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Key Questions to Ask When Composing a Story

A story could be defined as a metaphor for a movement that leads to some kind of change, as played out by archetypal figures we call ‘characters’ along the lines of something we call ‘plot’.

Here are some useful questions to ask to build a successful tale:

1. Who is your protagonist? Through whom do you want the reader to experience the story? This applies whether the story is told in the first person or not. Stories which lack a central viewpoint towards which the reader gravitates and through which he or she sees things tend to lose readers early on, as there is nowhere for the reader to ‘rest’ — things get dispersed and the reader feels as though he or she is merely an observer.

2. How is this protagonist affected by vacuums — losses, missing things, threats, mysteries: basically departures from the ideal? The person at the heart of the story must be the one with the most vacuums — or rather, whoever has the most vacuums will became the centre of the story, as it is to this person that the reader will be most attracted. A personal problem haunts, drives or motivates this character; it should be this which triggers action. This action-instigating event is often called the ‘inciting incident’ — it supposedly forces the protagonist to move from where the story starts toward an adventure. It would be more truthful to say that the protagonist’s vacuum sets things in motion and effectively creates the thing we call ‘plot’.

3. What is it that the protagonist wants? It should be whatever it is that will fit the vacuum already outlined: this could be something tangible like money, or a romantic interest, or to find the missing atomic bomb or the murderer.

4. Who is the protagonist talking with throughout the story? What relationship is the focus of the protagonist’s attention? This relationship needs to have something to do with the vacuum. Always, always, always the vacuum is the engine that drives the story, even in multiple point-of-view stories. Different points of view should relate to the central vacuum. If they don't, the reader again drifts off; if they do, the reader feels as though he or she is part of well-controlled and satisfying tale.

5. There’s plenty of talk in writing guides about ‘conflict’ and ‘opposing the goal of the protagonist’, and ‘dramatic friction’. But what is this conflict and friction? What is the thing that acts as a central opposition, stopping the protagonist from fulfilment? What is this opposing force? It’s not really an ‘opposing force’ at all — it’s the mirror image of that. Instead of an opposition, pushing back against the protagonist, think rather of a growing vacuum. The vacuum at the heart of the story should grow and grow and grow until it almost overwhelms the central character — in fact, if you’re writing tragedy or irony, it should succeed in overwhelming the central character. (In successful epics and comedies, the vacuum gets huge but is overcome at the last possible moment.)

So the question to ask, again and again until you have it nailed from all angles is ‘What is the chief vacuum in the story?’

6. Again, in many writing guides you’ll find advice concerning ‘change’: ‘the protagonist must change’, they will say. It’s true that your protagonist should not end up where he or she began. But instead of asking ‘Does your protagonist evolve or devolve?’ ask ‘What happens to the vacuum?’ Is the protagonist fulfilled at the end? Is the vacuum resolved, or left intentionally empty to haunt the reader (as in tragedies and ironies)?

These are the important questions to ask in order to get a story’s core structure right. If you can answer them, then you have a story. If you find that they are missing, vague or muddled, then you don’t have a story.

For more, see How Stories Really Work.

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