When I’m working on an edit for an author’s story, the first thing I ask myself once I finish my first cold read—before I start on the deep-dive edit, before I even consider any other story elements—is, What is the central story question?
This is what tells me what the manuscript is about, big-picture, what story the author wanted to tell, and it frames my interpretation of the author’s vision as I tailor my comments and suggestions to try to help her achieve it. I also use it as a diagnostic and defining tool to make sure the story has an overall suspense arc that drives the narrative.
Your story question is basically the main thing readers are reading to find out, the uber-question that keeps us turning pages to find the answer. Not to be confused with theme, which is the underlying or larger meaning of your story, the story question is a specific uncertainty that has a tangible concrete answer, its central propulsive drive.
In Titanic it’s Will Jack and Rose be together. In Black Panther it’s Will T’Challa be able to protect Wakanda and her people from a harmful ruler. In The Hunger Games it’s Will Katniss survive to keep her family together.
If I can’t pin down the story question, chances are the story itself may need more focus or development—a muddy or missing story question is like trying to stand upright without a spine: It’s the backbone of your story, and defining yours clearly at the outset, before you even begin to write, will do wonders for keeping your story on track.
Your story question may be evident from the beginning—as with Little Fires Everywhere when readers want to know from the very first chapter why Izzy lit the fires. In How Stella Got Her Groove Back or Where’d You Go, Bernadette? it’s right there in the title.
Or it may come clear as the story unfolds—in Gone Girl, the main story question is something like, Who will win—Nick or Amy? But that becomes clear only after we resolve the first story question, Did Nick kill his wife?
But the question should raise a delicious uncertainty in readers’ minds that readers are driven to resolve—and that’s why we are compelled to read on. And it shouldn’t be fully resolved until the climax of your story.
Can you identify in your own WIP the central thing at stake for your protagonist(s)—the main question readers are reading to find out the answer to? It may or may not reflect your character(s)’ goal—in Hunger Games it does, for instance, but in Little Fires Everywhere it doesn’t. In Gone Girl, while the central story question has to do with who will win the Nick and Amy cat-and-mouse game, their individual goals are different: Nick’s driving purpose is to avoid arrest for her murder, and Amy’s is to frame Nick.
Story question relates more to the reader’s experience—what central unknown or uncertainty we desperately want to see resolved.
If you can’t quite articulate what yours is, one way to think of it that can be helpful is, What made you want to write the story? What dilemma or challenge did you want to explore? Or try asking some of your beta readers or crit partners to sum up the main thing they wondered about or were burning to discover the answer to in their read of your manuscript.
The more specific and concrete you can be in identifying the central story question, the more it can help guide your story, a North Star that will help keep it focused. Remember that it’s not the theme, which can be more general (“Can love triumph in the face of opposition and class boundaries?”) and it’s not your character’s motivation or inner journey (“Can she learn to trust herself and pursue her dreams?”).
The more specific and concrete you can be in identifying the central story question, the more it can help guide your story.
It’s also not a thumbnail synopsis—a central story question is just a crystallized nugget of the story, that central uncertainty or mystery that keeps readers turning pages to find the answer. Can you distill it down to that essence? What is the main, specific thing hangs in the balance that makes us keep turning pages to get the answer?
Story questions are concrete, specific unknowns with clear, tangible resolutions. The more specific you can get, the more useful this question will be as the lodestar of your story to help keep it focused and cohesive: Will Rose choose Jack and the unknown or Cal and financial security?
Get really granular–the more specific you are, the stronger and more affecting and effective it will be. For instance, in the movie Up the old man wants to honor his dead wife’s dreams of adventure she never got to have–but that’s an amorphous goal. We can’t root for that because it’s a fuzzy finish line. But the tangible manifestation of that is his putting their house on that damn cliff.
As a bonus, your story question can often later pull double duty in forming part of your log line, elevator pitch, back cover copy, agent cover letter, etc., as usually it conveys the central “nut” of your story in a powerful, clear way. Multitasking! One of my favorite things in writing and editing.
Making sure you know the central uncertainty or “spine” of the story can help keep it focused, sustain momentum, and keep readers reading.