The second most important tool in a novel writers plotting toolbox.
You know how when you first start out in writing, you feel there must be rules of thumb, techniques that you can use, accepted structures that create a decent novel.
Then you have a Eureka moment when you discover the Hero’s Journey and things start to really take shape.
Well, the next magical tool in your toolbox should be The Question. Once you know about this and learn how to implement it in your writing, you will truly start to become a master of the trade, creating compelling fiction that thrills and satisfies.
So are you ready to learn the next thing that will change you novel writing life?
What is The Question?
The question is a dilemma that you pose to your protagonist at some point late in the story. There should be two options in The Question. One gives them everything they dreamed of: the love of their life, their family saved, riches, fame, recognition, power – whatever they want. The other option is the complete opposite. It loses them everything, probably ending in their death and / or disgrace.
But, naturally, there’s a catch. If they want to choose the good option, it means betraying their central moral standpoint in some way. This usually means the baddy has control of the moment and says, “If you will just…” then the villain will hand over all the goodies. However, if the protagonist refuses, because the thing the baddy is asking them to do is simply, morally wrong, then the baddy will make all the bad stuff happen.
Of course, it’s not always going to be as straightforward as an individual baddy, it could be a government or even natural forces, but for the purpose of illustrating the point, a villain is useful.
So, what will the protagonist choose? Will she choose to win everything she’s spent striving towards attaining for the whole book? Or throw it away for a mere principle?
In real life bad things happen to good people and life isn’t fair. However, most people read fiction as a form of escape, and in our fiction we like things to resolve in a fair way. There’s nothing saying your protagonist always has to make the morally correct decision – the important thing is that they get what they deserve…
So, if your protagonist chooses what the reader knows is the selfish immoral choice, then after the fact, something must happen to make them lose everything anyway and be punished. Similarly, if they choose the morally correct option even though they know they’re going to lose everything, then something should happen to swing things in their favour and they end up being triumphant.
It’s worth mentioning that the reward does not always have to be what’s expected. Some of the most satisfying endings happen when the protagonist realises that the thing he’s been chasing all this time isn’t what was truly going to make him happy in the end.
As usual, a few examples will probably help clarify what we’re describing.
Example of The Question #1
Geeky teenager Joshua is in infatuated with Kassandra. And who wouldn’t be? She’s gorgeous and impossible to attain. Towards the end of the book, Kassandra says, fine, she will go with Joshua to the prom, but only if he plays a cruel and humiliating practical joke on his best friend, Lucy – for sheer amusement. And if he refuses, she’ll tell everyone about his pathetic love poems and post them on the Internet.
Option One: Get to go out with Kassandra to a prestigious event, where everyone will see them together.
Option Two: Humiliation, shame, no Kassandra.
Moral question: Betray his best friend.
Let’s follow through options for both outcomes.
If Joshua does the wrong thing, and agrees to play the horrible trick on Lucy, then everyone finds out about it, and shuns him as a monster. Plus, Lucy is humiliated and devastated by the betrayal and Joshua feels sick just looking at her and thinking about what he’s done. Kassandra does go to the prom with him, but refuses to dance with, or even talk to him when they arrive and ends up snogging Blake, the school jock, in front of everyone.
On the other hand, when Joshua refuses Kassandra, it turns out that everyone finds out about that instead. She throws a hissy fit that shows her as the spoilt brat she is, and her popularity plummets as her inner ugliness manifests. Joshua realises the person he really loves is Lucy, who is joyful that he’s finally realised they’re a perfect couple. He goes to the prom with Lucy instead and has the night of his life, while Kassandra, rejected and dateless, glowers in the corner.
Example of The Question #2
Hunter Dawn has been tracking the artefact for years and her search has finally brought her to the catacombs where Skelington has his lair, complete with lava pit and armies of goons. Skelington’s spies capture her and place her in a cage suspended over the lava pit, where he gives her a choice. If she tells him where her mentor, The Professor, keeps his spell book, he’ll hand over the artefact and let her go.
Option One: Get the artefact she’s tracked for years and gain recognition and riches for succeeding where everyone else failed.
Option Two: Get dropped into the lava pit.
Moral question: Put her mentor in danger
We’ll do both outcomes again.
If Hunter agrees and gives him the information, then he releases her from the cage and gives her the artefact, but brands her with his mark, so everybody knows who she works for now. When she returns to her people with the artefact, they are horrified and refuse to have anything to do with her or the artefact, and she’s forced to spent the rest of her life doing Skelington’s dirty work, with only goons for company. And when he kills her mentor and steals the spell book, he becomes all powerful and destructive.
However, if she refuses, and says she’d rather die than help him, then as he has a fit of rage, her mentor appears, he’ s been tracking her, knowing she was in danger – and helps her escape. Together they fight their way out, seizing the artefact, but also breaking the spell on goons at the same time, so many escape, leaving Skelington alone and powerless.
Try out a creating a few examples like those above and think about inserting a question into any novels that you’re working on. It takes a while to get a proper grip on creating and executing a good Question, but the results are fantastic.