It’s Not “What.” It’s “How.”

 Enriching the ‘Dramatic Question’

There is an entire banana boat full of stuff that, by the time you stamp “final” on your manuscript, you need to know all about.

My personal contention is that the more of these literary nuts and bolts you suspect you know before you actually begin writing it – otherwise known as story planning – the quicker you’ll reach that final draft.

And the more valid the word final will actually be.

The trick is to make “final” synonymous with “best.”  With optimized.

That very differential, when it exists, is often the unspoken explanation behind a rejection slip or a self-publishing dream that doesn’t come true.

You need to know the story’s concept. The premise. The backstory and arc of your protagonist.  The First Plot Point.  The Mid-point.  The Second Plot Point.  And, perhaps more than anything, the ending, one that’s on the table (in the writer’s mind as a context-creating destination) from Page 1 of that “final” draft.

These are the ABCs of storytelling at a professional level.  By any other name – and there is a boat-load of those, too – they are non-negotiable.

But there’s something else in play that makes it all work, the thing that connects all of these story elements and milestones into a cohesive whole.  Think of it as the fuel for your story’s fire, rendering all of these other things to the role of kindling.

In fact, this is the one story essence that separates the published from the unpublished. The viral from the lost-in-the-digital-crowd.  More so, in fact, than the writer’s linguistic chops. Because even if those elements and milestones lean to the vanilla side, this one, when you nail it can raise them up.

And yet, it appears for better or worse in virtually every story out there.  Which is the risk of it… it’s hiding right in front of you.  Easily taken for granted.  Easily dismissed as a consequence of those more basic elements… when in it fact, it drives them.

I’m talking about the DRAMATIC QUESTION your story poses.

And as the title says, it’s not the “what” of it that counts, but the “how” of it.

We’ve all heard the term whodunit, as it applies to mysteries (as I type that word, which is pure slang, a squiggly red line does not appear beneath it, evidence of its arrival in the lexicon of the genre).  In and of itself it is a dramatic question: who is the guilty bad guy in this story?  The story is always about the hero discovering – the means and route of that discovery – whodunit.

In romances, the dramatic question is this, in several forms: will they fall in love?  Will love endure?  Will love conquer all?

In both of these genres, two words universally apply: well duh!!!!!

How many times does a mystery not reveal whodunit?  How many romances show us a story without an HEA (that’s Happily Ever After for those who haven’t darkened the door of a romance writing conference lately)?

Every genre demands that a dramatic question be put into play. 

Regardless of genre, the story usually boils down to a simple and obvious question:  Will he escape?  Will he/she find justice/peace/vengeance/love/self-respect… whatever the hero needs to find in your story?

Of course he/she will.

But wait, screams the cynic… if it’s obvious, why is it so important?

Because right there, at the intersection of obviousness and creativity, is where opportunity awaits.  In the green room sitting right next to risk.

The dramatic question is at once a litmus test, and a gateway for your story’s inherent potential. 

If you can’t state your story’s dramatic question at all, that’s a sign of an episodic collection of story beats that have no connection and no destination.  An “adventures of…” story, perhaps based on a string of smaller dramatic questions (not a good idea).  If your answer is obvious and therefore less than compelling, then that’s a sign you may be undervaluing this most critical of all story physics.

Because even the most obvious of dramatic questions are begging for some sauce.

To gain access to the power of your dramatic question, no matter how obvious, you benefit from addressing each of these connected queries, relative to both your dramatic question and the answer to it:

So… how?  How does the hero reach the goal?

Why will anyone care?

What is compelling about the implied journey of how?

Will your reader vicariously embrace the quest with your hero?

What will the reader feel once the dramatic question has been answered?

Will satisfaction come from the journey, or the destination?

Many readers of The Davinci Code, for example, found the destination underwhelming, while the ride had them riveted.  Will your readers be saying “Yes!!!” or “OMG!!!”… or will they feel let down?

All of these questions spring directly from the rich well of available story physics, the forces that make a story compelling… when absent, not so much.

What seems obvious isn’t.  Even when it is.

By that I mean, when your story boils down to something as simple as whodunit, your success is hitched to something other than the answer.  The juice resides in the journey… the how of it all.  The means of discovery, with all the twists and thrills and emotions that come with it.

And yet, in a very risky bit of seeming contradiction (it’s not, be clear on that), a journey without a dramatic question is a tough sell.

How are you doing with those facets of your dramatic question?  Take a closer look and ask if it’s dripping with juice, or dry as a legal footnote?

Something to think about.

The validity and potential of the word “final,” whenever you choose to use it, depends on it.


For more on the forces that make a dramatic question compelling, check out my new book, “Story Physics: Harnessing the Underlying Forces of Storytelling.”

And if you’d like an assessment of your dramatic question, evaluated in context to your intended concept and premise, click HERE.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

14 Responses to It’s Not “What.” It’s “How.”

  1. I remember the first time I saw an episode of Columbo. Wait; they’re *showing* us whodunit? What’s the point, then?

    Columbo’s dramatic question was always, what clever ruse does he use to get the killer to reveal themselves?

    The books I love keep me wondering whether this will be the one time they *don’t* fall in love; the one time the hero dies pointlessly, the one time the kid’s wish *doesn’t* come true. Because a great story (for me) has a gloriously happy ending, but never lets me suspect it for an instant until the door opens and there it stands.

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post, Larry. I’m reminded that I need to keep my readers wondering, right up to the end, will Jake really betray his lifelong moral code for love (or is it just lust?)

  2. M R Davison

    Great post Mr. Brooks. I’m just now getting back to a story I was working on and this is definitely the way to keep readers turning the pages.

  3. Awesome stuff, Larry! Your posts always make me think. Those first two questions you posed especially resonate with me. How does the hero reach the goal, and why will anyone care? Thanks for your insight!

  4. Anthony

    Great point, Joel. It seems like the bigger the gap between the “how” of the question resolution from what the reader expects of the character (at least in part 1), the more satisfying the ending. Or at least the more impressive it is if the writer can pull off the broad character arc. Happy endings are best earned in places where they seem out of reach.

    This leads me to a thought.

    Does every story question have an implied secondary story question of opposite nature (internal versus external)? Say a courtroom thriller has a primary story question of “will the hotshot lawyer woo the jury to recognize the innocence of his client, who was framed?” Would the secondary story question be something like this: “will hotshot lawyer drop his spitfire solo act and learn to play well with others in order to do what the primary story question asks of him?” I suppose that if this were a literary novel, the two story questions would flip roles (internal question goes from secondary to primary and external question goes from primary to secondary).

    Would the primary story question be determined by what the reader is looking for or by what the protagonist is looking for? I ask because it seems that the protagonist wouldn’t necessarily recognize that an internal story question is even in place, assuming he’s fighting the change until at least the midpoint.

  5. Sara Davies

    @ Anthony: Somewhere I think I read that the “internal” side of the external problem is technically considered sub-plot, AKA character arc, and they tend to mirror each other. (This surprised me because I thought sub-plot meant another story thread, running parallel to or intersecting the first – a sideshow of sorts). I hope I’m right, because I’ve got my main character fighting an inner battle that is reflected each step of the way in the context of the outer battle, in each of the four sections – going from basket case, to floundering, fighting proactively, and finally transcending self – parallel to being stuck in a bad situation, confronting the full extent of it and understanding the problem that needs to be solved, physically taking steps to bring down the bad guy and save the day, and ending in a final confrontation that defeats the enemy. I really like your question about what the reader looks for vs. what the character looks for. I hope these are the same – because it seems like that would be the most likely way to provide the vicarious experience the reader wants. The reader might know, and the protagonist might not – but because the reader knows, at least intuitively, s/he sticks around for the experience and resolution of the story problem. But I wonder what’s inner, and what’s outer when the outer battle is itself a metaphor for an inner battle. Lots of layers.

  6. Can the dramatic question be something specific like: if your character could change the past, would they, regardless of the consequences?

  7. Anthony

    Thanks, Sara. That helped immensely. I, too, was thinking that subplot was synonymous with story thread. It can be a challenge to keep all the semantics straight. I knew there was something about it in Story Engineering, but I forgot it was called subplot. I’m about to go back through pages 101-105 for refresher.

  8. OMG! After having been to a romance writers conference I can just picture you; tall, light and handsome, darkening that particular doorway – Laugh out Loud! I’m certain the nearly all female audience was swooning.
    Anyway, this post is a wonderful tool for identifying your dramatic question and asking further, why? So what? Who cares.? You’re so right on to say it is a ‘litmus test’ for a story. So helpful, as always Larry. Thanks. M

  9. Robert Jones

    The “whodunit” question is interesting because I believe on some level, every story is a mystery. I used to read a lot of mysteries early on. And when I went on to reading literary fiction, all the better stories really did have this in common. They kept me guessing right up until the end, as Joel so aptly put it. In short, the primary question involving the main character’s ultimate goal, and the success thereof, was left dangling over the reader’s head.

    Boiling that down to “How,” also seem very apt, because right behind it can come a slew of words that all point towards that goal, or resolution the hero has sought after for 300 pages or so.

    However, I have one minor caveat, and that concerns the hero always succeeding. Being a fan of some of the great tragedies in literature, I believe we sometimes have to love our characters enough to let them go. Provided their death has meaning. I have a novel in first draft form that will be next in line to “structurally motivated” as soon as my current WIP is finished. This story had a character that I really enjoyed due to his eccentricities. He also lived a very tragic life. I wanted to give the poor bastard a happy ending, but it just felt as if something was lacking when I did that. When the notion to martyr him came to mind, it was one of those complete scenes I didn’t have to question. His death simply meant more than his life and I felt it was more impactive emotionally.

    Sometimes the “How” might actually refer to not having the hero reach their goal, but rather, how will this ending have the most impact on the reader if the hero fails? Yet that failure has to be a success in and of itself, have some greater meaning, or the martydom will hang in the reader’s mind as more of a “WHY?”

  10. MikeR

    Lessee …

    “EVERY roller-coaster has just one purpose: to bring you, give-or-take sixty seconds hence, to give-or-take within thirty feet of exactly where you are right now.”

    Technically, this is true.

    However … this is not what your AUDIENCE came for! Consider, for a moment, what your $$AUDIENCE$$ is facing:

    – “The airliner that I am now on has one purpose: to bring me 1,650 miles from where I am right now, give-or-take three hours hence … during which time I am condemned to share this metal tube with 125 valley-girl cheerleaders.”

    – “Fifty-three yuppie rug-rats are FINALLY ASLEEP on their cots and for the next fifty minutes give-or-take can be presumed to remain so. P.S. I am still waiting for My Ship To Come In.”

    … etcetera.

    “I am here now… please god… en-ter-tain me.” I don’t really CARE “whodunit.” (Well, I don’t.) Let me, in the name of “whodunit,” ESCAPE FROM HERE to watch Hercule Poirot solve the mystery in the (of course) nick of time. Let me ESCAPE FROM HERE to that strange and wonderful and vividly-described place and time where Hercule will, once again as always, work his magic.

    It is, actually, “harder than it looks.”

  11. Robert Jones

    @MikeR–As Hercule Poirot would say, “You must exercise the little grey cells!” Turn you prison into a confined space, where for the next three hours, you (and everyone aboard) is trapped with a murderer, a thief of cheerleader pom poms, or a zombie outbreak. You either have three hours to solve the mystery before the plan lands and the culprit gets away, or you have to stay alive for three hours and get to you destination safely.

    So getting back to “How?” this should give you something to do while in transit. A writer is never bored–well, hardly ever–if he is paying attention, putting details in his memory bank, and thinking “What if?”

    Hope your flight gives you something to take home besides aggravation. Agatha Christie did her best work when playing with confined spaces.

  12. Martha

    Being a great fan of both Larry Brooks and Randy Ingermanson, and an avid reader of their respective posts, this was a rare treat. And the comments were the olive in my martini! Thanks, guys. And may you both dwell in the glorious and gilded hall reserved for teachers who inspire while they instruct.

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