Questions, Hooks, and Goals

Sounds like a game played by philosopher-shepherds, doesn’t it? Just to me? Fair enough.

Today we’re going to talk about story questions and protagonist goals! Why today, you ask? Why, because I’m starting a new short story as I’m reading Conspiracy and before I read Shaken, and I need to clarify the story question before I get started.

A story question, according to Jim, goes like this:

*WHEN SOMETHING HAPPENS*, *YOUR PROTAGONIST* *PURSUES A GOAL*. But will he succeed when *ANTAGONIST PROVIDES OPPOSITION*?

But why do this?

…By getting your story broken down into its basic elements, you’ll help yourself focus on the most important portion of the novel and avoid dumping lots of extra words into it. Always write a story as lean as you possibly can (and still be happy with it). Every scene and every sequel should be planned to move your story forward–and you should have the purpose of the scene in mind as you write it.

Yes, indeed. I did this for Shaken, and that book is one lean, muscular sucker. Conspiracy… well… I didn’t do this, and that flabby monster of a book meanders all over the place. Not good.

So let’s look at this in action. I’m writing a story about two oldish ladies running for mayor in a hippy town like the one I call home. One of them discovers the other is using magic to swing the election her way, and our protagonist must decide if she wants to sink to the other’s level to win the election. Can I break it down into a lean, mean question, though?

When she discovers her opponent is using magic to win voters and hurt the competition, Marion must become a witch so she can counter her opponent’s magical measures. But will Marion succeed when her opponent turns her spells against her?

Well, aside from some unclear pronouns, that worked pretty well, didn’t it?

Here’s the trouble, though: that’s a pretty passive way of looking at it. Marion, my protagonist, is reacting to her opponent, and that’s it.

Kristen Lamb advocates boiling a book down to one sentence to show what it’s about. Doing that will show you (a) whether or not you know what your book is really about and (b) whether or not you’re writing about a real conflict.

Too many new writers do not present the story goal, or the goal is passive. Passive goals suck. Passive goals are like “containing Communism.” Guess what? Didn’t work in Vietnam, and it won’t work in our story either.

Marion has a clear goal: learn magic so she can win the election before her opponent turns the town’s residents into frogs. There’s a real conflict: her opponent is using magic to win over the public and to take the competition out of the running. But “Will Marion succeed when her opponent turns her spells against her?” is weak. That’s not saying much about the real meat of the story.

How about this: But will Marion succeed before she and her opponent tear the town apart with their spells?

That’s definitely better. You can still tell that I haven’t finished plotting out the story. (I know, I know, shame on me for writing about it before I’ve even hammered out the details.) Still, that’s pretty interesting, with clear conflicts and clear goals.

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this little glimpse into my creative process, but now it’s your turn. What do you think? Do you distill your work this way? Is there any hope for my story question?

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8 thoughts on “Questions, Hooks, and Goals

  1. When she discovers her opponent is using magic to win voters and hurt the competition, Marion must become a witch so she can counter her opponent’s magical measures. But will Marion succeed when her opponent turns her spells against her?

    Okay my first gripe is who is Marion and why do I care? We don’t need names, we need qualities. Then, as is (my POV) what you have feels like an event, not a story. Also, learning magic is the story goal and it is kinda weak and we kind of already know rival will turn her magic against her. This is a case three sentences might work better.

    When a retired teacher runs for mayor, she never imagined she’d be up against her best friend…let alone the Devil. Will Marion expose her rival’s use of the dark arts or learn them herself and beat her old friend at her own game? Is there a way for Marion keep her friend…without losing her soul?

    That last sentence gives a nice play on words because she there is another way she could lose her soul (aside from the dark arts). She could get so focused on being mayor (“winning”) that she becomes a monster who fails to focus on the right priorities.

    Now that we have your log-line pitch, this is easy to put on a narrative structure. Here is just a wild shot at plotting your story and feel free to use it if it suits you. So forgive:

    Normal world we see Marion and pal getting along, maybe playing bridge. They were teachers for years and looked forward to retirement but now they are bored stiff. Have too much free time (Marion doesn’t know what all her pal has been “learning” in her free time).

    We know they have been friends for ages. Announcement is made that the mayor who has been an incumbent for YEARS has died in bed with a hooker and now the spot is open for new blood (Inciting Incident).

    The two friends dance and squeal and hop around happy and tell each other “You should do it” “Oh, no. You should do it!” Neither realizes the other actually took it seriously and they BOTH DID it.

    Turning point Act One is the announcement that they BOTH are candidates. This is when the competition ignites since neither will bow out. Have a cute little argument here. “You told me I should do this.” “Well, you said I should.”

    Act One they are neck and neck. Friends and family are having a hard time and are being forced to take sides. After receiving loads of promises that bunches of people will be at Marion’s launch party, no one shows.

    The entire town is at the rival’s.

    Turning Point Act II–Marion discovers friend is using magic.

    Act Two Bunch of magic stuff. She learns some tricks. Starts seeing successes. Has false victory.

    False Victory–Town mesmerized and “loves” Marion

    Darkest Moment–She realizes she is a monster and has made the town into basically zombies…and they have essentially torn apart the town in their magic battle.

    Rise to Action–She won’t use magic to win. Figures out a way to get friend away from the dark arts.

    Big Boss Battle–Your choice. She can confess what she was doing to the town. Take the high road and throw in the towel and let her friend have it. Then friend realizes she got too caught up with winning at all costs and they make up.

    Deneumente–They work together. Use magic to fix the messes they made. Maybe there is a third person who was running. Some poor little nerdy tax accountant everyone has ignored. But he is a really nice person and loves the town so he becomes mayor. Gals go back to playing bridge and they decide City Council might be better because if they can’t be together/work together it isn’t worth it.

    1. Wow, Kristen, thanks! You caught me — I was writing a story question for a story that’s not fully formed in my head. 🙂

      Still, this is terrific. I think I understand a little better how to write a decent log-line.

      Thanks again!!

  2. Feel free to use this as a template and change the relevant details. Plot is not unique. Each writer would execute this same outline differently. You have a great story idea which is why–once I figured out a log-line–plotting was a cinch.

    Good job. You just had a hard time seeing the forest for the trees ;).

  3. Hello! First time reader here, thought I’d stop by and comment.

    Great post, it had me thinking more closely about the plot directions of both of my in-draft novels! Keep up the good work, can’t wait to read more!

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