Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Ask O: Story Question Part Two: Why the first chapter?

Happy Wednesday, my writing friends!

Back to Story Question. Last week we talked about how Story Question has to do with the “problem.’ What problem does my character need to solve? What issue will she wrestle with until finally discovering the answer in a satisfying ending?

Today, let’s expound on why defining this problem early on is important. In my years of freelance editing, I’ve found that a poorly defined story question leads to meandering tales. The author seems to not know where she’s going, and worse, the character doesn’t know what she wants. What does this do to readers (and editors like me)?

Well, it makes me want to give up. If the story is a romance, for example, I have an expectation that the character longs for intimacy, or perhaps she's burried in a false sense of independence that will be overturned. “The last thing I need,” Madelyn gripes. “Is a man!” But of course we know a loving relationship with a good, strong man is exactly what Madelyn needs.

If I can’t cozy into this need in the first scene (preferably the first page), I feel lost and a little cheated. Is this a romance or not? It’s like taking a bus from Washington State to Florida, but heading north instead of south. Why are we going this way? I chose this trip to get me some Florida sunshine!

But, if I do really grasp the hole in the heroine’s life that love must fill, ahh, I’m hooked. If I empathize with her need (which means it must be shown not told), I can’t help but keep reading. I must find out how the problem of her lonely heart will be solved! We’re on the way to the Sunshine State and I wouldn’t get off this bus if you paid me.

Same holds true for other genres. One very important key to nabbing reader interest in those first pages is showing what the character longs for in the first scene, whether romance, suspense, women’s fiction, fantasy, or anything.

Finally, notice how Story Question deals almost exclusively with the internal. Yes, we must know the external goals—Leslie wants to become a helicopter pilot, Sir Philip yearns to build a castle. These are important foundations for your plot points, but physical objectives aren’t enough.

From the first scene, we must know what internal motivation moves the heroine to take on her quest. Readers must understand why the external goals are important to the protagonist. And that’s internal--the motives of the heart (to add a touch of schmaltzy).

How are you doing with your character’s Story Question? Keep working on it, narrowing it down, thinking of ways to show it early on. Soon you’ll realize you’ve nailed it. And you won’t be able to stop your fingers from clicking on the keyboard.

Happy writing!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this insightful article, Ocieanna! I was thinking while I read it that whenever the author includes the story question in that first scene I not only join in the adventure, I normally root for the heroine/hero. As a reader, I feel like the author knows what they're doing when the story question is obvious from the beginning. It's another secret of good writing. Very helpful. Thanks!


We'd love to hear your thoughts! Please leave comments. We'll moderate and post them!