Do You Know the Answer to Your Story's Most Dramatic Question

Do You Know the Answer to Your Story’s Most Important Question?

The dramatic question. It’s your story’s most important question.  It defines your story. On a simplified level, it is your story. But do you know what it is?

The dramatic question is the central element of uncertainty that drives your story. The moment it is asked, your story begins. The moment it is answered, your story ends.

Your story’s dramatic question might be:

Will Ender learn how to defeat the aliens?

Will Poirot figure out who committed the murder?

Will Katniss survive the Hunger Games?

Will Elizabeth and Darcy get married?

Obviously, these stories are about much more than just this central question. In Pride & Prejudice, we’ve also got Jane’s romance with Mr. Bingley, Charlotte’s marriage to Mr. Collins, and Lydia’s elopement with Mr. Wickham. We might think of all these subplots and thematic riffs as the arms and legs on the body of our story. But the dramatic question is the spine. Rip out that spine, and the whole body crumples.

Every story has a dramatic question. You can’t write a story without one, whether you consciously identify it or not. But figuring out the dramatic question early on and putting it into specific language is always going to be a valuable move. Why?

Keeping in mind your dramatic question will help you focus your story. When considering subplots and minor characters, weigh them against the dramatic question. How do they fit in to this central equation? How do they ultimately help advance the protagonist toward this dominant goal?

Perhaps even more importantly, the dramatic question will help you determine where to begin and end your story. As your story’s ultimate hook, your dramatic question is what initially interests readers, piques their curiosity, and keeps them reading. If you open your story too soon before the dramatic question comes into view, what reason will readers have to engage?

By the same token, if you let your story continue too long after the dramatic question has found its answer, readers’ attention will flag. They’ve already gotten what they wanted out of your story. Their curiosity has been satisfied. The moment your dramatic question is answered is the moment your story’s conflict officially ends. And you know what they say about no conflict…

So consider your story. What dramatic question is driving its conflict? Do you pose that dramatic question early in your story? And do you end your story shortly after you answer the dramatic question? Acing your story’s dramatic question is a sure way to delight readers.

Tell me your opinion: What is your story’s dramatic question?

Do You Know the Answer to Your Story's Most Important Question

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Seems like dramatic questions could appear and be resolved at the scene level as well. It’s interesting how many story-level structure ideas translate to the scene level, as if each scene were a micro-story in itself.

    Great article 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is absolutely true. Every scene needs to have its own dramatic questions–which is nothing more or less than the character’s scene goal appended to the “Will he be ale to?” question.

    • thomas h cullen says:

      This is especially true, for The Representative.

      The text’s own beginning acts as a sort of microcosm to what gets dealt with later on a far grander scale.

  2. Very true! In the first draft of the story I’m writing, I jus knew I wanted a super cool kick ass heroine, a love interest and lots of magic stuff, but when I sat down and really thought about it, I realized I didn’t know what the story REALLY was about, what was driving it. So I saved that document, labeled it Recycle and started over.

    And now, even without having previously plotted it, I can figure out the question easily: Will the MC return home?

    • This is an excellent point: cool elements a story do not make. Story is about more than just the trappings. It’s even about more just characters, when it comes down to it. There always has to be a force propelling the story forward. Otherwise, no story!

  3. Good stuff to have in mind. Verry importante so it won´t end up shapeless.

    Thanks for another great post!

    M.

  4. Time to give some serious considerations to my work

  5. thomas h cullen says:

    Relatively speaking, The Representative is all spine. It’s a magnification text, zooming in on its events and ideas:

    When reading/experiencing it, its obvious what its putting into question – as well as what answer its offering.

    I’m lost for words! Its an utter no-brainer, that The Representative has deeply profound questions at its heart (its very essence is one that’s most deeply transcendent, and profound).

    (A spot on post Katie.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thanks for reading!

      • thomas h cullen says:

        As odd as it sounds, I struggled with this one – sincerely, there’s just far too much to say for The Representative.

        Still looking forward to August 1st?

        I’m still waiting for a first batch of readers.

  6. Louise Hillery says:

    This applies to biography as well. A listing of facts and events becomes more interesting when you can identify the key question in the person’s life:

    Was Marie mostly Indian or mostly white?
    Why did May give up everything to get people’s respect, then finally not care if she lost it?
    How did a polite little old lady defeat powerful political and industrial forces?
    How did an illiterate single mom from the cotton fields become America’s foremost black businesswoman?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, definitely. The dramatic question is necessary no matter what type of story you’re telling. Even some songs and poems require a dramatic question.

  7. For the first arc of my SFR series it’s “Can A’yen find the courage to claim his identity?” Each of the first three books takes him a step closer to claiming ALL of who he is.

    The rest of this series, so far, is variations on the same theme of embracing who you’re meant to be.

  8. Great post, Katie! I try to ask that question before I start outlining, but sometimes I get so caught up in the characters and scenes that I forget to ask the question or stray from it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sometimes, too, the story changes as we go and we lose sight of the dramatic question. It’s always good to stop every major plot point or so and go back to review where the story is going in relation to its original premise.

  9. Lisa Searle says:

    I had to admit, I panicked after reading this post and it took me ages to realise what the dramatic question to my current WIP was, and that I did actually have one :).

    I thought at first it was about my MC searching for her missing husband, but as finding him is the third plot point, I knew it wasn’t this.

    I then found it in my story premise: Set in a future post-apocalyuptic world, one woman’s isolated existence is disrupted after she discovers she may be the only hope for humanity’s survival.

    She’s lonely, even if she won’t admit it to herself. She thinks she’s happy with the way her life is, but in reality the disruption is the catalyst forcing changes upon her that she’s resistant to in the beginning. Eventually though she’ll realise that those around her need her and she needs them.

    So,

    Will Emma ever find her place in the ruins of humanity?

    (Thanks for another great post, Katie. It’s good to know I’m on the right track!)

    One thing I have noticed about the dramatic question; it’s subtle. Man I love writing! 😀

    • thomas h cullen says:

      It causes me to ponder, when you say something like that – “realising what your dramatic question was”.

      It causes me to reflect on my own writing experience – The Representative’s a work of the future too.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s true: the dramatic question often *is* subtle. It’s the core of the story, once we’ve stripped it down from all the noise and action of the plot itself.

      • thomas h cullen says:

        Katie, I’ll throw you a clue, demonstrating to you just how transcendent and profound The Representative actually is:

        The word “core” itself, is integral to the text’s plot.

        Really, this is a pinnacle work – on so many levels, it’s a final of stories.

  10. Jennifer McGinnis says:

    I always read your blog, but either rarely or never have commented. But I’ve just started a story all over again that I was up to chapter 10 on. No good plot, conflict, blah blah. I’m doing a detailed outline now, and the plot question is simple: Will Amanya keep Dakarai safe and find a life for herself while doing so? That may be two questions, but they are both equally important and wrap around each other all through the novel (a fantasy novel set in a country that is similar to the continent of Africa in our world, run by women). There are numerous sub-plots, but each one relates to this central question and all of them draw to conclusions around the same time as the plot question gets answered. I think I got it right this time!

  11. I have to admit the part of story structure I struggle with the most is the dramatic question. I’ve yet to come up with a satisfactory one for either of my manuscripts. If I remember correctly, in “Structuring your novel” you say that the dramatic question should be asked pretty much in the first scene with the hook and should be answered in the resolution. It seems to me that any question that will be answered in the resolution probably can’t be asked until the first plot point, and any question asked in the hook is probably going to be answered before the main conflict of the story is over.

    Looking at your examples above, they all seem to be asked a little way into the story. (for example, often in Poirot mysteries, the murder doesn’t happen until the first plot point anyway)

    Really interested in your thoughts here.

    • Siegmar Sondermann says:

      I second that.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is a good point. In most stories, the inciting event doesn’t occur until half way through the First Act. But the dramatic question needs to be at least implied in the first chapter. The first line of Ender’s Game, told outside of Ender’s POV, hints at the larger battle with the aliens and Ender’s possible importance in that battle. Murder mysteries usually *start* with the murder before they ever introduce the detective. The Hunger Games are at the forefront of Katniss’s thoughts from the first moment in the book. And the opening line of Pride & Prejudice explains the story’s whole gambit: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

      • Siegmar Sondermann says:

        Now I see.

        You mean, like the first scene in “Jaws” , where the shark and the girl are having dinner (with the girl being the main dish).
        That scene implies to the audience, that there probably will appear a seafarer of some kind later on in the movie and kill the monster.

  12. In my last novel, He Was Weird, there are two questions to be asked. The principle one was “What is the main character going to do about all of the bullying he is suffering?” When that question is answered by the main character shooting up his school, the next question is “Who is really to blame?”
    May I share that I have discovered a new target audience for the book? I went into two secondary schools with books and did a presentation. I had lots of good feedback and sold all of the books I brought with me.

  13. K.M. I like your observation that whether the question driving the story is posed halfway through the first act or not , it should at least be implied. This figures with my recently completed novel. The reader sees the Big Question almost immediately, and soon thereafter the possible path to an answer. But simultaneously, a disaster is shaping up that can destroy the future, something neither my central POV character nor those with her have any knowledge of–but that the reader sees coming.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Often, the dramatic question isn’t something readers will consciously articulate to themselves. It starts out as just a subconscious sense of curiosity and weight, which will grow stronger and more specific as the story unfolds.

  14. Can the dramatic question change or evolve?

    In my story the protagonist starts out looking for his father. It seems that when he discovers his father’s identity the dramatic question has been answered, but he finds his father at the first plot point-25% into the book. In the first act the protagonist spends his time seeking information about his father. With every clue he finds, more questions surface about his own identity. By the time he finds his father the dramatic question has either shifted to who the protagonist really is or it has been revealed that that was the question all along.

    Does this make sense and if so, does it work in most cases?

    Ryan

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The core dramatic question will remain the same throughout the book, although it will often have many facets. But whatever question you answer in the end of the story is the question you need to pose (by implication if nothing else) at the beginning.

    • thomas h cullen says:

      Red herrings are a common facet of fiction – such as this. Your line of inquiry makes perfect sense.

      In a manner of thinking even, it actually feels like the point of fiction itself:

      Fiction is about illusions; façade.

  15. The dramatic question has been at the forefront of my preoccupations for my trilogy. I have many subplots in the trilogy, and some take up a big chunk of story. But I’ve always considered the trilogy to be about Michael, my MC… and he’s the main character because the dramatic question concerns HIM, no matter how many other ‘lesser questions’ are involved in the story. This has helped (and still helps me) keep the story on truck. Yes, I have many subplots, but all of them have to relate to Michael’s dramatic question, or they shouldn’t be there.
    It’s tricky sometimes. I hope I’ll be able to make it work 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s a good observation that there are often many “lesser questions” throughout the story. But the dramatic question is the one that frames and drives all of the smaller considerations.

  16. Elizabeth Richards says:

    How does the dramatic question relate to the Character Lie/Truth? In my story the MC is trying to get back to England to find her guardian who has disappeared.

    Her need to get back to England and her belief that her guardian is the only person/place where she can belong blinds her to her growing connections with the people in Colorado where she is stranded. The need to get home starts at the beginning of the book, is at the crux of the 3 plot points and is resolved when she solves the mysteries that let her go home.

    I would say the dramatic question is Does Ana find a way to get back to England and find her missing guardian. But that seems so simplistic when contrasted with the Lie/Truth and Want/Need that provide so much of the conflict and drive.

    Any thoughts about how the dramatic question and character arc should play together?

    • thomas h cullen says:

      You certainly know the story at least. The very fact of your asking the question this way demonstrates that.

      Keep it sincere, that’s my advice. It’s invariably sincere art that makes the best art. Let the character inform the question – not the other way around.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The dramatic question is always inherent to the Lie/Truth equation, but in comparison it often *is* quite simple. The dramatic question is nothing more or less than the question in the reader’s mind that’s keeping him reading. It’s the more specific version of, “What’s gonna happen?” The Lie/Truth is what creates the complexities and conflict within that journey, since the character’s ability to escape the Lie and learn the Truth is what raises the stakes beyond just the simple “will she get home or won’t she?” question.

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