Wednesday, May 01, 2024

Stuck on Your Plot? Change Your Story Question

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A strong plot starts with a compelling question.

A lot of writers I speak with struggle with plotting. They can come up with great ideas and wonderful characters, but getting those characters from page one to the end causes plenty of sleepless nights. And from my many conversations with frustrated writers, I see a common thread.

They’re asking the wrong story questions.

You have an idea, you know your story’s conflict, and you write the plot to solve that conflict (which is what you’re supposed to do). The problem occurs when you get too focused on your plot in a, “this is what the protagonist needs to do to win,” type way, which can sometimes put literary blinders on you.

You’re so caught up on what the right path is, that you forget to let your protagonist make mistakes and struggle to find that right path.

(Here's more with Are You Asking the Right Story Questions?)

For example, let's say you’re writing The Wizard of Oz. It’s a great (and powerful) tale. You have poor Dorothy trapped in a wondrous land trying to get home to her family. It’s easy to see how, “Will Dorothy make it home?” is what the plot is about. 

However, this question almost answers itself due to the nature of stories. Of course she’ll make it home, because the story is all about how Dorothy gets "home." Either she makes it back to Kansas, or she realizes Oz is her home and stays. Those are the two most likely outcomes to this premise.

Which means the plot will also likely follow all the steps Dorothy needs to do to get home. And doing “all the things she needs to do” can result in a predictable series of events that don't create a strong story.

“This is what she does to get home” is a list of tasks, not a story.

(Here's more with Are You Asking--and Answering--the Right Story Questions?)

A story is about a character undergoing a physical and emotional struggle to overcome a problem and emerge changed on the other side. It offers readers a chance to try to figure out what might happen next and eagerly turn the pages to find out.

It's the difference between someone explaining The Wizard of Oz to you, and you watching the movie or reading the book. One covers what the characters' do, the other lets you experience it along with them. 

Let’s look a little closer.

Question: Will Dorothy make it home?

Answer: Yes.

This stops the brainstorming cold, because there’s nowhere to go. The next natural question is to ask, “How?”, which often leads to head scratching and struggling to find a plot—because the focus isn’t on what Dorothy could do but on what she does do. 

The "will she..." question tries to answer “How does she get home?” and not “How could she get home.” And that subtle difference changes how your brain explores this question and comes up with ideas on how to answer it. 

But if you start with:

How will Dorothy try to get home?

You jump right over the yes or no answer and directly into the option answers. This frees your brain to toss out ideas and explore different avenues and get a little wild and crazy if you want. 

“How will Dorothy try to get home?” is more open-ended, because it invites speculation. 

What might she try? 

She might bargain with Glinda the Good Witch for a ride back to Kansas. She might set off to get there on her own. She could hire some Munchkins, or travel to the big city to see if there’s a hot-air balloon heading there. Or she might just set out along the yellow-brick road and see where it takes her.

You can even take it a step further and ask:

What is Dorothy willing to do to get home?

This type of question allows for even greater flexibility, because it includes the moral questions of what she might face and the types of internal conflicts you  might add. Will she cross an ethical line? Will she resort to crime? Will she make a deal with that witch or sell out the Tin Man?

This also helps you create more interesting scenes that put Dorothy in touch situations that force her to make hard choices, which adds more conflict, tension, and increases the stakes. It's no longer just about getting home, but the price Dorothy might have to pay to get there.

Don’t ask a question that gives you nowhere to go. 

Ask questions that will offer you the most options to plot, and questions that will make your reader wonder how it all works out.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and explore one of your scenes (or your premise or plot if you'd like). Does your story question have an obvious and limiting answer? If so, change the question and see what ideas it triggers. 

What story question are you asking in your current manuscript? 

*Originally published April 2017. Last updated May 2024. 

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue 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.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. Don't take this the wrong way but... I LOVE YOU. Like, seriously, <3 you, Janice. I've been struggling with this exact problem. I've been focusing on the wrong thing!

    And as soon as I asked myself the opened ended question, the ideas started pouring. I've been stuck at the first TP for weeks now.

    Thank you. Thank you. THANK YOU!

    1. LOL thanks! I'm so glad to hear this is working so well for you. Makes my day when a tip finds the right writer at the right time.

  2. Great post! I love this question, "What is Dorothy willing to do to get home?" It seems simple enough to answer, but the possibilities are endless and the answers are different for every character we write about.

    1. Thanks! It's a subtle thing, but just changing the question is a great way to look at the same problem in a different way and get past whatever is blocking us.

  3. What an awesome way to turn our thinking around! Thank you, Janice!

  4. Thank you, Janice! Glad I read this post. I'm working up my book's story structure and outlining the three-acts. I'm answering your story questions right at the start to make sure the readers will wonder how the protagonist works it all out. 🎶 Christine

    1. Great! I even use a "what's the story question?" line in my outline template :) It's very helpful

  5. This is a really helpful post. I'm a novice fiction writer working on my first manuscript and I'm getting bogged down in the plotting. This is exactly what I needed right here and now, TY!

  6. Very helpful post. Thanks so much.

  7. Great ideas! This just might be what I needed to get unstuck on my WIP! Thanks :)

  8. I love the thought of asking my protag: "What are you willing to do to win?" This really gives me something to think about.

    Thanks Janice!

    1. Most welcome! It's a fun question, because t really makes you evaluate where the character's mortal line is. And lets you know what you have to do to make them cross it.

  9. Just felt the need to comment because I'm in the early stages of writing my first novel and was feeling overwhelmed by the absolute barrage of tips, tricks, and just sheer thoughts on writing out there. There's so much valuable information on this blog, but you keep it super digestible. You are truly amazing at teaching, and your effort in making this content so easily available is so appreciated (I've also just purchased 'Plotting Your Novel' and am feeling excited to dig into it and get to writing a better book). Excuse me while I comb through each and every post on this goldmine of a website. :)

    1. Aw, thanks so much! That's actually my goal, so it makes me happy to hear it's helping :) Have fun and enjoy the site! Just let me know if you have any questions.