In effect, every successful story asks and then answers a “story question.” In the example above, the reader meets Joe, who is caught in a bear trap and struggling to get free. Obviously, the story’s question is, Will Joe be able to free himself and survive? We read on, trusting the author will supply us with a satisfying answer.
If you are not clear on your story’s plot, it is likely because you do not know your story’s questions. Once you ask these questions, you will vividly see where the story’s action must lead to provide the answers.
Here, then, are some basic story questions to consider when plotting your novel:
Whose story is it? (Who suffers most? Who changes most? Who is most active?) This is the protagonist.
What does this main character badly want?
Who or what gets in the way of her getting it? This is the antagonist.
(Repeat this list of questions when fleshing out the antagonist.)
What is the internal conflict?
What are the main characters’ weaknesses (limitations, flaws, baggage)? Hint: internal conflict often pushes a story along better than external conflict.
What is the external conflict?
What are the confrontations? The setbacks? (What goes wrong with the plans?)
Are there any twists (unexpected obstacles that make things more complicated)?
How do things keep getting worse?
What is the worst thing that can happen to this particular character? (Not just any nightmare, but this specific character’s worst nightmare.) Is time running out?
What is the revelation? (The insight, the new understanding of self or world.)
What is the choice? (The revelation, above, leads to a decision—often a change in character.)
What is the showdown?
How does it finally end? You may not know when you begin Chapter One. That’s okay. Some authors don’t want to know the end ahead of time. Trust that the resolution will come to you as you develop your characters and their tale comes alive.
The reader wants to learn the overall “story question” early in the tale, because this major question runs the length of the whole story, driving the action (and the reader’s interest). Additionally, the most compelling stories have minor questions embedded in every chapter or even every scene (“Will she grab his attention? Will she land the job?”). Stories that are impossible to put down delay answering the questions set up in one chapter until a later chapter—and by then, of course, the plot evokes more story questions that the reader longs to satisfy. (“How is she going to get out of this mess?”)
You need to consider your story’s questions prior to writing, during the plotting stage of your novel. It doesn’t mean you have to know exactly how the novel is going to unfold or end (and you may not want to know in advance). However, you need confidence the story has enough drive to sustain itself until the climax and final sentence. Musing about your story’s questions will lead you to have a strong sense of the story’s direction, and you will know most of the important consequences and complications that will unfold.