Discovering the Story Question
Anyone watch the television show, ‘Castle?’ It's one of my favorites but for those who’ve never watched, it revolves around best selling mystery author Richard Castle as he shadows NYC homicide detective Kate Beckett, investigating murders while searching for the killer of Beckett’s mother and fighting their growing feelings.
The reason I bring it up is that in their season finale, the unthinkable happened--the lead characters took their friendship to the next ‘level.‘
So as the ending credits rolled, my husband asked the inevitable question--after four seasons, had the show had ‘jumped the shark,‘ following the example of another detective show, ‘Moonlighting?’ I’m pretty sure my answer surprised him.
An empathic no! The reason why? While ‘Moonlighting’ was based solely on the sexual tension between the two leads, ‘Castle’ has a story question that has yet to be answered.
Some of you may be wondering what I mean by a story question. For writers, it is the one internal goal or question that can’t be achieved/answered until the very end of the series or story. It’s that driving force behind our stories, the motivation that pulls our characters toward an unavoidable change or a necessary resolution.
Two Truths of the Story Question
For me, at least, there are two absolutes when developing your main characters internal motive or goal. First, the motivation needs to be strong enough to pull your character through every high and low of the story. And the stronger, more emotional detailed this motivation is, the more your characters evolve trying to obtain it, the more your readers will be vested in the story.
Let’s go back to ‘Castle.’ In this series, the story question isn’t ‘will they or won’t they?’ That’s the easy way out, and once the question is answered, there’s nothing to keep viewers tuning in or readers turning the page. No, the story question for the series revolves around finding the killer of Kate Beckett’s mother before they kill Kate. Yes, the two leads have a more intimate relationship now but it doesn’t answer the story question. In fact, it complicates it, giving way to even more conflict. Sounds like a pretty good motivation to get me (and every other Castle fan) to tune in next fall.
The second truth about story questions is that it shouldn’t be answered or changed halfway through the story. Think about it--how annoyed would you be if you are invested in a book, pulling for the characters and they reach their main goal midway through the book.
Or worse yet, their motivations change midstream. What a breach of trust! That’s why its so important for we as writers to spend some time discovering what really drives your character. Do character charts. Find out what their basic selfish need is.