Monday, September 04, 2023

Three Questions to Get to the Heart of Your Story

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The story is why readers picked up your book. 

Writing is such a strange thing. As writers, we get these characters and stories in our heads and put them down on paper. Sometimes we know exactly what happens and write what we imagine, other times we have a character shouting in our heads and we transcribe what they tell us. We all have different processes and write with different voices.

What I find interesting, is that no matter what genre we write in or what age group we write for, one thing stays the same.

The story.

Not the plot, not the series of events that unfold, but the story that causes those events to happen as they do. Because story is bigger than plot or any of the other mechanical and technical aspects of writing. It’s the heart and soul of an idea and what brings the reader along for the ride.

On a basic level, stories all the identical. They’re about characters overcoming problems.

Some stories tell huge, high-stakes epics around a campfire, and others whisper quiet character journeys by the bedside, but they all fit a classic story format. The protagonist tries to accomplish a goal and struggles toward the resolution.
  • The tale of the scorned lover
  • The story of true love, found
  • The adventure of the forgotten treasure
  • The myth of the secret society
  • The legend of the great warrior

Doesn’t matter what type of story you have; it will fit that X tries to do Y and Z happens format.

I find this particularly comforting because I always know where I stand when I start writing a story. I know what’s at the heart of it and what I need to do, even if I'm not yet sure how to do it. The details of each story are totally different of course, but the same conceptual elements are there in every book. I know I’m writing:
  • A tale about a girl who can shift pain
  • The story of a woman hiding from creatures trying to kill her
  • The adventure of a girl trying to save her town

(Here’s more with Understand Your Premise to Understand Your Novel)

When I get stuck (and I always get stuck at some point), I ask three critical foundation questions to find my way back to the story.

1. What does the protagonist want?

This is the reason the character is there and the book exists in the first place. The want drives the external plot and allows the protagonist to face the lessons they need to learn to for their internal character arc.

Sometimes the answer is plot focused (to stop the terrorists before they blow up the Stature of Liberty), other times it's character based (to be free), or even a mix of the two (to find love again with the man she left behind).

If the protagonist didn't want this, there would be no story.

They might not know they want it when the story opens, but by the end of the first act (roughly 25% of the book), they’ve been smacked in the face with the story problem and now has a solid want/need/goal driving them to the end of the book.

If you can't answer this, the story is going to give you trouble because you won't know what's driving your plot. You’ll struggle with creating goals and conflicts for your scenes because you won’t know what the protagonist is trying to do.

(Here’s more with Making Sense Out of Character Wants and Needs)

2. Why does it matter?

Character motivation is key to making your reader care about what your protagonist wants. People don't put themselves in great danger or discomfort for no reason. Even if the motive is selfish or dumb, there’s a reason and it makes sense to the person doing it.

What's more, is that reason is personal. It could only apply to this person in this circumstance. Otherwise, anyone in the vicinity of the plot could be the hero.

If you don’t know why your protagonist needs to solve their problem or why it matters to them, odds are good the story will lack tension and narrative drive, because the protagonist has no agency or reason to try to solve any of the plot’s problems. Readers won’t care because the character won’t care.

Let's look at an example:
What does the protagonist want: To stop a group of thieves from robbing a building.

Why does it matter? He's a cop and it's his job.

See how having a plot reason without the personal “why does it matter?” falls flat? Any cop could show up at that building and the story is basically the same. You want your hero to act because it matters to him personally.
Why does it matter? Because his estranged wife is being held hostage by the thieves.
The non-personal answer is any forgettable cop plot. The personal answer is Die Hard (one of the best-plotted movies of all time. Seriously).

Don't skimp on why it matters. This is what will make the reader care about the cool premise you've come up with.

(Here’s more with 4 Ways to Develop Character Agency)

3. How will the protagonist's life change forever if they don’t get it?

This is the number one most important question in the entire book. If there are no life-altering consequences to not getting what they want, why spend an entire book on this part of the character's life?

If the protagonist goes through the entire experience and failing doesn't change them in some way, it's not really personal. Being sad about a bad thing happening isn't enough. We're all sad about bad things that happen every day, but they don't affect us in any long-lasting way.

Let's go back to the building...
What does he want and why does it matter: If the cop doesn't stop the thieves and save his estranged wife, his wife will die.
That's personal and life changing. Not only will he have failed to save the woman he loves, but he'll know that he was there in the building and failed to protect her. For a cop, that has to be doubly hard because it hits him on a personal and a professional level. Professional he could get over, it's part of the job. But add that personal level? Now even the professional is made more personal.

If he failed to save his wife, how good at his job is he? And they were estranged. Did he fail on some subconscious level? Did he want her to suffer a little for all the pain she'd put him through? Now there's doubt about the kind of person he is in addition to doubt about being a cop, a husband, and even a man. He'd have to explain to his kids why he couldn't save their mother and let her die. They'd never look at him the same way again.

That hits hard.

If your protagonist can pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start over another day if they fail, then your stakes aren't high enough.

It's important to add that "life and death" stakes aren't the only kind. You can have high, life-altering stakes over smaller issues and problems. "Death" can be metaphorical. A loss of confidence, a change in how you see yourself in the world, the death of a belief you always held as truth are all life changing, even if you go on afterward. The key is that failing changes the character for the worse.

And since we're talking about life and death...

Be wary about making “the protagonist might die” the only stakes. Having the hero die seems like the highest stakes you can get, but how often does the hero actually die in a story? Readers know the hero will survive, and even that they'll succeed in the end, because that's how storytelling typically is. Try looking for fates worse than death.

(Here’s more with All Is Lost: 4 Kinds of Death in Fiction)

These aren’t the only questions to ask when working on a book, but these are ones that get to the heart of the story and clarify if you have a decent story or a great story.

It doesn't always take a lot to elevate from good to great, and even if you have the right pieces, you might not be taking advantage of them.

Dig deep and pull the best novel you can out of your story.

Do you know what’s the heart of your story?

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and answer these questions about your story. Use them for a brand-new idea, an idea you’re struggling with, or even a manuscript you’re working on to look for ways to strengthen it.

*Originally published March 2013. Last updated September 2023.

CONTEST CLOSED: Writing fun! This week, let's come up with some life-changing ideas. Tell me what your protagonist wants, why it matters, and what will change if they fail. It doesn't even have to be your story if you don't want to share. Pick your favorite book or movie and pinpoint those critical elements. (It's good practice, too)

Since I can't really judge these, I'll randomly pick a commenter to win a 1000-word critique. I think I'll start announcing the winners on Tuesdays from now on (it's just easier), so you have until Tuesday, March 5, 12:00pm EST to comment. (you do have to do the exercise to win)

Looking to improve your craft? Check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. Love your posts more and more, each time I come here. :)

    The question of a protagonist's goal is a more difficult one that is usually discussed. I definitely agree that a protagonist MUST have a goal (and opposition) or there is no story, but that goal isn't necessarily obvious so quickly. If it's a personal, inner goal that takes several shapes in the outer realm (like the goal of personal freedom, being sought on more levels and through various available means as the story progresses and the storyworld changes) it might take a lot more than the first act to make the real goal apparent to the reader. In that case, I'd say it's important for the character's outer goals and her behavior to be consistent with her personality and make sense, rather than serve an ultimate, obvious purpose. Did I get that right?

  2. Great post. You really nail the key points of what makes a story good (like you always do) and you make it sounds so simple. Thanks so much for the advice.

  3. I will definitely reread this post a couple of times this week!

    My protag wants to keep his friends safe from the enemies he has made. It matters because his actions have already resulted in the death of one friend, which causes him to behave more violently. If he fails, his friends die and he becomes more antisocial and has less reason not to be violent.

    I absolutely love the Die Hard example.

  4. Excellent advice as always, Janice!

    My favorite protagonist wants to save his true love. If he fails, she will be forced to spend the rest of her life with an evil King.

    It matters because it's twue wove. D'uh. :-)

  5. Thank you for this great piece!

    My protagonist, 12-year old Rachel, wants to find out the mystery of what split her parents apart and find peace about her mothers death. It matters for her core sanity, closure and her peace of mind. She must heal or she won't be able to truly live. If she fails she will end up stuck in a state of unknowing and grief and miss out on her own life.

  6. In Gaudy Night, Harriet Vane realizes that she has used intellectual puzzles as a refuge from the frightening depth and unpredictability of human emotions. When a mystery unfolds, her need to solve it is far beyond an enjoyment of puzzles-- if she cannot discover the culprit, not only will people she cares about be harmed, but she herself will be left without answers about the balance between personal freedom and messy, emotional, possessive human love.

  7. Janice, reading your blog always makes me dig deeper to the roots of my own writing. Thank you very much. You give such good advice on a wide variety of the elements of writing a great story that each post pushes me to examine my story for that aspect. My problem is that if I read your new posts before I finish applying the previous to the story, I can get pulled in too many direction. Don't stop! I have a file of your posts, I can refer back to one. ;-) I will just have to strap down my inner editor, apply blinders, and focus on one element at a time.

  8. This sounds like my personal questionnaire I use for when I'm stuck on a short story:

    Who is my protagonist? What is his/her goal? What's the cost of failure?

    Who is my antagonist? What is his/her goal? What's the cost of failure?

    Then I ask how the protagonist and antagonist's goals get in each other's way. ^_^ I find it useful.

  9. I have been trying for sometime to condense this story down for the synopsis...

    My sixteen yr old female protagonist wants to learn how to control her 'gift' (once she believes it is possible) so that she can have a home, family, friends, and love. Not knowing how to control her gift puts anyone close to her in danger (from her and she realizes, as collateral damage) and she would rather die than cost someone else their life (because she sees herself as evil and less deserving).

    So in essence the stakes are her death, the lives of people she cares about, and overshadowing both of those, are her view of self and her dreams of living life rather than observing the lives of others through her art.

    How'd I do?

  10. Thanks for a great exercise!

    Cora must enter a nursing home computer simulation to find her sick grandpa after he suddenly becomes unreachable.

    It matters because her grandpa is the only person in her life who truly loves her for her and has always been there for her, and if she doesn't find him soon, his mind will be lost forever, leaving the body he left behind an empty shell.

    If she fails to save him, the simulation's creator will force her to stay in the simulation indefinitely to keep her from telling the world that his "safe" simulation has a deadly glitch.

    For my current story, I'm finding it hard to focus on just one goal. My protag has a secondary goal that is just as important to her as the main goal: she left a younger brother back in the real world who depends on her to shield him from their abusive/neglectful parents. Her desperation to get back to him after crap hits the fan is just as potent as her desire to find her beloved grandfather. Those two desires are constantly battling each other, and I find it hard to know which one to focus on now that I am in revisions!
    I know that's a bit of a tangent, but if anyone has a quick thought on what to do in that situation I'd love to hear it.

    Thank you again for this thought-provoking post!

  11. Some fun ones so far :) (and Cathy, I recognize The Princess Bride :)

    Veronica, thanks! Yep, sounds right to me. Characters need to make sense and act for solid reasons of their own. Like serial killers, the reasons make sense to them even if no one else :)

    Carradee, I like the cost of failure question. Same idea, but that's a phrase that can really click with someone.

    Lynn, I' m happy and sad about that (grin). Your summary sounds good to me. Being unable to live a normal life or have anyone near you is a pretty personal stake.

    Candace, your brother plotline sounds like a subplot conflict, which is a good as that's a solid reason to make her consider not helping grandpa. That conflict will keep readers guessing the whole book. Her goal might be "to save her family" but which side? She'll have to risk one of them. Great conflict.

  12. This comment has been removed by the author.

  13. This looks like a fun exercise. I have several manuscripts in progress, so I'll just pick one protagonist from them.

    My protagonist, Rebecca, wants to get her daughter back. Her daughter is a magical clay golem that her neighbors stole and sold against her wishes. It matters to Rebecca because she's spent most of her life estranged from her family due to her own pride, and although she didn't expect to have a magical clay daughter at age forty, having family again has meant more to her than she could have imagined. If she fails to get her daughter back, then she will spend the rest of her life alone with the knowledge that she failed her daughter and that her pestilent neighbors won. Also, her immortal daughter will spend the rest of eternity enslaved unless the daughter rebels, in which case she'll be buried alive.

    This is just one protagonist from that story, and of course the daughter and the others all have their own goals, but Rebecca's my favorite.

    Thanks for the fun exercise!

    -reposted due to typo

  14. Hi Janice,
    Great post. Full of good suggestions and examples, as always.

    MC wants: to discover who pushed (and why) MC's friend, HD.
    Why it matters: MC doesn't want a lunatic running around hurting nursery rhyme characters.
    If MC fails: More characters could get hurt...or worse.

  15. My current WIP has 3 POVs, so this is a necessary exercise:

    First MC wants her new-found powers to go unnoticed. It matters because she accidentally hurt someone. If first MC fails, she won't be able to help her friends discover the truth about why they have powers in the first place.

    Second MC wants to put her life back together again after losing her parents. It matters because she keeps reliving their car accident through debilitating panic attacks. If second MC fails, she will be too mentally unstable to discover the source of her powers or how to use them against the supernatural forces working against her and her friends.

    Third MC wants to stay away from his drug-addicted mother, and to become an acclaimed scientist so he doesn't have to depend on her. It matters because if she regains custody of him, not only will he be held back by the life he wants, he'll be unable to harness the science behind his and his friends' powers before it destroys them all. If third MC fails, he and his friends could die.

  16. Very interesting thanks. I will have to reevaluate my ms and see if I have those questions covered.

  17. Thanks Janice, for your answer, it was actually very helpful! I've been thinking that I need to have her choose just one goal--either save grandpa, or find a way back to brother. But when you labeled it as a "subplot conflict", well duh! She can WANT to do both, but she CAN'T do both, so she will be torn. Totally changed my perspective. You are such a great teacher, thank you so much!

  18. My protagonist wants to keep her uncle from shutting down the local drama club. It matters because the former director, who recently died, was like a second father to her. If she fails to keep the club going, it'll be like she stood back and let him die all over again. (No, it's not rational. Grief usually isn't.)

  19. This post really helped me narrow down some problems I've been having. Thanks!

    My protagonist lives in a society where there's a huge separation between the classes. She's Expendable and wants to become Essential.
    It matters to her because she wants to be able to provide for her younger brother and give him an opportunity for a better life away from the group home where they're bullied.
    If she fails to cross over to "the other side," they'll face a life of hardship (and bullies!) with no freedom.

  20. These questions can really probe deep, helping to flesh out the various aspects of conflict that can exist woven through the overarching "ill" that needs to be addressed for the story.

  21. My protagonist wants to stop a war between thirteen kingdoms that have turned on one another.
    Why it matters? Because he doesn't want to fight against the love of his life.
    What happens if he fails? Not only does he go to war, and against the girl he loves, but the kingdoms will rip each other apart and everything will get destroyed.

  22. My protagonist, Zohora, wants to find out what happened to her twin brother, missng presumed dead.

    Why it matters? He was her only remaining blood relative and she suspects he was about to uncover something about the organisation they both worked for, the organisation they were born into.

    What will change if they fail?

    Zohora will forever be on the run, the people responsible will never be held accountable and the city will be in the hands of a corrupt element from the darker side of the devide.


  23. What does she want?
    Why does it matter?
    What about her life changes if she fails?

    I have zoomorphic creatures who require the energy of human creativity to stay alive - so what do they want the survival of the human race so they remain a source of inspisration and creativity?

    why does it matter - Once you have lived the thought of non existence, and the loosing of your family friends children is terrifying - having no more sensory input, not having a part in the world not waking up again, not smelling I thnk is pretty scary

    if they fail, they will be thought into another existence, become a slave race, be changed in the very core of their existence to embrace everything they loathe and despise as they become pure evil or face complete oblivion never to have existed, never to have created hope, or be an inspiration

  24. Hiya Janice!

    One of my favorite books is The Darkest Child by Delores Phillips.The story takes place in a small Georgia town in the 1950s.The protagonist is a young girl (pre-teen) name TangyMae.She comes from a very large family that is very poor.

    What does she want?

    TangyMae has been has been told by her school teachers that she is very smart. She takes a great deal of pride in that.She dreams of leaving her small-town life to attend a really good school where she can further her education and become "somebody" some day.

    Why does it matter?

    It matters because to her because all of her siblings (who happen to be more attractive than her and a lighter shade of brown) have something/different about them that is special; at least they are all look at as special in her mother's eyes(the antagonist). TangyMae is the darkest child, the ugly one in the bunch. In her mind all she really has is her intelligence to make her stand out and possibly give her a better life.

    What about her life changes if she fails?

    If TangyMae is not able to leave her small town to pursue school she is doomed to a life of little hope, much like her mother's. Her mom, a beautiful woman, is a maid for a rich white family who uses her looks to get men (several) to help her survive. Being a poor, aging prostitute with a house full of unwanted kids is very much a reality in TangyMae's eyes. It is a reality she will do anything to avoid.

  25. And, an epiphany: If the failure does happen, what if the circumstances aren't as bad as the protag originally anticipated? Or maybe could even help instead of hurt? Example: my character gets arrested, but it ends up helping her goal of defeating my antag.

  26. This exercise has an added bonus: If you can easily answer these questions you're on your way to writing a good query. The heart of your story is also the core of your query.

    I'm struggling with this, because I have 2 main characters whose goals and stakes change midway through the story due to the plot. What they thought was important no longer matters when faced with new life-altering challenges that can't be ignored. What's more, each character's plot indirectly or directly affects the other, and each is personal to that character.

    It makes answering these questions (and writing a query) more difficult, since I have basically have two answers to each question (for two characters). It isn't a complete story without both halves.

    So what's more important: The questions/answers that make the hero start their journey, or the questions/answers that bring the story to its end?

    Or am I crafting a story that's too complicated?

  27. Hi Janice,
    Thank you again for another awesome post
    Sorry I missed the deadline. I'll be printing this off and adding it to my growing binder. :-)

  28. I missed out on the contest, but I want to try my hand at this, anyway.

    I came up with some examples but I liked them so much I didn't want to share them
    (Future query synopsis material for my WIPs) so thanks for sharing the exercise.

    Though my writing of new material has stalled a lot since last year, I've always struggled with writing ABOUT a story, versus writing the actual story, as you know.

    I want to improve that discrepancy this year.

  29. Writer Librarian, that's actually a good thing to think about for the inciting event. It looks bad, but is exactly what the character needs to be happy.

    eBug, very true :) It might be that the character arcs are one side and the plot arc is the other. You might also try thinking about the bigger picture for the plot goals. For example, what they thought was important might not be anymore, but the reasons they thought it was important still are. And that reason is what's driving them. End questions are more important. That's the reason the book exists :) The hero might take a round about way to get there, but that ending changes their life and allows them to be/do something they want. (It's also what readers tend to remember most)

    Taurean, I hope oyu makes great strides there. :) I know how much that frustrates you.

  30. Thanks Janice, that definitely helped! :) In fact, I'm saving it to help me answer these questions in my next practice query.

  31. eBug, oh good! Fingers crossed for you :)

  32. I am working on a series focused on the Black Carib ethnic group of St. Vincent Island. As an overall "protagonist" the Caribs seek to maintain their sovereignty and way of life in the face of European imperialism. The series is broken up into individual's stories. They seek freedom, and/or survival as captives in a system based on slavery. Once free and joining the Caribs on St. Vincent, they seek to establish family and then protect it and their new community. This part is called Ethnogenesis. The next section focuses on a historic character, Chatoyer, chief of the Black Caribs of St. Vincent. His goal is to prevent the English from taking his people's territory. He seeks to remain autonomous and drive out the English. His failure will result in the expulsion of a whole people from their homeland. He does fail and dies. The final story revolved around a French revolutionary officer sent as a ally to the Caribs during the French Revolution. He is bound by duty, loyalty, wanting to do his job well, and for vengeance after his friends and love are killed. He also fails and is sent back to France. He is very young so it is also a journey of experience, adventure, and personal growth for him.

    1. Sounds intriguing. Best of luck with it!