At the developmental stage, many writers know their characters inside out. (“My heroine’s eye colour is green. She’s a Gemini. Her favourite television show is CSI New York.”) They aren’t always so clear about what happens in their story. Plotting is hard!
This blog focuses on just one plotting technique, simple but mighty. It’s called the Story Question.
The Story Question shows up in Dwight V. Swain’s evergreen Techniques for the Selling Writer. According to Swain, any marketable story has five elements.
- Character: your main character X.
- Situation: the story “trouble” requiring X to act.
- Goal: what does X want to achieve or retain?
- Antagonist: their job is to resist X’s goal(s). Weak antagonists can ruin a story!
- Disaster: the dire threat X faces near story’s end.
Now map these five elements into two sentences: a statement, and a question.
The Statement nails your Character, Situation, and Goal.
The Question nails your Antagonist and Disaster.
Here is Swain’s pulp-fiction example.
When humans suddenly begin to grow to 12-foot height
Tries to find out why.
SENTENCE 1 (Statement)
But can he defeat
The traitors in high places
Who want to kill him in order to make the change appear to be a result of an extra-terrestrial plot?
SENTENCE 2 (Question)
The Story Question isn’t a magic formula, but it can trigger meaningful decisions about your work.
“This short story feels too lean because I haven’t really described my Situation.”
“Is X moving towards her overall Goal here, or is this scene just padding?”
“No wonder the tension sags in Act Three of my novel. The Antagonist is weak.”
“The Disaster happened early, so everything after it read like an anti-climax.”
In conclusion, if your characters are vivid but your story is relatively thin, try forming a Story Question. It nails down your key elements, and you can begin to create a compelling plot.