You’re writing away, trying to create a roller coaster of a story and you think you’ve got it. Brilliant, funny things happen! Great characters! Stimulating dialogue! Thrills! Chills! Oh my!
Then you read it and… it doesn’t feel like a story.
One possible answer: You haven’t found your story engine.
As audience members, we all know when the rumble of a story begins. It’s the point where you sit back, reach for the popcorn and settle in for the ride. But what does a writer do to engage us?
The engine that drives a story is a question the audience holds in their mind as they watch. It’s what keeps them there until they get the answer (the end). The events fall into place like dominoes, one after another, leading naturally to conflicts. Those conflicts explore an aspect of the original question.
Gosh it all sounds so academic doesn’t it? And it’s not. Okay then. Let’s try some examples.
By the end of the story, will the main character…
- Destroy the evil force that threatens the land?
- Claw their way out of poverty and be discovered for the wunderkind they are?
- Win the prize?
- Find love / get married / divorced / have a baby?
- Arrive at their destination without killing someone?
- Get back to where they belong?
- Learn what it means to…?
In murder mystery, it’s when a body is found and the question becomes whodunnit? It’s like the point in the roller coaster ride when something grabs onto the bottom of the cars and you’re pulled up the first hill with a jerk. There’s no getting off now. You’re in for the ride. Hang on and enjoy it.
Now, one nit to point out: This question I’m talking about is not one the character is asking. It’s the question the audience is asking. They may be the same thing, but they may not.
Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz asks if she can fly over the rainbow to a perfect place where there are no evil neighbours who steal dogs. The audience question could be, Is there really a perfect world somewhere?
Your job is to find out what question your story poses for your audience. One questions that can help you is to ask, Well, what’s at stake here? If your character loses, what do they lose? If they’re not losing much, there isn’t much of a story, so go back to the drawing board.
How the heck does this help?
Once you have a question, consider if it’s a question you’re interested in exploring. If you were to see that question on the back cover of a book, would you buy it? Refine until you would.
To do that consider:
- What other questions arise from your original question?
- What actions does that lead to?
In The Bourne Identity, Jason is found in the ocean with a bullet in his back and no memory. He finds himself in beautiful European landscapes chased by people determined to kill him. As he tries to find out who he is, he discovers innate knowledge and terrifying skills.
So for this story I’d say the question is How do you know if you’re good or evil? Leading to more questions. Does a good guy…
- Run from the authorities?
- Have a stash of passports, cash and guns?
- Kill people quickly and quietly with nothing but a pen?
Am I a monster or a well trained angel? What a terrifying question to ask yourself.
The questions will lead you to situations that show off the questions you’re asking. Which leads to another point…
Don’t ask Who? or What? ask How?
The question in genre fiction is inherent. In a romance, will s/he get the man/woman? Yes. In an overcoming the monster story, is the world saved? Yes. In a mystery, will the detective find the killer? It’s the butler.
In such stories, the ending isn’t in question. The question is the how.
- Romance: How will she be convinced that he’s the one? How will she win him over?
- Overcoming the monster: How will she kill that thing?
- Mystery: How does the detective figure it out?
I argue that all story questions are how questions. Some stories can start with mystery shrouding the action. What is going on? But there is a point when we figure out where the story is heading. We can see the roller coaster rising and falling ahead. But we haven’t ridden the thing yet.
In Sol Stein’s book The Childkeeper, there is an early discussion with a real estate agent that ends like this:
"Could you come up Sunday, say at two?" "Of course." "You'll bring the children?" "Yes." Stickney was pleased. Children were part of his strategy.
As audience, we’re asking, What is he planning? But the tension created by that question can only last so long. Eventually we have to learn what he’s planning. Once we know, the questions becomes how.
In a murder mystery the body is found and we ask who did it, how they did it, what’s their motivation? But the overarching question is, How will the detective figure it out?
The roller coaster is an excellent metaphor for a story’s plot. It is a ride that is constructed to give your audience an experience. You, as writer, decide what that experience will be. And if, at any time, the roller coaster stalls (when the question goes missing), your riders will jump off. You need to design those highs, spin them upside down and turn them around. That’s where the thrill is.
The biggest highs and dives of the coaster are confrontations with the antagonist. The question you select opens doors of conflict possibilities. Which means, you need to get in bed with your bad guy.
But that’s for next time…
- As you read or watch other works, try to figure out the question they pose.
- Fun alternative theories for The Wizard of Oz.