Make your reader care with the Story Question!
Why should someone pick up your story and read it – all the way to the end? We talked the last two weeks about having Story Stakes – or a reason your character should care about your story by giving your character something to lose. Last week we dissected the difference between High Concept and Low Concept stories (and how tell the difference), noting that High Concept stories are driven by high public & personal stakes, whereas Low Concept stories are fueled by the characters’ inner journeys, or the private stakes.
This week, we’re going to add another potent ingredient to the mix…the fuel for the inner journey of your character, the Story Question.
The Story Question is that question your character is asking as the book opens, ignited by the inciting incident and lingering in their mind throughout the second Act of the story. All the tidbits of truth your character discovers along the way contribute to the answer they discover at the Aha! Moment of the story, or the epiphany.
Consider one of the classics – Casablanca. Rick is a broken-hearted soul who can’t forgive the woman he loves for abandoning him. He’s become apathetic and refuses to get involved in the lives of those who come to his bar. Then, one day, his lost love, Elsa walks into gin joint and suddenly…the inner journey ignites. Yes, the external plot drives the story – but it works in tandem with the internal journey.
What is that internal journey? The road to forgiveness, and even true love.
The story question – Can Rick love again? And, if he does, will it change him into a better man?
Obviously, this question is at the heart of countless stories through the ages. One of my favorites is The Count of Monte Cristo. A man, wrongfully imprisoned, vows revenge on the man who stole his life. The external journey is his quest to enact revenge. However, his inner journey is about forgiveness. The story question – Can a man so wrongly aggrieved, forgive? And could it finally set him free?
The external plot only causes the character to grapple with the big question of the story. One might say that the entire purpose of the external plot is only to cause the hero to confront the big story question and find an answer, with the hope that because of it, he changes and becomes a better man.
Frankly, isn’t that what life is about?
It’s this inner quest for the answer that drives the inner journey – and thus, becomes the fuel for every external decision your character makes.
So, how do you find the Story Question that will fuel your story?
First – take a look at your theme. Love? Redemption? Forgiveness?
Then ask – What are you saying about it? You can love again? Denying love only makes you bitter? Unforgiveness is a prison?
Now – turn it into a question that relates to the character.
- Can Rick learn to love again, and will it free him to become the hero inside?
- Can the Count of Monte Cristo choose forgiveness over revenge…and if he does, will it finally set him free?
Now, instead of using “Can…” to begin your sentence, try – What if…
- What if a man, broken by love, has to rescue the woman who destroyed him?
- What if a man has to forgive the man who stole his life in order to find it again?
Suddenly, you have a story question that you can use for two things…
First: It gives your story direction and helps you start the story with the character already wounded, already searching.
Recently, I started watching a new series – Torchwood. Being a Whovian, I’ve always wanted to dive into this spin-off, so I found it on BBC and began to TiVo it. However, I clearly started in the middle and the first episode I caught focused on Owen, one of the team, clearly broken hearted and tortured over the loss of someone he loved.
As the story opened, we saw him in a bar, picking a fight. Then, he volunteered for a suicide assignment…only to end up nearly sacrificing his life. Worse – he’s angry that his teammates saved him.
If I were writing Owen’s story, I might start the book with this run of events (although shortened), and the rest of the book would be his quest to make peace with himself, find love again and become the hero he is supposed to be.
His Story Question might be (and don’t tell me what happens!) –
- After losing someone you love, is it possible to be whole again?
- What if a man lost the one thing he loved and thought his life was over…how could he return to life – and love?
Obviously, the external plot offers plenty of opportunity to explore these questions, and I might make his epiphany be a moment where he truly has to choose between loving again…or dying. (We’ll see!)
The key is, the Story Question helps set up the home world and beginning sequence of the story. Then, it fuels all his decisions and creates truthlets…and situations in Act 2 that challenge or offer insight to that question.
But finding the Story Question also assists in…marketing!
See, after you deliver your pitch – focusing on your external story stakes, it’s time to tell the “real” story. Aka – the Story Question.
Returning to the loose Torchwood example….your pitch might be:
When aliens invade the planet, only one man can save earth. (now, clearly, that is not in that episode…but it could be part of the longer running series).
(And, I acknowledge that is the premise of nearly every episode of Torchwood…or Dr. Who for that matter).
However, to add in the layer of the inner journey, weave in the Story Question: Our hero, however, isn’t interested in saving the world – not after losing the woman he loves. Will he learn to love again – and is it in time to save humanity?
Stakes will sell you book, and ignite the journey. It will keep your reader glued long enough to love your character. But’s It’s this inner question that will keep your reader turning pages all the way to the end. (Because, frankly, they want to know the answer too!)
Extreme Book Makeover Exercise: Do you have a Story Question for your novel? Remember – what is your theme? What are you saying about it? Ask a Can…or a What if question personal to your character.
Other articles that might help:
High Concept vs. Low Concept Stories: http://www.mybooktherapy.com/extreme-book-makeover-help-i-think-my-plot-is-boring/
Creating Story Stakes: http://www.mybooktherapy.com/extreme-book-makeover-your-story-simply-isnt-compelling/
Next week we’ll start breaking apart the pieces of a Tired Plot into Acts (Act 1-2-3) and we’ll take a close look at Act 1, and how to HOOK your reader from the first page!
Go – write something brilliant!
PS – Don’t forget to check out the Frasier Contest to get great feedback on your first scene and story idea!
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