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On Storytelling Terminology: Questions (2 of 2)

This week we’re talking about industry terms, and specifically focusing on the questions that keep people reading. Yesterday I talked about the gimmicks–hooks and plates–but today I want to talk about your load-bearing questions.

These are the questions that form the foundation of your story. They’re the questions that drive your protagonist through some pretty awful complications. They’re the questions that shape your reader’s emotional response to the tale, and if you use them right they’re the questions that help you write a dramatic and satisfying conclusion with a lot less effort.

Scene Questions

To fully understand what I mean by “scene question,” you’re going to have to go back and look at what I said about “scene and sequel.” That’s some more storytelling jargon for you, and that’s precisely the narrow definition of scene I’m working with in this context.

Since I don’t fully trust you to click that link and read the whole article, I’ll briefly recap:

A well-constructed scene consists of two parties in direct conflict. The protagonist wants something, and the antagonist wants the opposite of that. Unless it’s the very last scene of the book, the protagonist doesn’t get what he wants. Instead, he gets a setback.

The easiest way to make sure you’re writing well-constructed scenes is to figure out the protagonist’s goal for the scene and cast it as a “scene question.” In other words, you could take the goal,

“Addan wants to escape unnoticed from the town of evil elves.”

and form it into the question,

“Will Addan escape unnoticed from the town of evil elves?”

A good scene question should always be a simple yes/no question. And once you’ve got the scene formulated that way, it’s easy to make sure your scene meets the rest of the requirements.

  • Do you have a scene antagonist? (Yes. Evil elves.)
  • Does your antagonist want the opposite answer to the scene question? (Yes. Addan wants the answer to be “yes,” and the evil elves want the answer to be “no.”)
  • Does your scene end with a setback? (Yes. Addan is discovered and has to fight his way free.)

What we’re talking about here is taking the loosely-defined concept of “motivation” (Addan wants to escape) and forcing ourselves not only to figure out what it is (which is more than some writers bother with), but also to put it into a format that will lead to an effective scene.

Now, if I’d said, “Addan wants to escape,” and turned that into “Will Addan escape?” then the same resolution would have ended with a satisfying ending for the protagonist. That’s bad news. (If you’re not convinced, go click through to that other article after all.)

By adding the word “unnoticed,” I made a question that serves all my purposes.┬áSometimes getting it right is just a matter of semantics, and that can make the whole thing seem pointless, but those semantic distinctions are important.

Because the other key to scene questions is this:

Always make sure your reader knows exactly what the scene question is.

It should be as clear as possible as soon as possible, in every single scene. If the reader knows what the scene question is, then the reader knows exactly what the stakes are. If there’s a setback, the reader knows it’s a setback, knows why it’s a setback, and can feel the emotional significance of the setback.

So when you change the question from “Will Addan escape?” to “Will Addan escape unnoticed?” that’s not just a change on your pre-writing checklist. It’s also a change in how you tell the scene. As soon as Addan starts sneaking through the evil elves’ town, he’s making it very clear how important it is that he get in and out without anyone finding out.

If you didn’t know that was your scene question, it would be easy to leave that particular element out of the writing of the narrative. It would be easy to focus on what’s happening, not what the protagonist wants to happen, and as a result it would be easy to leave the reader feeling like nothing much significance had happened as long as Addan escapes alive.

The Story Question

And all those rules apply equally to a much larger question: the story question. The story question is constructed the same way, but it’s the one goal that drives the entire plot of the book. What is it that your protagonist wants on page one and finally gets just before you write “The End”?

I’m about to publish a fantasy novel that features a young, poor orphan boy who’s minding his own business when a wise old wizard shows up and invites him to go attend the school for wizards. Hurrah!

I’m still doing final rewrites of the novel so it could change a little bit, but as it stands my protagonist finally shows up at the Academy in chapter 6 and leaves at the beginning of chapter 10 (out of 16 chapters total). He doesn’t ever go back. His time at the school for wizards takes up about a quarter of the novel.

If I’m not careful, that’s going to confuse and disappoint a lot of readers. If I’ve got readers who think the story question is, “Will Daven become a wizard?” or “How is Daven going to succeed at the wizard school?” they’re going to be frustrated when my story seems to take a big detour away from the school. They’re going to spend whole chapters looking askance at my novel and wondering just what all this has to do with the Academy, and when and how is Daven going to get back there?

And, as I said, he doesn’t go back. That’s not a problem, though, because Daven doesn’t want to. He never wanted to be a wizard. The old wizard who showed up in chapter 1 wanted him to be one, but that old wizard isn’t my protagonist.

What my protagonist wants more than anything is to earn the respect of his peers. That’s what he’s working on when the first page starts. He sees an opportunity for it at the Academy so he goes along with the wizard’s schemes, but when things don’t work out there he goes merrily on his way, looking for his honor elsewhere.

And when he finds it hundreds of miles away from the Academy, that’s a satisfying resolution. It doesn’t matter that he never graduated from the school. It doesn’t matter that he didn’t get to join the Royal Guard (something else he’d dreamed of). What he really wanted was exactly what he got, and providing your readers with a clear answer to a clear story question is precisely what makes a satisfying ending.

6 Responses to “On Storytelling Terminology: Questions (2 of 2)”

  1. Joshua Unruh says:

    Just a shout out to say that I found all this very helpful both when we were discussing it privately as well as here.

    Incidentally, “evil elves” is redundant.

  2. Good post, Aaron. I’m not sure how it applies to my projects at the moment, but I instantly related it to a book I just finished, “In the Woods.” I was highly frustrated at the end of the story because I felt the novel really built up the question/mystery about the unexplained disappearance of the protagonist’s best friends back when they were kids. The other plot of the story is a murder mystery, but because of the MC’s desire to know his past and efforts to uncover it, I felt let down when the book tied up only the (unrelated) murder mystery and then left me hanging with the other plot.

  3. […] Establish your conflict, setting, and story question […]