last updated: 6 September 2018 (approximate reading time: 5 minutes; 932 words)
When an author talks about one of their books, the question always comes: What is the book about? While the question posed is straightforward, what is being asked is a more complex combination of notions that I like to break into five questions.
question one: Who is the Main Character?
The first of the five question is simple: Who is the main character for the story? In other words, who is the protagonist?
A reader doesn’t want to know about an amusing character who only makes the briefest of appearances three-quarters through the book. They want to know about the protagonist with whom they will be spending much (if not all) of the book.
question two: What Does This Character Want?
Wrapped up with the question of who is the protagonist, is: What does that person want?
Everyone wants something. It may be physical or intangible, but everyone wants something. Always.
This want by the character is the basic engine that drives the story. The essence of a story is the character pursing this want. As the author, when it comes to writing the story I have to figure whether this desire matters enough to keep the reader gripped for 400 pages.
question three: What is Keeping the Character From Getting What They Want?
If the character wants something but there is an impediment to acquiring what they want, then we have an interesting basis for a story.
If there’s no impediment, then the story can essentially be reduced to: the character wanted something and so ordered it online; it was delivered shortly thereafter. Not much of a story, is it?
If the protagonist can’t achieve their goal, then they will have to struggle, and through this struggle they will reveal their character. In order to have an interesting story, whatever is standing in the way of the protagonist must be of sufficient weight to make the outcome of the struggle uncertain. The variability of a delivery firm’s schedule is not really enough to engage the reader.
question four: What Must the Character Sacrifice to Get What They Want?
We have a character who wants something and there is an impediment. The next question is: What is the character prepared to sacrifice to overcome that impediment? Will they give up money, status, a relationship, their health, or something else?
To have some significance—to make the heart of the story matter for the protagonist—this sacrifice must have consequences. These consequences must be ongoing consequences for the protagonist after the story ends—something that they will have to live with and face every day.
If the protagonist isn’t prepared to make sacrifices in order to achieve their goal, then that suggests the goal they are pursuing may not be that important to them. If the goal isn’t important to the protagonist, then it certainly won’t matter to the reader.
question five: What is At Stake?
This final question could be reworded: If the protagonist fails, then what? If the protagonist doesn’t achieve their goal, what is the consequence?
Where the fourth question teases out some of the internal issues for the protagonist, this last question looks to the external issues. The consequences of failure will be felt by the protagonist, but they may be felt even more strongly by other characters.
This question is important because the desire to prevent this negative consequence is often the motivator for the protagonist. Anyone can want something, but having a consequence for failure that may also impact upon other people obliges the protagonist to act even though in choosing to act they may be obliged to sacrifice something.
And of course, there is the potential for a double loss. Having lost everything they were prepared to sacrifice to pursue their goal, the protagonist may still not achieve their goal.
Five Questions in Practice
If you’re looking for examples of the five questions being applied in practice, follow this link.
Questions Asked… Now What?
Answering these five questions reveals the core of the story.
The other side to these questions is that, until these five questions can be answered, there is no story, or at the least there will be holes in the setup which are likely to lead to the story falling flat or falling apart.
When I come to write a book, I answer these five questions for myself to help solidify my understanding of the story. These five questions are my canary in the coal mine—unless I can answer the questions, then I don’t have a grasp on the story.
And once I do have a grasp, then these questions are my map and guiding star to ensure that I focus on telling that story. Twists and turns are always good. Sub plots add detail and complication. But fundamentally, I need to be sure that the correct story is being told.
Not Forgetting the Reader
In talking about the five question, I’ve only hinted at a very important factor: the reader. Once the questions are answered—and the core of the story is solidified—I can ask myself a far more commercial question: Will the reader care?
Specifically, will the reader care about what the protagonist wants? Is this a journey that the reader will want to take with the protagonist? Will the reader care about the stakes and what the protagonist has to sacrifice?
I might have a perfectly constructed story, but if the reader simply won’t care, then maybe it’s not a story worth telling.
When it comes to telling the story, I move from these five questions to build something with a more formal structure.