The Story Question

The story question is the main reason why a reader will buy your book. Let us repeat – the story question is the main reason a reader will buy your book. There are other factors that influence a purchase but a reader will decide whether they want to buy your book because of the story question proposed. Is your story question interesting? Is it worth the reader’s time to find out the answer to the story question? Have you piqued their interest?

However, what and how you write to get to the answer is why the reader will love your novel.

The story question is what the novel is about – on the surface. It’s the question the reader will be asking him/herself as she reads. The story question is sometimes described as the main plot question or the story scenario. The story question is a physical external plot question. 

Character growth is not a Story Question.  If the protogonist grows in character, that is good writing but not the Story Question. The story question is not emotional healing or growth, nor spiritual healing or growth.

In a murder mystery, who killed the victim? is the story question. A story question can be quiet or violent, but it must be proposed in the beginning chapter.

For example, in The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, the story question is:

Will the old man (Santiago) catch and bring in the marlin? Yet the story is about so much more than catching and bringing in a fish. However, the reader keeps reading to find out if Santiago will accomplish his goal and bring in the fish.

Every story must have a story question. Novels that don’t have one—or that neglect or bury this question—will fall flat and not sell. The reader will ask: Why am I reading this book? Interesting characters? So. Great setting? So. Plot that goes nowhere? So. You may have read books like this and then asked yourself, What was that book even about?

No story question—no sales!

Your goal as the author is to give the readers an experience that makes it easy for them to tell others about your book. If you had to tell someone who’d never heard of Tolkien what Lord of the Rings was about, you might say the story questions is: Will a young hobbit survive the perilous journey to destroy a powerful ring that gives its wearer the ability to control the world?

Another way of looking at your story question is that it’s the distillation of your novel into one sentence. It won’t contain details or subplots, but it’s the overarching purpose of the story.

Two Types of Story Questions: Main and POVs

Every novel must have an overarching or Main Story Question. In addition, every Point of View narrator must have a Story Question. The two types of Story Questions are: Main Story Questions and POV Story Questions.

Let us use Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier as an example, which was on The New York Times best-seller list for sixty-one weeks, won numerous literary awards, including the National Book Award, and went on to sell over three million copies.


Sorely wounded and fatally disillusioned in the fighting at Petersburg, a Confederate soldier named Inman decides to walk back to his home in the Blue Ridge mountains to Ada, the woman he loves. His trek across the disintegrating South brings him into intimate and sometimes lethal converse with slaves and marauders, bounty hunters and witches, both helpful and malign. At the same time, the intrepid Ada is trying to revive her father’s derelict farm and learning to survive in a world where the old certainties have been swept away.

The Main Story Question is: Will Inman and Ada get together by the end of the war? 

POV Story Question – Inman: Will Inman make it home?

POV Story Question – Ada: Will Ada survive the war by her lonesome?

Please be aware that Story Questions are physical plot questions – not interior movements or character growth. Amateur writers believe the story question is superficial, but good writers know that the story question is why the reader buys the book and turns the pages. Showing character growth throughout the novel is great writing. Having interesting story questions is great storytelling. Great novels tell great stories. 

Each POV character will have his/her own story question to answer by the end of the novel. This is the character’s goal or purpose. Using Tolkien again, Will Frodo find the strength to fight the seduction of the ring in order to destroy it? His best friend Sam’s story question is: Will Sam be able to protect his friend from being lured by the power of the ring? The antagonist or villain of the story has their own goal: Will Sauron take possession of the ring before the young hobbit destroys it?

The novel’s story question must be introduced in the first chapter. A result of people’s dependence on technology is that today’s readers are impatient and distracted. The first chapter is their test-run of the story. They need to know the set-up right away to hold their attention and to make them invest in the eight hours or so they’ll be spending with your book. That’s one reason why books like The Firm and The Pilot’s Wife were so appealing. Each of those stories had a defined story question established in chapter 1.

[The Firm] Mitch is wooed by the opulence of a selective law firm but soon discovers their shady underpinnings. But will the prestige and wealth keep him from betraying them? Will he survive when he learns the truth?

[The Pilot’s Wife] How will Kathryn cope with the news of her husband’s secret life? 

Answer to Story Questions

Warning: Do not answer the Story Questions before the end of the book.

If you answer any of the story questions before the end of the book, then why should the reader continue reading? Think about it. If Inman in Cold Mountain makes it home halfway through the novel, why would you continue reading? All story questions should be come together at the end of the story.

Before you begin writing or editing your manuscript, ask yourself the following questions:

What is the Main Story Question of your novel?

Is the question a physical plot question?

Is the question proposed in the 1st chapter of the novel?

Is the question answered at the end of the novel?  

What is each POV character’s Story Question(s)?

Is the question a physical plot question?

Is the question proposed when the character is introduced?

Is the question answered at the end of the novel?

Knowing the answers to these questions will help you write with the confidence, tell us a great story, and discover great success as a writer.

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