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On Story Structure: The Story Question Worksheet

It was a couple weeks ago when I talked about the importance of designing good story questions. Since then I’ve talked about the diverse properties of bones, and some rules for using story questions to build a structurally sound novel.

Leaving out the cute story about my kid, most of the discussion has been about why and where you should define story questions to help move your story along. Today, I want to talk about when and how.

The Story Question Worksheet (Creative Writing Exercise)

The lovely Kelley, writing at a coffee shopThe answer to “When?” as far as I’m concerned, is “As soon as possible.”

  • This is prewriting. This is basic structural stuff, and you should have it in place when you start writing.
  • If you don’t, if you’re mid-story and reading this and realizing you’ve never considered your story question(s), now’s the time. Figure it out before you write the next chapter.
  • If you’re already finished with a question-less (or instinctively-structured story), now would be a great time to figure out your story questions as part of a focused, deliberate rewrite.

I can hardly throw all that at you without a “how to,” though. I went over most of the details back when I described what a story question is. But today I wanted to provide a worksheet to help you work through how you’ve implemented them.

1. Define Your Story Questions

As I said yesterday, you need to have a separate, fully-developed story question (with satisfying resolution) for every subplot in your novel. Let’s start out by defining them. Work through the following questions separately for each subplot (starting with your main plot).

A. Who is the protagonist?

For this particular question, who’s the protagonist? Who is most impacted by the (sub)plot?

B. What does the protagonist want most?

Once you’re working on subplots, “most” in this case includes a disclaimer of  “relevant to the topic under discussion.” I gave an example of a hero who wants to survive a zombie attack and wants to pay his rent. Within the subplot related to the protagonist’s money, paying his rent is what he wants most.

C. Who is the antagonist?

Commercial fiction works best when there’s a single, clear, human(ish) antagonist. Antagonists work best when they’re in unrestrained and direct conflict with the hero. So, concerning this story question, who wants exactly the opposite of what the protagonist wants? In the zombie story, it might be the Zombielord. In the rent subplot, it might be the landlord who’s looking for any excuse to evict his tenant.

D. Put the pieces together.

You don’t need a D to parallel B (“What does the antagonist want?”) because the antagonist wants the opposite of what the protagonist wants. That’s all there is to it. It is handy to come up with a “why” for the antagonist, but I’m not necessarily going to make you do that here and now. You only need these three pieces to build an effective story question.

Remember that a good story question should require a yes/no answer. It will often take the form

Will [1A] [1B] despite the best efforts of [1C]?

So you get

Will Harry survive the zombie attack despite the best efforts of the Zombielord?

Or

Will Harry find a way to pay the rent despite the best efforts of his jerk of a landlord?

Easy yes or no questions, which makes it easy to see at a glance if the resolution is a happy ending or a sad ending. Either one can be satisfying (if sad), but only if they’re clear. That’s the advantage you get knowing your story question.

2. Evaluate Your Story Questions

Now that you’ve got a clear list of all your story questions, it’s time to evaluate how well they work. Remember, these are the structural elements that define your story. Take some time to make sure you’ve put them together in the best way.

A. Double-check your protagonists

For each question, re-evaluate your cast of characters and make sure you’ve chosen the most interesting character for the question.

B. Sort your story questions

Arrange all your story question from most interesting to least interesting. Look them over critically and make absolutely sure your most interesting story question is the primary plot. Make sure the story is designed, start to finish, to provide a satisfying answer to that question.

And keep this list. If you end up with a bloated story (whether it’s over-complicated or just over-long), you can trim it down by cutting subplots. You always want to start with the least interesting and move up from there.

When you’re done ordering, assign every question a number for later reference.

3. Evaluate Your Scene Questions

If you go back to the article I referenced before, it spent as much time talking about Scene Questions as Story Questions.

Now that you know your major story questions, you can design the structure of your entire story (scene-by-scene) according to those questions.

For each scene, ask yourself:

A. Which story question does this scene address?

B. Am I telling it from the right point of view?

C. How does this scene advance its plot?

4. Evaluate Your Story’s Structure

You probably have a good idea how a story arc works. The protagonist faces obstacles of increasing difficulties, each one including a significant setback, right up until he reaches a climax that results in resolution (a clear yes or no ending to the story question).

Your scenes should be structured to work through that process for every single subplot. Now that you know which scenes apply to which subplots, you should be able to separate them out into ordered lists. Maybe your primary plot consists of scenes 1 -> 2->3->5->6->8->9…. and subplot 2 consists of scenes 4 -> 7 -> 10….

Now look at each story arc separately and evaluate how it works.

A. Where in the story (which scene) introduces this subplot?

More important subplots should generally start sooner.

B. How long is this subplot (in scenes out of the total)?

More important subplots should generally take up a larger portion of the story.

C. Where in the story (which scene) provides the final answer to the story question?

More important subplots should generally end later.

D. Is it a satisfying ending?

This isn’t as difficult a question to answer as it might seem. There’s a reason it’s the last question on the worksheet, though. The answer to this question depends on several factors:

  • Did you spend enough time developing the subplot? That’s why we went to the trouble of counting out scenes.
  • Did you make every aspect of the story question clear to the reader, as early as possible? Remember that sometimes story questions can depend on careful nuance, and that nuance needs to be conveyed all the way through.
  • Did you answer the story question in a clear and definite way?

If you can answer each of those three questions with a “yes,” you’ve got a satisfying ending. That doesn’t guarantee it’s an interesting or exciting or happy ending, but it’s satisfying.

If you have to answer one of them with a “no” (or, more likely, with an, “I’m not sure”), then you know exactly what to work on in your story.

  • If the story question doesn’t really become clear until halfway through the novel, you should go back to the scene where you introduce it and find a way to clarify right there.
  • If there are nuances to your story question that determine how effective your resolution can be, go back to every scene relating to that story and see if it points your reader toward the nuances. If not, look for ways to shore that up.
  • If the final answer to your question is vague… well, you can change the resolution, but it’s quite possible you really just need to add nuance to it. Or make the question itself clearer. Then again, you might just need to spell it out right in your protagonist’s thoughts. “She loved me. She really loved me. And that was all I ever needed.”

That works whether you’re looking at a prewriting package and evaluating your scene list, or you’re looking at a finished novel trying to figure out why it doesn’t feel quite finished. Work it through the story question worksheet, figure out what’s loose or weak or vague, and tighten it up until every piece is pointing straight toward the answer to an interesting question.

Do that, and you’ll find yourself with a remarkably effective ending. That’s what story structure is for.

2 Responses to “On Story Structure: The Story Question Worksheet”

  1. Joshua Unruh says:

    For a somewhat on-the-fly or simplified way of talking about this, go read http://rdonoghue.blogspot.com/2011/06/underpants-adventures.html

    Who doesn’t want to talk about Underpants Adventures instead of Story Questions?

  2. [...] In the excerpt posted below from the opening of “Pink Snow,” you’ll find that not only are my two characters introduced immediately through dialogue and narration, but main conflicts in the story are brought up immediately, which points to the story question – that is, the question(s) the reader should be asking that should, likewise, be answered by the end of the story. (For how to come up with your story question and introduce it, read this article HERE.) [...]

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