The Three Core Story Questions

This is a paradigm I stumbled on by accident at a small writing conference in…in…

You know?  I can’t even remember.  Good job me…

Point being the gentleman doing the talking described the conflicts of story in a unique way and today I will share them with you.  A far more conceptual take on the idea of story questions.

Okay, so what is a story question?

A story question, usually, is the conflict of your novel.  The WILL HE SUCCEED? of your the elevator pitch, the element of uncertainty that keeps the plot interesting.  But sometimes that question isn’t easy to put into words.  That’s where these questions come in.

At some level this idea runs counter to the story question described in the elevator pitch.  Boiling all possible stories down to three ideas is a little absurd after coming up with a unique pitch for your unique story.  However sometimes ideas don’t come together so neatly, and it takes some time and thinking to get everything to make sense.  I think it’s best to view these as that sort of meditating tool.  These are three very basic questions from which uncountable stories can flow.  Usually stories contain elements of all of them.  The particular mix will depend on the story you want to write (and possibly the genre you want to write in).  Determining which one(s) you want to focus on can help narrow your focus and get the ideas flowing in constructive directions.

Will Tomorrow Be Better?

This is usually the arch-question.  The big one.  The one that justifies every strange and wacky thing you inflict on your protagonist.  Will tomorrow be better?  Can I save the farm from foreclosure?  Will picking a King end the troubles plaguing the land?  Will robbing the rich to feed the poor really bring social change?  Can I really make more money with a flop than with a hit?

This is usually the most obvious of the questions, because usually it’s the one with the most tangible impact on the world.  The only way tomorrow is better is if changes happen today.  So the hero starts making changes, which make waves, which earns him both allies and enemies, who add complications to the struggle, which forces the hero to react, and so on until the story ends.

Plots that focus on this question tend to be action focused.  Summer blockbusters, slapstick comedies, high-stakes dramas, and, of course, a lot of fantasy, and science fiction.

Will I Find Love?

While it is entirely possible to write a story that foregoes the first question, this question is so universal you have to be actively trying to avoid it.  Will I find love?  Can I prove worthy of the head cheerleader’s affections?  Will my parents accept me for who I really am?  Who could ever learn to love a beast?  Does he love me for me, or just for my beauty?  Why does society hate people like me?  All those questions and more fall under this umbrella, and a romance side story is so common I’ve seen at least at least one screenwriter simply call the B-plot* the romance.

I do not necessarily mean romantic love.  Ties of friendship and family are often just as powerful (if not more so) in the right circumstances and they all fall under this umbrella.  Basically any story with strong themes of interpersonal connection: High-school drama, office comedy, slice of life, LGBT focused fiction, and of course good old fashioned trashy romance novels, will have strong elements of this question.

Who Am I?

Here is where we get rather philosophical, because there is a famous saying that all stories can be boiled down to this question.  And while I don’t think that sentiment is entirely correct, it’s certainly not wrong either.

Basically every story is a series of choices, and watching the protagonist be forced to make them generates the story.  And every choice your protagonist makes tells you more about their character.  Where do they excel?  Where do they fail?  How do they recover from poor decisions?  Do they learn from their mistakes or keep making them, only bigger?  Does making the “right” choice always go well for them?  Does making the wrong one always go poorly?

In short every story does have an element of this.  There are exceptions, but they are usually of a sort where this question is very much out of focus.  The Captain America movies, for example, operate under the assumption that Steve Rodgers is basically about as morally good as humanly possible and it is the world that has to change to meet his standards.  It is, I should note, very hard to get that particular kind of story right.  Any story where the main character is always right and it’s the world that has to change is a precarious proposition.  Without the element of Who Am I, you tend to get bad characters–and nothing kills a story faster than a bad protagonist.

Conclusion (Story Time)

When I was fifteen I got the idea to stop making up characters for other people’s stuff, and start working on stuff that was mine and mine alone.  That first idea, hammered at again and again over my teen-aged years was a video game about a jester named Giacomo (a cookie to anyone who gets that reference) who was trying to stop an evil wizard from taking over the kingdom.  The twist, my clever teenage self came up with, was that said evil wizard wasn’t evil and you–o wisecracking clown–were actually working for the bad guy (the original king) this whole time.

Not too awful, but Giacomo had no motivation of his own to be a good guy…other than the vague sort of “but thou must” style of heroism video game protagonists often get slapped with.  And if I was going to pull the rug out from under the player and make them the bad guy’s stooge, I couldn’t give them “but thou must” as the only reason to go along with this plot.  I needed to get sneaky.

I thought about Giacomo and how he related to the grander world at large that he was currently forced to explore.  What was his better tomorrow?

I thought about how he related to people and what he cared about…what was the love he sought?

And I thought about the sort of person who would go adventuring in dirty caves, frosty mountains and freaking volcanoes wearing a jester’s motley…what manner of man was Giacomo?  Who was he?

And somewhere in that thinking I had a revelation.  The sort of “ah-ha” moment that sticks with you and justifies why you get into this whole writing gig in the first place.  Giacomo was not the high minded fusion of Link and Bugs Bunny that I had intended…he was closer to Daffy Duck.  See, the reason he’s out here doing all this video game hero stuff is that with the King out of power (and the new boss notably detesting him) he’s out of a job.  No longer is he the King’s jester…just some commoner in a stupid outfit.  He can’t go back to the life to which he was doomed before he became an entertainer.

His today is worse than his yesterday, so he quests to bring back what he lost.

He loves the laughter and applause of his position and so fights to retain it.  And he’s just delusional enough to think he’s the hero of this story, and so anything to restore the rightful order of the world (in his head) is justified.

And so he undertakes this grand epic quest…to keep his job, the smallest most boring reason anyone does anything.

Suddenly several things fell into place, and plot existed where there was none before, characters that were little more than skeletons suddenly had flesh and depth.  And the whole thing unraveled from that revelation.  It was glorious.

So try this yourself.  See if it helps.

Until next time, keep writing.

*A B-plot is a secondary plot that interweaves throughout the main story (a.k.a. the A-plot) detailing some tangentially important aspect of the story that eventually rejoins the main plot usually right before the climax.

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