Fiction Writing Made Easy

#118: How To Find The Major Dramatic Question Of Your Story

November 28, 2023 Savannah Gilbo Episode 118
Fiction Writing Made Easy
#118: How To Find The Major Dramatic Question Of Your Story
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Show Notes Transcript

“Every story has one main question that it raises in the beginning and answers by the end.” - Savannah Gilbo

In this latest podcast episode, we'll explore a fundamental element of storytelling: the Major Dramatic Question (MDQ). From the outset of your story, readers should be gripped by this central question. Here’s a preview of what’s included:

[01:31] Savannah talks about why the major dramatic question (MDQ) of a story is a helpful question for writers and how you can find the MDQ of your story.

[04:27] What's going to help you write a story that's full of narrative drive (the thing that keeps readers turning the pages)?

[08:12] Once you know your story's Major Dramatic Question (MDQ), what do you do with it?

[09:44] How your story’s MDQ can help during the publishing process and can pique a potential reader's interest.

Links mentioned in this episode:




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Speaker 1:

Every story has one main question that it raises in the beginning and answers by the end, and usually these questions are determined by a story's genre. So in an action story, we want to find out whether the characters are going to survive or not. So will these characters survive the asteroid attack or the threat from the antagonist, or whatever it is, or not? Welcome to the Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast. My name is Savannah Gilbo and I'm here to help you write a story that works. I want to prove to you that writing a novel doesn't have to be overwhelming, so each week, I'll bring you a brand new episode with simple, actionable and step-by-step strategies that you can implement in your writing right away. So, whether you're brand new to writing or more of a seasoned author looking to improve your craft, this podcast is for you. So pick up a pen and let's get started. In today's episode, we're going to talk about your story's major dramatic question, or the MDQ of your story, and I really wanted to tackle this topic today because it's something we talk about often in my notes to novel course. I'm always asking my students what's your story really about, or what's the central thread of your story or that main plotline, and usually this is a super helpful question to ask and answer, so I really wanted to share it with you today so that you could have another tool in your writing toolbox. But before we dig into how to find the major dramatic question of your story, we should start with a definition. So what is the major dramatic question of a story? Well, the major dramatic question, or the MDQ, of a story is the engine driving the entire narrative, so it's the central question that readers should be asking from the beginning of any story, and it's one that they'll get an answer to by the very end. Each act in the story should try to answer this question, but it shouldn't necessarily be easy to answer, and that's because once the MDQ is answered, that means the story is essentially over. So this is why developing conflict for a story is so important. Conflict is what makes that MDQ hard to answer and it's what hooks a reader's interest and pulls them through the rest of the story. So now that we're on the same page about what a major dramatic question of a story is, let's dig into how to find the MDQ, or the major dramatic question, of your story, and the first thing you need to know is that every story has one main question that it raises in the beginning and answers by the end, and usually these questions are determined by a story's genre. So in an action story, we want to find out whether the characters are going to survive or not. So will these characters survive the asteroid attack or the threat from the antagonist, or whatever it is, or not? In a crime story, we read forward to find out if the criminal is going to be caught and brought to justice or if they're going to get away with the crime. In horror stories, we read to find out if the character is going to survive the threat of the monster or if they're going to die trying to survive.

Speaker 1:

In morality stories, we want to read to see if the character is going to learn to act in service of others or if they're going to remain selfish. In performance stories, we read forward to find out whether the character is going to win or be successful in something like a boxing match, a ballet recital, a sports game, you know whatever it is. In romance stories, we want to see if the characters are going to get together or not. So will they find true love and get there happily ever after, or not? In society stories, we want to find out if the character is going to cause some kind of shift in personal or worldly power or if they're going to stay stuck you know, kind of lacking power. In status stories, we want to read on to find out if the character is going to learn to redefine their definition of success or not. In thrillers, we read forward to find out if the character is going to survive and stop the bad guy. And finally, in worldview stories, we read forward to find out if the character is going to grow and mature or if they're going to stay stuck.

Speaker 1:

Now, if you're wondering why I didn't mention science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction or women's fiction, I want you to go back and listen to episode number two. That's all about choosing the right content genre for your story. I will link to that episode in the show notes one more time. It's episode number two how to find the right content genre for your story. Now, the key to finding your story's major dramatic question is to understand your protagonist's specific goal and whether or not they'll achieve it. This is what's going to help you form the spine of your entire story and it's what will help you write a story that's full of narrative drive, aka the thing that keeps readers turning the pages. Once you know your story's generic major dramatic question, you can then take that question and make it more specific to your story. So, as an example, I want to talk through three different stories across three different genres. So we're going to look at the fourth wing by Rebecca Yaros, ugly Love by Colleen Hoover and Yellow Face by RF Kwong, and first up is fourth wing by Rebecca Yaros.

Speaker 1:

So the major dramatic question of this story is will Violet survive the writer's quadrant or will she die trying to become a writer? And every scene in this story aims to answer this question. So some scenes move Violet closer to surviving, while others move her farther away. So, for example, whenever Violet gets injured during a training exercise, her survival is compromised. But on the flip side of that, whenever she gains a new weapon or makes a new ally, her chances of survival are increased. Okay, so everything's contributing to that central question of will Violet survive the writer's quadrant or will she die trying to become a writer?

Speaker 1:

Now, in something like Ugly Love by Colleen Hoover, the major dramatic question is will Tate and Miles end up together or will they sabotage their chance at true love? So, again. Every scene in this story aims to answer this central question. Some scenes move Tate closer to falling in love with Miles, while others move her farther away. So, for example, whenever Miles, let's say, comes home from a long business trip and acts distant towards her, tate's feelings start to waver. But on the flip side, whenever they spend time together, their feelings for each other grow. So every scene, everything that happens in the story is in service of this major dramatic question Will Tate and Miles end up together or are they going to sabotage their chance at true love? Now, finally, let's look at Yellow Face by RF Kwong.

Speaker 1:

The major dramatic question of this story is will June get caught for stealing Athena's manuscript or will she rise to fame because of it? And, just like the other two stories, every scene in this story aims to answer this question. Some scenes move June closer to getting found out or caught, while others move her closer to the fame she so desperately seeks. So, for example, whenever June makes a mistake while talking about the manuscript, it seems more likely that she's going to get caught, but on the flip side, whenever she gets a new opportunity, it seems like she might actually get away with stealing her friend's manuscript and passing it off on her own. So again, everything is in service of that central question will June get caught for stealing Athena's manuscript or will she rise to fame because of it? So hopefully you can see how the generic major dramatic question of each genre can be personalized to suit the specifics of your story.

Speaker 1:

If you're having trouble coming up with your story's major dramatic question, this is probably a sign that you need to pause and work on building out the foundation of your story, and to do that, I have a free story starter kit for you. So if you go to savannahgilbocom forward slash starter kit, you can download the free guide that walks you through some key questions to help you figure out what your story is really about and what that central question is, before you move forward with your writing. Now, speaking of moving forward, once you know your story's major dramatic question, what do you actually do with it? Well, the good news is you can use your story's major dramatic question to guide you through every part of the writing, editing and publishing process. So while writing your draft, your story's major dramatic question can help keep you on track and focused so that you can produce a stronger draft.

Speaker 1:

It's what's going to determine what your protagonist's goal is going to be plus what's at stake, and then, as your character pursues that overarching story goal, they're going to be met with conflict. In each scene they're going to have to weigh the stakes or that risk of moving forward to pursue that goal or turning back and abandoning it. And when this happens over and over again throughout your story, readers are going to end up feeling that tension over whether or not your character will succeed, and they'll just have to keep turning pages to find out what happens. Now, while editing your story's major dramatic question helps you get rid of anything that doesn't fit or that doesn't serve your story. So remember, every scene in your story should be moving your character one step closer to achieving their goal and moving the reader one step closer to learning the answer to that question that's raised at the beginning of the story. So it's what every line of dialogue, every scene, every sequence, every subplot and every act should be contributing to, because if it doesn't, we have to ask what the point of including it in your story is. This is an excellent way to filter through what should be kept in your draft versus what should be cut.

Speaker 1:

And then, finally, when publishing your story's major dramatic question helps you talk about your story and pique a potential reader's interest, so it can help you write effective back cover copy. It can inspire social media posts and it can even help you write teaser email copy and things like that. My favorite example of this is on the cover of Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarrows. It literally says fly or die. So, as a reader, this helps you understand exactly what kind of story you're in for before you even read that back cover copy, and I think that's pretty cool. So hopefully you can see just how important identifying your story's major dramatic question is, no matter where you're at in the writing, editing or publishing process, and when in doubt, you can just rely on the generic MDQ that your genre provides to help you write your first draft, and then you can make it more specific and tailor it more to your story as you get to know your plot and your characters a bit more. And one more time, as a quick reminder if you need help developing the foundation of your story, go grab a copy of my free story starter kit that will walk you through five important questions to ask and answer before you start writing. You can get your copy at savannahgilbocom forward slash starter kit.

Speaker 1:

So that's it for today's episode. As always, thank you so much for tuning in and for showing your support. If you want to check out any of the links I mentioned in this episode, you can find them in the show notes listed in the description of each episode inside your podcast player or at savannahgilbocom forward slash podcast. If you're an Apple user, I'd really appreciate it if you took a few seconds to leave a rating and a review. Your ratings and reviews tell Apple that this is a podcast that's worth listening to and, in turn, your reviews will help this podcast get in front of more fiction writers just like you. And while you're there, go ahead and hit that follow button, because there's going to be another brand new episode next week, full of actionable tips, tools and strategies to help you become a better writer. So I'll see you next week and until then, happy writing.