The Only Trouble Is . . . or Finding Your Story’s Big Question
Every story needs to present then eventually answer one main question above all others. You present it with the Inciting Incident during Act 1 (intriguing the reader’s interest), then you answer it during Act 3’s Climax (satisfying the reader’s lust for knowing), while throughout Act 2 you keep us guessing about the inevitable outcome by providing clues to entice us and red herrings to misguide us (taunting and teasing the reader’s tenacious curiosity).
But where do you begin when it comes to finding your big story question?
I suggest starting with your story’s genre, like so:
Caper: How will they pull it off?
Family Drama: Will the family survive their ordeal as a family or fall apart?
Fantasy: How can we defeat the dragon and save the kingdom?
Love Story: Will they get married and live happily ever after?
Romance: Will she find Mr. Right?
Science Fiction: How can we defeat the aliens and save Earth?
Sports Story: Who will win the game?
Spy Story: Who’s the mole?
War Story: Will they complete their mission — and at what cost?
Western: Will the new sheriff clean up the town?
*note: obviously these are not all the genres, nor are they the only questions one could ask of a particular genre, but you get my point.
Now begin tailoring it with uniqueness by discovering your protagonist’s words to live by, and you do this by describing their deepest human desire. It always begins with “I just want . . .” then they fill in the blank by ending the statement with a concise answer. For example, if you asked them their one true desire above all else at the beginning of your story they would answer something along the lines of:
I just want happiness.
I just want to be loved.
I just want freedom.
I just want to be in charge.
I just want justice.
I just want to be left alone.
I just want equality.
I just want to create.
I just want power.
I just want to explore.
I just want money.
I just want to help.
Now link the two into your big story question by inserting the main trouble that inconveniences the protagonist from obtaining or maintaining their one true desire. You describe the protagonist’s situation and /or want and then complicate it by inserting “. . . the only trouble is” and then describing the story’s main complication for the protagonist. For example:
Alien: A space cargo crew wants to return home after a long mission . . . the only trouble is a killer acid-blooded alien boards their ship and stalks them one by one.
Big Trouble In Little China: A truck driver wants his stolen truck back . . . the only trouble is he has to battle the Lords of Death and their ancient sorcerer leader who took it.
First Blood: A vagabond Vietnam vet wants to leave the war behind . . . the only trouble is he’s hunted by a new enemy — the bigoted sheriff who falsely arrests him.
Jaws: An aquaphobic sheriff wants to maintain his peaceful beach . . . the only trouble is a man-eating shark begins terrorizing the local swimmers.
Rocky: A struggling amateur boxer wants to prove himself worthy of respect . . . the only trouble is he has to fight the world heavyweight champion on national television to earn it.
Splash: A lonely young man wants true love and finally meets the girl of his dreams . . . the only trouble is she’s a mermaid.
Unforgiven: A reformed gunslinger wants to provide for his poor family . . . the only trouble is he has to kill again to earn the money.
The great thing about knowing your big story question is that you begin your story by asking it then once you answer it you know your story is over. Because presenting then eventually answering your big story question is the entire point why your story exists. As well knowing it helps keep everything in your story logically linked, because if you write a scene that has nothing to do with your big story question then you know right away that scene does not belong in your story.
My advice: Discover your big story question, write it on a scrap of paper then tape it on the wall above your computer so you can glance at it whenever you are writing. I advise doing this before you begin your first draft. Often you don’t know your big story question until sometime during or after outlining your story. Problems arise if you begin writing your novel before knowing your big story question, because if you discover it after you’ve written tens of thousands of words or even only after you’ve finished your first draft then it’s guaranteed your story contains scenes and events that need edited or even completely removed because they have nothing to do with your big story question.
Pantsers often make this mistake, not knowing their big story question until they are deep into or after writing their first draft. They are then tasked with extraneous amounts of editing to fix their novel-to-be, or they just say screw it and leave it as is then they wonder why the finished novel receives poor reviews and doesn’t sell well.
If you are reading my latest book and its big story question is if the retired CIA agent father will find then rescue his kidnapped daughter by using his particular set of skills, but I’ve also filled it with chapters of him taking cooking classes to become the chef he’s always dreamed of, you as the reader are going to pause in confused wonderment as to why I’ve included those cooking classes scenes that have nothing at all to do with the big story question of him attempting to rescue his kidnapped daughter. Heck, you might even decide to toss the book aside for something better written without even finishing it, and I wouldn’t blame you.
Discover your big story question before writing your novel then stick to it and you’ll never be led astray while writing.
As well knowing your big story question before you begin the writing process helps you during the writing process because all of your major plot points revolve around answering it. This helps you employ tricks such as providing false information and presenting situations causing the reader to believe it’s now impossible for the protagonist to ever resolve their particular issue at hand . . . but then somehow during the Climax they pull it off in a surprising though logical way that sends delightful chills through your satisfied readers.
This is especially true when writing mysteries, because knowing your big story question beforehand allows you to place wonderful little clues that make your reader feel they are solving the case right by the detective’s side as well you can add in red herrings that mislead your guessing reader at every turn of page.
And if you are new to plotting then knowing your big story question before you outline allows you to really ramp up the tension and conflict of your ensuing plot points as you map them out.
If I could give one piece of advice to any aspiring author as to how to sooth their plotting woes it would be to discover your big story question before writing a single word of that pesky first draft because it will save you so much trouble later when plot holes arises you don’t know how to write your characters out of or during the editing process saving you time trimming your first draft into a novel.
And as always, my second piece of advice for bettering their writing is to Never Use The Word Was . . . though I’ve already covered this little golden nugget in other articles and several of my writer training manuals.
The great thing about knowing your big story question is you can test it by presenting it to others and seeing if it interests them or not before you spend hours every day for months or even years actually writing it into novel form. If it excites them then you know it’s a story worth telling. If it bores them then you know you need to discover a different big story question.
And here’s a tip if you’re shy about it or worried of the responses: just lie while working it in to casual conversation, saying you just watched a movie then giving them your big story question as the fake movie’s description. If they ask what the movie is called because they want to watch it, pat yourself on the back then just tell them you forget the title. Now go home and write it!