As I’m starting my next book, I’m working through all the beginning stages of creation and planning. I’ve got my character’s goals, motivations, and conflicts down. I’ve got my basic plot down—built from those goals. I’ve decided on how my characters need to change by the end of the story. And as I begin to write, my characters’ unique voices are coming to me as they speak and begin to move and come to life.
(As a side note, I always find this part so fascinating! Discovering my characters’ voices can sometimes be so subtle that I don’t even notice when it happens and sometimes their unique voice just bashes me over the head. Yesterday, I discovered that my hero, who I’d always thought of as an adventurous sort, revealed himself to me as an accountant. A numbers guy. He thinks and talks in numbers! An adventurous accountant? Hell, yeah! I’ll go with that. Why not?)
What I hadn’t yet found answers to, but perhaps I should have earlier, were some essential questions:
What is the story question?
What’s at stake?
What is the urgency?
Why should anyone care?
So, let’s go through these one by one and look at them and why they’re important.
The story question is the question that passively sits in the back of your reader’s mind as they read through your entire book. It is established in the very first chapter, possibly even on the first page, and isn’t fully answered until the last chapter. It is the promise you are making to your reader that this question will be answered by the end of the book. It is the reason why the reader needs to keep reading—to discover the answer.
You might think that the story question in a mystery novel would be “Will the killer be caught?” or in a romance “Will the hero get together with the heroine?”. But actually, those are questions for which the answer should be obvious. They are answered by the dictates of the genre. Yes, the killer will always be caught in a who-done-it mystery. The hero had better get together with the heroine by the end of a romance or else you really can’t call it a romance.
So, what is this story question? It is something much more closely tied to your specific characters and their goals. It is usually something along the lines of: “Will my character achieve their overarching goal?” For example: In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy travels to the magical land of Oz at the beginning of the story. We watch and agonize—Will Dorothy ever make it home again?
Is that Dorothy’s goal? Well, in a sense it is. Her goal is to be loved, feel safe and secure. Her goal is to find the concept of “home”. So, she not only wants and needs to get back to her physical home, she needs to find the loving comfort that is her emotional “home.” That is the story question: Will she ever find not only her physical home, but her emotional one as well?
But what’s at stake? What are your characters risking when they set out on their journey? When they become involved in this story. What might they lose if they don’t manage to attain their goal?
Dorothy could be stuck in this strange, scary world that she’s fallen into. She might never see her aunt and uncle whom she loves. She might never find the acceptance and safety she needs. She does a lot of growing up on her adventures, but she is still a child who needs a parent’s guidance—something she can only find at home.
Know what your characters will lose if they don’t attain their goals. Know what they are putting on the line by embarking on this journey.
And there needs to be a sense of urgency to the story. Why now? Why does what your character needs to do have to happen now? What is driving them forward, pushing them to work as hard as they can to attain their goals?
If Dorothy just laid back and enjoyed the comforts of Munchkintown, would anything bad have happened to her? Quite possibly. She had a witch after her. She was also told at the very beginning of the story when she first ran away and met Dr. Marvel, that her aunt was sick. Throughout the entire story, she’s desperately trying to get back home to her aunt to take care of her. There is definitely a ticking clock for Dorothy. She has to get home as quickly as possible!
Give your characters that same sense of urgency.
And finally, the most important question of all: Why should we care?
If your reader doesn’t care about your character and the difficulties they find themselves in, they’re not going to continue reading the book. You need to capture your readers, establish empathy, make them like—if not love—your main characters. And you need to start with yourself.
Yes, if you don’t love and want to spend time with your characters, your readers certainly won’t want to spend time with them either. You need to care. And you need to make your readers care. If you don’t, you won’t have readers for very long.
So… when should you ask yourself these questions?
I would say from the time you start writing. On the other hand, I have stopped on a number of occasions at various points of writing a book to re-visit these questions and make sure that my answers are still the same and that I am keeping them in mind.
It does help to know the answers to these questions as you plot, but as I’ve proven, you don’t need to know them then. It just helps to know them when you do actually sit down to start writing.