What, exactly, makes a good story? Is it a strong cast of characters people can relate to and root for? Is it strong prose that transports the reader to another world? Is it a plot so exciting and twisty it could qualify among the top death defying roller coasters in the history of ever?
No, it’s something more simple than all that (though those points also play a part in making a good story). The two things that are key to a good story are the Question and the Answer.
At its very basic level, a story begins with a burning question.
Will Frodo succeed in destroying the Ring? Will Thomas find a way out of the maze? Will Harry defeat Voldemort? And so on and so forth. That’s the basis of your beginning. The ending, therefore, is the answer to the question asked in chapter one.
Sounds simple, yeah? Sometimes it is, but oftentimes it takes a while before you figure out what your question is, much less your answer. If I don’t know what my story is asking, I spend a lot of time writing useless junk. While this can be good for getting the junk out of my head it doesn’t save any time or headaches when writing on a deadline or actually finishing a project.
1. First and foremost, take a look at your main character/s. What do they want? What do they need? What is driving them?
2. Consider the world you’re characters are in. What’s going on at a local level? A state/providence/whatever level? A national/kingdom level? A galactic level, if you wanna explore off world?These social environments can easily pose the question you need.
3. Your supporting cast. What do they need and want, what are they willing to do to get it, and how does that affect your main character/s?
Once you have some of that sketched out it’s easy to get lost in the sheer amount of options you now have. Pick the most interesting one out of the bunch, the one that has you slobbering and straining to get to the keyboard and work on. That will be your main question (you can layer in other questions as sub plots, but that’s a post for another time).
Now, to find your answer.
Yes, Frodo destroys the ring, but it costs him almost everything. Yes, Thomas finds a way out of the maze, but then into something much worse. Yes, Harry defeats Voldemort, but it takes a civil war and many deaths.
And the answer doesn’t always have to be yes. In Game of Thrones, Ned Stark sets out to expose the corruption hovering around the king and almost succeeds, but his sense of honor trips him up and gets him killed before he can accomplish that. In essence, it’s worth a good long brainstorm to figure out what kind of answer to pair with your question. Shake it up. See what kind of interesting twists you can put on it.
Once you have both question and answer, my advice is to put them up on a wall where you can look at them regularly. This helps reaffirm what your story is about and where it is going by keeping the core elements in the forefront of your mind. If the question and answer change, change the copy on the wall. Don’t try to keep it all in your head, there’s no need to make writing any harder than it already is.
Do you have any tips or methods you use in finding the core Q&A of your story? If so, share them in the comments!
A couple more resources: