I’m Karen Wood, published children’s author. I also appraise manuscripts. A lack of story question is the most common problem I find with manuscripts.