I’m back this week with your first in-depth look at that elusive creature we call “Prewriting.” We’ve already discussed what prewriting is and why you should engage in it. Today we’re going to talk about your initial steps in wrangling it.
The working title is optional. Sometimes you’ll have one. Sometimes you won’t. Chances are, you’ll change it several times and your final product will look very different from your first.
Me, I prefer having a working title because it lets me categorize this story that’s still an amorphous blob in my creative consciousness. When I tell someone that I’m working on a new story, they respond one of two questions: “What’s it about?” or “What’s it called?” A working title helps me answer these questions, both to the other person and to myself.
When I can’t come up with a good one, I stick in a placeholder and move on. (Finalizing the title falls within the realm of marketing, and that, my dears, is Josh’s baby.) Thus, I have on my authorial back burner Deren’s Story, Taeven’s Story, Rowan’s Story….
“What’s it about?” Well, it’s about this guy named Deren who steals a dragon egg and flees his homeland to hide among outlaws while trying to figure out who his real father is.
“What’s it called?” Right now, Deren’s Story.
You get the picture.
The Story Question
What’s It For?
When you’ve jotted down your working title (and by “jot,” I mean don’t spend a whole lotta time on it), you’re ready to figure out your story question.
You want a story that’s focused. Tight. You want a story that makes your readers look up from it at the end and say, “Holy smokes, that was good.”
Yes. You want your readers to say “holy smokes.” Trust me.
In order to craft a story that satisfying, you need to keep it on track from start to finish. Your tool for this, my dear inklings, is the story question.
The story question is the question your plot must answer before you can write “The End.”
As you write and revise, ask yourself:
- Does this scene point toward answering the story question?
- Does this character contribute to answering the story question?
- Does this chapter move the protagonist toward the answer to the story question?
If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” then it’s time for some cutting and slashing.*
Yes or No?
Okay, so what does a story question look like?
The story question should:
- describe what the protagonist wants
- concern whether or not s/he gets what s/he wants
- always have a “yes” or “no” answer.
Will Frodo find a way to destroy the One Ring (despite Sauron’s best efforts)?
Will Captain Ahab kill his old enemy (despite Moby Dick’s best efforts)?
Will Jack win Rose’s heart before they all die (despite her fiancé’s best efforts)?
Those are good story questions. They encapsulate the conflict, they anchor your characters and narrative, and they give the reader a reference point to return to over and over again throughout the story.
Now, you’ll notice that in each story question, I put the antagonist’s role in parentheses. That’s because naming the antagonist’s goal is not necessary for the story question. The antagonist’s goal should be in direct opposition to the protagonist’s. Sauron doesn’t want the Ring destroyed. Moby Dick wants to live. Rose’s fiancé wants to keep her for himself.
As soon as you state the protagonist’s goal, the antagonist’s goal is implied. The only thing left–and this is what your plot must answer by the end of the last page–is which one of them gets what they want.
The story question should have a “yes” or “no” answer.
In Moby Dick, the answer is “no”: Captain Ahab does not kill the whale but brings about his own death instead. But the ending is still satisfying because the narrator survives to tell the tale, and the reader knows that Ahab’s death is poetic justice for his crazed thirst for vengeance.
But sometimes, even a “yes” doesn’t mean everything is hunky-dory. Frodo brings the One Ring to Mount Doom, and the Ring ends up destroyed. Frodo gets what he wants. Sauron doesn’t. The answer to the story question is “yes…but Frodo himself doesn’t destroy the Ring.” “Yes…but Frodo carries the physical and spiritual scars of his quest for the rest of his life.”
The answer to Jack’s story question in the film Titanic is also “yes…but”: He wins Rose’s love, and she leaves her fiancé. “Yes…but Jack dies in the end.”
The “yes…but” answer to the story question is satisfying, but that doesn’t mean everything turns out perfectly for the protagonist. In the “yes…but” answer, you have the opportunity to infuse the element of sacrifice into your story.
I’m Not Sure
So. You’ve crafted a story question, and you’re ready to answer it–to yourself, if not in the actual writing of the story.
If your answer to the story question is “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure,” then you’ve discovered something you need to work on. Here are a few possibilities:
- You haven’t clarified what the protagonist wants.
- You haven’t chosen the most interesting character as your protagonist.
- Your antagonist’s goal is not directly opposed to the protagonist’s goal.
It’s also possible you haven’t formulated your story question well. Make sure to ask it in a way that requires a “yes” or “no” answer. “How does Frodo get the Ring to Mount Doom?” is not an effective story question. Neither is “What drives Ahab to pursue Moby Dick?”
Even “Will Jack gain acceptance from Rose’s family so that he can be with her?” doesn’t get you far enough. You have to go for the bare essentials — Jack + Rose’s love + (fiancé’s antipathy) — before you’ll have a story question that keeps your narrative focused from start to finish.
Your well-crafted story question clarifies your characters, your plot points, and your narrative. It anchors your story in your readers’ minds and makes a satisfying ending possible.
*By which I mean the cutting and slashing of characters or scenes or chapters. Although if your character needs to do some cutting and slashing of other characters in order to answer the story question, then go for it.
Courtney Cantrell is Head of the School of Writing for the Consortium and author of the epic fantasy Rethana’s Surrender. Every Monday she shares an article about storytelling technique.
Find out more about Courtney Cantrell at her author website.