How to create a compelling story question

Your story question is the lifeblood of your novel. It’s the question burning in your reader’s mind as they turn each page, the question they simply have to know the answer to. But it’s also something plenty of authors get wrong, so I’ve put together this short post to explain what exactly a story question is and how it should be integrated into your writing.

So, what is it exactly?

A story question is just that – a question within your story. It’s the fundamental question that your reader wants to know the answer to as they turn the page. It’s also the question that gets answered in your resolution.

A story question can take many forms. It can be something external, like ‘Will Sir Francis foil the plot to assassinate the king?’ It can be something related to the relationships between the characters, like ‘Will Anne marry Lord Carmichael?’ Or it can be something related to the internal life of a character, like ‘Will Mary be able to move on with her life after the death of her husband?’

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Think of some of your favourite historical fiction novels and have a go at pinpointing what the central story question is in each. It’ll aid your understanding to see how other authors do it.

Three common story question mistakes

Writers don’t always get their story question right. Here are three common mistakes:

Introducing it too late. The story question should be introduced in the first half of act 1, preferably within the first four or five chapters (chapters 3, 4, and 5 are popular choices since chapters 1 and 2 should focus on hooking the reader and introducing the characters and story world).

Resolving it too quickly. Once you’ve introduced your story question, don’t answer it until the resolution at the end of your book. It’s the reason your reader is going to keep turning the page, so don’t resolve it halfway through!

Shifting from question to question. Sometimes writers make the mistake of introducing a story question, resolving it, and then introducing another one. They might repeat this several times, giving the plot an episodic structure. This makes it difficult for your reader to engage with your novel as they’re constantly being pulled this way and that, not knowing which storyline they should invest in.

How many story questions can I have?

That said, it is possible for a novel to have more than one story question. For example, there might be a primary, external story question, with a secondary story question that might be romantic or internal in nature. In a layered plot with multiple POVs/narrators and/or multiple timelines, there might also be a few different external story questions that persist together throughout the book or series. For example, in A Song of Ice and Fire, the story question of the White Walkers runs parallel to the question of who will win the battle for the throne.

If you have more than one story question, make sure the different questions interact with each other or have consequences for each other, otherwise the plot will feel fragmented.

Your story question can make or break your novel. If you create a compelling one and execute it effectively, it can be the first vital step to success. Good luck!

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Andrew Noakes

View posts by Andrew Noakes
Andrew is a specialist historical fiction editor based in London, UK.
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