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:


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?