Have you ever read a story where you had a hard time figuring out what was going on? Not in an Inception type of way, but more like you can’t figure out what the story is trying to accomplish. What is happening? A well-defined plot describes the main part of the story in which everything revolves. Knowing and answering the big dramatic question centers around the protagonist’s central conflict and keeps the reader interested in your story.
The plot makes your story coherent by drawing together the characters, voice, the point of view, settings, etc., into a single driving force. It is meant to organize all of these aspects so that your story isn’t about million-and-one things. The dramatic question is a literary term that takes this force and implants the big question into your reader’s mind. How will this story end?
Part of your job as a writer is to define and (eventually) answer the dramatic question so that readers don’t lose the plot and put down your book.
The Reader’s Question
The last thing you want is for your reader to say, I can’t tell what this story is about. You need to have one major dramatic question that can be answered by the end of your novel. Will Willow and her friends find the magic sword? Will Jing-mei make peace with her mother’s life and find her sisters? Will Winston find his psychological freedom?
The big dramatic question is known as an organizing force throughout fiction novels. It arises from the relationship between three elements: your protagonist, his or her goal, and the conflict blocking that goal.
You can find examples of these dramatic questions in both classic and common forms of literature.
- In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the overarching question is: “Can Harry and his friends retrieve the Sorcerer’s Stone?”
- In Pride and Prejudice, the question is: “Will Elizabeth/Lizzie see past her prejudice towards Mr. Darcy and will the two characters be together?” The central conflict of prejudice is also tied in with the other novel’s characters who often judge other’s behaviors too harshly.
- In East of Eden, the question is: “Will Cal be forgiven for the person that he turned out to be?”
- In 1984, the question is” Will Winston, a man who craves freedom, will manage to find his phycological freedom from the state?
The suspense that the major question creates will keep your reader intrigued. You want to keep them reading to find out the answer to the question. Your answer should be a yes or to the question. Sometimes a maybe will work but may frustrate your reader. The answer to the dramatic question should come from the actions or thoughts of the protagonist.
Most importantly? Make sure that your answer matches your question. If you spend your whole story talking about whether Willow and her friends will find the magic sword, you can’t end your story without answering the question and talking about her love life. You must conclude with a story about their quest for the sword. You can still mention her love life, but it shouldn’t be the main focus of your conclusion if you never answered the question about the sword.
A Big Dramatic Example
Remember Harry’s quest for the stone? Now, in this case, it’s fairly simple as Harry and his friends had to successfully pass several challenges in order to retrieve the stone. Let’s break out the three main things to consider when answering this dramatic question.
- The main character(s) in your story. The big dramatic question always centers around this character, focusing on what will happen in his or her life.
- What does the protagonist want the most? This goal may be conscious, with the actor knowing exactly what they want to achieve, or even unconscious, affecting the protagonist’s actions without them ever being aware of it.
- Remember that plot depends on conflict. What obstacles are put in place to prevent the protagonist from reaching their goal? Obstacles may be external to the character, such as antagonists or societal structures. Other obstacles may be internal, such as where the man may not know how to seek love (Mr. Darcy) or where the woman may be unsure of her own motivations (Elizabeth). To make a truly interesting story, you’ll want multiple conflicts, both internal and external.
Here are a couple of examples using a goal that is conscious and one that is unconscious. Harry Potter and his friends know that they need to find the Sorcerer’s Stone whereas Elizabeth from Pride and Prejudice does not walk around thinking that she is prideful and discriminatory towards Mr. Darcy. She is but it is more of an unconscious desire.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Big Dramatic Question: “Can Harry and his friends retrieve the Sorcerer’s Stone?”
Protagonist: Harry Potter
Goal: Retrieve the Sorcerer’s Stone [Conscious goal]
- Three-headed dog to reach the trapdoor
- Devil’s Snare plant
- Pick out the correct flying key and unlock the door
- Wizard’s chess
- Riddle of poisonous potions
- Mirror of Erised
- Encounter with Voldemort
- (Bonus round) Hagrid and the big mouth
Okay, that one was a little complex and would not fit into a 120-page story. Here’s a simpler example.
Pride and Prejudice
Big Dramatic Question: “Will Elizabeth/Lizzie see past her prejudice towards Mr. Darcy and will the two characters be together?”
Goal: Overcome her own internal prejudices and pride to get married (preferably not to someone stupid). [Unconscious goal]
- Elizabeth’s pride and her own prejudice against Darcy.
- Darcy’s own mouth, which tends to run off in unexpected directions.
- Family issues.
Try reading one of your favorite novels and try to determine what the big dramatic question is. To do so, look at the protagonist, their main goal, and what obstacles are in place to prevent them from achieving it. The list of obstacles should include both internal and external conflicts that might be blocking the achievement of the goal.
For your own work, look at your protagonist and determine what they want the most. Then, make a list of internal and external obstacles that might block the achievement of this wish. Then, try to create a big dramatic question in one sentence that you could use in this story. It should be a question that can be answered with a yes, no, or maybe.
Once you’ve got the big dramatic question under your belt, you’ve got a good handle on your plot. Congratulations!
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