Monday, 26 October 2009

the evolution of a story question

Story question: the key question, set up by the inciting incident, that keeps the reader turning the page to find out the answer. I think this post by Annette Lyon at Writing on the Wall, and this post by Jordan McCollum, explain better than I could.

When I started revisions for THE INFERNAL FAMILY, I defined the story question as, "Will Johann rescue his friend's daughter?" But as I revised, I realised that saving the friend's daughter was actually symbolic of a larger question.

Having ditched his biological family (demon) and legal family (abusive), protagonist Johann believes that real family is something you choose with people you love: like the kid he raised and thinks of as his son, his close friend, and her daughter. This is the stable, loving family he's always dreamed of.

In the first 4000 words the antagonist kills his son and steals his friend's daughter, and the friend is so outraged by his part in her daughter's kidnap that she bails out. Bang. No family. If he saves his friend's daughter, maybe he can get his friend back as well, and then he can reassemble a family worth having.

So a better question is, "Will Johann put what's left of his family back together?"

Then I realised that that was too simplistic. 99% of fiction has a happy ending, and while I'm a fan of the apocalyptic tragedy endings, unfortunately the thematic elements of this novel constrained me to a happy ending. So you can confidently answer "Yes", to the story question. And I don't want the conflict to feel predictable. If you can answer the story question before you even pick up the novel, I think something may be wrong.

When I looked a little deeper - especially at how much at fault he is, or feels he is, for everything that happens in those first 4000 words (not to mention torturing people and being a borderline sociopath) - I realised a better question was, "Does Johann deserve to put his family back together?"

Not so predictable. (I hope.)


  1. The question.
    This is what I am struggling with.

  2. I'd better think of a story question for my Nanowrimo (Which happens to be fantasy). How about this:

    Should he join the "evil side" who are actually in the right, or stick with the "good guys" who are really in the wrong?

  3. Ah! I like that question, JC. The answer is not immediately obvious to me, which suggests that the story may be interestingly unpredictable and/or full of those delicious moral grey areas. Tasty. :D