The Most Important Question(s) in Storytelling and the Ensuing Two Questions That Allow You to Answer

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by Larry Brooks on July 20, 2010

Is it okay if I admit that I love today’s post?  Because I do.

Maybe because I’ve been tinkering with it for weeks. 

I write about things that lurk in all corners of the writing room, some hidden and lurking in the darkest corners, others sitting on desk begging for attention. 

Sometimes they’re subtle.  This one is isn’t.

This one is huge. 

It’s straight out of Writing 101, smack from the middle of Square One, and no matter how far down the road we are, a return to this fundamental persective can empower, resurrect or otherwise save a flagging writing dream.

You have to get this stuff down.  

Whether you do it naturally or you have to staple a note to your forehead, if you write stories you must pay attention to what today’s post is sticking squarely in your face.

Let that process begin, or at least reignite, here and now.

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In our last post, I introduced (though I certainly didn’t invent) the notion of boiling your story down to a few simple questions that, in essence, define the very things your readers will want to know.

You have to know them first. 

And then you have to get clever, strategic, even postively Machiavvellian, about teasing them along toward that denouement. 

Readers want to be sucked in, manipulated, double-crossed and then brought back home… they want to take a journey with you… and then they want to be paid off with an ending that delivers the goods.

Even if this sounds obvious at first blush…

… it’s always good to look at things from multiple and even simplified perspectives.  This question-posing technique, in particular, can do everything from conquering writer’s block to putting your story over the top in terms of its dramatic potential effectiveness.

And, just as critically, it might rescue you from a mistake you weren’t even aware you were making.

Here’s they type of questions I’m talking about.

Will your hero reach her or his goal? 

Will he get the girl? 

Will she find love afterall?

Will she survive? 

Will he ever walk again?  See again?  Play the piano again?

Will what needs to happen actually happen in time? 

Will romance ensue?  Or will it flame out? 

Will she get from under her father’s thumb? 

Will he live out from under his family’s name?

Will the antagonist do irreparable harm? 

Will the antagonist be brought to justice?

Will the rules of the game change?   

Will the hero get the job? 

Keep the job? 

Succeed at the job? 

Find a way to work around the boss-from-hell? 

To kill the boss from hell?  Or at least, get her fired?

Will a moral line need to be crossed? 

Will she be forgiven? 

Will others understand? 

Will the cost exceed the benefit? 

Will he get away with it?

Will the inner demon be conquered?

Notice these are, for the most part, yes or no questions.

That’s on purpose. 

Because it forces you to keep your focus on the primary storylines – one, maybe two, with one or maybe two sub-plots– rather than wandering around in a narrative daze, trying to write a story that’s all things to all readers. 

Too many questions can turn your story into something bigger.  Unwieldy big.   Boringly, unfocused big.

You want to write a page turner, not a character-drenched biography full of side-trips and backstory.

Asking the right dramatic question is perhaps the most important part of storytelling.  If you’ve not given it much attention, focusing on details, characterization and the wonder of your linguistic gifts, you may just be missing the point.  Which in this case is synonymous with opportunity.

 Also, notice that these questions aren’t focused on theme. 

They are guiding you toward plot, toward exposition.  The idea isn’t to pose a question such as, “Will love conquer all?” — which is purely thematic — but rather, will the specific characters in your story find love, or not?

Theme is what your readers will take away from the reading experience.  These questions aren’t about that, they’re about what you, the writer, will do within your story to lead them toward that experience.

And now, for my favorite moment in this post:

Notice, too, that the genius of this technique…

… isn’t being able to answer these questions, but rather, to simply ask them.  To propose the right questions and get rid of the wrong ones.  To prioritize.

Read those three sentences (such as they are) again.  They’re huge.

To create a story spine, instead of a slice-of-life with too many problems to solve and cul-de-sacs to navigate.

And because all of the answers are probably yes – and if you’ve noticed that with any degree of impatience, then grab on, because you’re about to get the entire point right here…

… they force you to square off with the next two levels of questions, which are equally powerful and astoundingly brief.

Because for every yes answer you must answer the question of how.

How will you make that “yes” answer happen?  Make it fit?

Make it exciting, dramatic? 

Make it pay off?

How will you get there?  That answer defines whether your story will work, or not.

And if the answer to a dramatic question happens to be no, then the next question, instead of how?, becomes why?

Which in either case leads you to the next most important storytelling question of all.

Because without this one, those first level of dramatic questions won’t matter. 

Your job as a storyteller is to make things interesting.  Make them meaningful.  Deep.  Seductive.  Compelling.  Frightening.  Illuminating.  Interesting.  Gripping.  Memorable.  Relevant.  Challenging.  Engaging. 

Irresistible.

Asking those first-level dramatic questions doesn’t do that, it merely points you toward a means of doing all that.  It gives you clarity, and from that clarity comes the opportunity to really create something fresh and worthwhile.

It forces you to ask… how?

And your answer to that question is the stuff of stellar storytelling.

Because anybody can write a love story, a mystery, a thriller.  Just completing a manuscript and qualifying for membership within a niche isn’t the point.

Making it sizzle… that’s the point. 

Making it stand out.  Making it work in a way that, even if it’s slightly familiar (and aren’t all mysteries and thrillers and romances slightly familiar to some extent, and isn’t that the point?), satisfies and lingers.

You have to have a killer answer ready every time you ask how.

And for that – to answer the most important questions in storytelling – you need the most powerful question in storytelling.

The two most magical words in all of literary creation:

What if… ?

The moment you think of those two words as a tool – as a means of answering the question of how?” – rather than a cliché, your writing will turn a corner.

Because right here is where even the most skeptical of organic writers and painstakingly anal of story planners arrive at an identical point in the creative journey.

You don’t have to settle

You can dream as big, as outrageously, or as cleverly subtle, as you choose in selecting and crafting answers to the how? question with a series of genius what if…? propositions.

But only if how have the right high level dramatic question at the story level preceding it.

When you can answer all these questions, at all three levels – the basic dramatic questions that define your story… how you’ll get there… and the best what if? questions you can come up to make that journey compelling – you’ll have everything in your tool chest that you need to write the best story you have in you.

Think of your favorite stories… can you state the dramatic questions that reside at the heart of it?  Let’s hear from you on that. 

So many stories… so many questions.

{ 11 comments }

Deb Dorchak July 20, 2010 at 6:47 pm

Ahhhh Larry, you are like an angel offering confirmation. The basic questions, the “how” and especially “what if” are all the elements I’ve ever needed to tell a story. “What if” definitely gets the most use. Not only in storytelling, but in everything else I do.

So go ahead, LOVE the post, it’s worth loving.

Kelly July 20, 2010 at 11:39 pm

Hello, Larry. Kelly here.
“fundmental persective?” :)
Yep. The “What does he want?/Why?/Will he get it? If yes, how, if no, why not?” method is helpful to clarify goals; sometimes you get in so deep you can’t recall the original idea (a good reason to tape it above your computer…)
Having written many pages of “What if…” to clear out plot snarls, I agree with you; it’s a fabulous way to loosen up thinking, explore new avenues to layer complication.
For a favorite book: What if there was a special school for wizards? (Harry Potter)
What if a man had his brother murdered in order to curry favor from their father? (Kill and Tell)
What if you started a crime scene clean up business, knowing nothing about it? (Okay, it’s a movie– “Sunshine Cleaning.”)
Regards, Kelly

Larry July 21, 2010 at 9:23 am

@Kelly — “fundamental.” Fixed. Thanks.

First level dramatic questions for Harry Potter: Will Harry find his parents killer? Will justice and revenge prevail? At what cost? Will Harry become the Big Cheese Wizard whizz he’s destined to become? Mostly “yes or no” questions. As for the How? part, Rowling strung that one out for seven long books. Classic use of this story development strategy.

Colin Dunbar July 21, 2010 at 11:03 am

Hey Larry
You’re not the only who loves this post ;o) Great stuff!
Thanks.
Colin

Shane Arthur July 21, 2010 at 11:34 am

Is this summary valid?

~~~~~~
Will X happen?
How Will X happen?
What if I do this with X.
~~~~~~

Larry July 21, 2010 at 11:58 am

@Shane – nice. Simple, elegant, perfect.

Bruce H. Johnson July 21, 2010 at 10:47 pm

Excellent questions to put in our templates. Craft is the “what” we do, including the above questions (and the Six Core Comptencies). Art or creativity is “how” we do it. They are intermixed since neither survives without the other.

We as storytellers live in “interesting times” with the publishing revolution/evolution going on right now. As Larry has pointed out many times, your Craft has to be exquisite just to have a chance in the market.

Get these question in hard and then your creativity hopefully will be up to the “how” you actually do it with your words grabbing your reader by the throat and shaking his emotions.

Go write something wonderful!

David C July 22, 2010 at 5:57 am

Wonderful post, i love it too, thank you.
David C

Sandra S. Richardson July 22, 2010 at 2:38 pm

These two posts are wonderful, Larry. I’m going to be getting good use out of it all! :-)

Kelly July 24, 2010 at 7:20 am

Thanks for this Larry. After reading this post, I asked the question “does the hero reach her goal?” for my short story in progress. Asking that simple question led to so many other important questions: what is her goal? how is she going to achieve it? what obstacles are standing in her way? what is at stake if she doesn’t achieve her goal? This is a great, simple way to get to the heart of the story.

Becca July 27, 2010 at 11:28 am

Just wanted to let you know that I posted this on my website. I like to share the ones that mean something to me. You can find it here http://beccasmind.com/2010/07/23/the-most-important-questions-in-storytelling/
Thank you so much for all the help you share.

Becca

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