From Fiction University: We're aware of the recent commenting issues and are working to resolve them. We apologize for any inconvenience and annoyance this has caused. Hopefully we'll have it fixed soon, and we appreciate your patience while we get this straightened out. ETA: Enabling third party cookies on your browser could help if you have trouble leaving a comment.

Wednesday, April 5

Stuck on Your Plot? Change Your Story Question

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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.

We have an idea, know our story’s conflict, and write the plot to solve that conflict (which is what we’re supposed to do). The problem occurs when we get too focused on our plot in a, “this is what the protagonist needs to do to win,” type way, which can sometimes put literary blinders on us. We’re so caught up on what the right path is, that we forget to let our protagonist make mistakes and struggle to find that right path.

(Here's more on asking the right story questions)

For example, 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 Dorothy getting home. Either she makes it back to Kansas, or she realizes Oz is her home and stays. Those are the two most likely outcome 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 doesn’t create a strong story. “This is what she does to get home” is a list of tasks, not a story.

(Here's more on story questions)

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. The question is trying to answer the “will she?” question, not the “how will she?” question. It’s more “How does she get home?” and less “How could she get home.”

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.

“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 also suggests the moral questions of what she’ll do to get home. 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?

Don’t ask the question anyone can guess the answer to. Ask questions that will offer you the most options to plot, and questions that will make your reader wonder how it all works out.

What story question are you asking in your current manuscript? 

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my bestselling Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).


A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include 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, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound

20 comments:

  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!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    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.

      Delete
  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.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    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.

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

    ReplyDelete
  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

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

      Delete
  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!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Most welcome! Hope you find it helpful.

      Delete
  6. Very helpful post. Thanks so much.

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

    ReplyDelete
  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!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    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.

      Delete