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.