Friday, July 31, 2015

The Dramatic Question

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a love of all things literary. When she isn’t writing, she spends her days with her husband, Matt, imagining things unseen and chasing their two children around their home in Northern California. To connect with Shan, check out her website, FB, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest.

WELL! Clearly I would not do well in summer school. I now have TWO tardy slips for late posts and I have no one to blame but myself. I'm sorry, friends. Summer is definitely beating me. But I do have something to discuss, something I've been chewing on this week. 


The dramatic question is a very simple, yes or no question that the writer promises to answer by the end of the story. It is THE QUESTION. It's the WHY behind the writing and it acts as a handshake between the reader and writer. A bond. A contract. If you, as the writer, do not answer the major dramatic question you have posed, you will leave your reader unsatisfied. And, honestly, you probably belong in writer jail. 

The dramatic question is not something you actually write into your story. It's not, say, the first sentence of chapter two or even slipped discretely into the title. It is the rope tying the reader to yourself. The rope they use to follow you through all the description, all the prose, all the internal pondering and it is the rope that you will use to lead them to the conclusion of your carefully crafted tale. 

You're wanting examples now, right? Dramatic questions we can pull from books so that we can all discuss this more fully. Let's use my Angel Eyes trilogy. 

In Angel Eyes, the dramatic question is this: Will Brielle believe what she sees?

Simple. Straightforward. The answer is either a YES or NO.

In Broken Wings, the dramatic question is this: Will Brielle rise above tragedy and brokenness and fight, even if she has to do it alone?

A little more wordy, but still easily answerable, still easily understood.

In Dark Halo, the final book of the trilogy, things come full circle and the dramatic question reflects that: Will Brielle choose to see the world as it really is, even when it hurts?

These questions are a piece of cake to write now, but there's a good reason for that. The stories are already written. They've been drafted and edited and edited and edited and proofread and I even have a couple years of distance between myself and the writing. Those things make asking the dramatic question easy. When you're in the thick of it though, it can be very difficult to KNOW what you're actually writing about, especially if you write by the seat of your pants.

But knowing (or at least, suspecting) that there is a question out there you're writing to answer, brings a sort of focus in the chaos of words and can settle you into your chair when the story seems to have developed a life of its own.

One of the reasons we often get lost in the tangle of our own words is that we haven't stopped to consider what it is we're writing toward. We are writing toward the answer to this one question. We are writing to KNOW something about our main character. And that brings me to the "how-to" portion of today's post. 

HOW do we craft a dramatic question for our stories? Focusing on three things will help:

Your Protagonist: Who are you writing about? This person's name should probably be in the dramatic question. Very simply, "Will Susie find her blue hair ribbon?" "Will Mikey beat his nemesis in the big school race?" If you cannot identify who your protagonist is, if you have too many characters and too little focus, you may want to think this through a bit. Focus. We need a hero to follow.

His or Her Goal: What does your main character want? Susie wants to find her blue hair ribbon. Mikey wants to win the race. In the Angel Eyes trilogy, Brielle wants to know what the heck she's supposed to do with what she sees. These things must somehow be reflected in the question you're asking.

Obstacles: What is keeping your main character from reaching her destination? Brielle isn't big on believing in the invisible. She doesn't want to believe there is more to life than what can be reasonably seen. Once she can see the invisible world, this built-in, rooted emotion doesn't stop being an obstacle to her. It is a problem. Her belief will not change reality, but it will change her actions. This problem must be overcome and that should be reflected in the dramatic question.

I've given you some things to think about and play around with, but if I'm honest, the dramatic question is almost always easier to craft after the story is written. I bet you can hone in on dramatic questions from all your favorite books. In fact, take a minute and do that. Think of your favorite story and stew on it for a bit. What ONE question does the author answer for you at the end. Focus, now. Hone in. What is it?

Now, do it for the story you're currently drafting.

See, it's easier to do when the book is already written. And that brings me to my final tip and trick for the day. Knowing what it is you're asking and answering can be incredibly helpful, but it will require some thought. In my experience, taking the time to write up a quick synopsis or story summary could go a long way in helping you discover what it is you're really writing about. 

I know. Writing a summary is not easy and it takes all sorts of time and effort, but at this point, it doesn't have to be perfect. It just has to help you flesh out that question. And the irony is that once you know what your dramatic question is, writing a synopsis gets much easier. And suddenly you'll have focus and a sturdy rope to lead your reader with.

Tell me, have you ever written a dramatic question for your stories before? Give it a try. If you're brave, share with us.

33 comments:

  1. I've never heard of the dramatic question before. Thank you for sharing this post! I'm going to have to go back through some drafts and see what I can do. And what better excuse to spend some time staring at my bookshelves...

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    1. I'd love to say that I came up with the idea of the Dramatic Question, but folks older and wiser get to take the credit. If you're curious and would like to read further, Gotham Writers' Workshop has a book called Writing Fiction and it delves more deeply into this topic.

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  2. I've never heard of the dramatic question either. I think I may have an idea of how it would work with my stories, though.

    For Illusion, it would be: Will Kate set aside her fears to pursue justice?

    And for Suspicions, I think it would be: Will Kate choose to save her mother over her best friend?

    This dramatic question crafting is fun stuff. Thank you for the post, Mrs. Dittemore!

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  3. Loved this post, Mrs.Dittemore! I've never heard of the dramatic question before, but I like it :).

    For my current WIP, it would be: Will Roxanne find a way to save the land she loves, or will she have to leave it forever?

    I agree with Linea, figuring out the dramatic question for a story is fun! I'll have to do it for the rest of my WIPs :). ~Savannah

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  4. My dramatic question is: Will Alice and Park be able to escape from the virtual reality of wonderland, or will Park's mind be driven insane before they can get out?

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    1. Wonderland? That's so cool!

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    2. Thanks! I just started this new story so I'm glad to hear it sounds interesting. I just finished my other book and I'm feeling slightly lost. Thanks for the encouragment!

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  5. I have multiple main characters, but as a question summing them all up would go something like ...

    Can five teens work to knit time together, or will they destroy each other with personal vendetta?

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    1. Having five main characters sounds ambitious to me. I do have one question though. Which character do you spend the most time on?

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    2. It will depend book to book, which is why I say five main characters instead of five POVs. I've only written the first draft of the first book, but it was split between one character whose chapters were twice as long as everyone else's due to the nature of his voice, and the one the first book surrounded. However, the second book will surround a different character.

      You might also ask who has the most at stake, but the problem spreads over the series, involving the people it takes the longest to get to just as much as the characters it gets to first.

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  6. Hi, Sharon,

    I have three questions for you. First question: If you have four characters (all fleshed out, developed, etc.) with different goals, is your dramatic question the thing that ties their journeys together (like "can they find the magic amulet?" or whatever?) My second question is does the primary goal of the story have any bearing on the dramatic question. My third question is that if the answer to #2 is yes, then how do you come up with a dramatic question if your characters fulfill their primary goal only to be given another goal? I know this is confusing, but if you can provide insight, I would greatly appreciate it.

    Whatever the case may be, this post has caused me to think more about my character's goals, and what bearing that has on the story. Thanks for the amazing advice.

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    1. Hey Anonymous. I DO have a sister named Sharon, but I'm Shannon. ;)

      1. Could be. Not necessarily. If them learning to work together or "find the amulet" is the answer, then sure. It's sort of like Jeopardy, you know? Think hard. What question does your story answer? It is harder, I believe, with multiple protagonists.

      2. Of course. Absolutely. The primary goal, reworded, should be the question.

      3. Well. Let's start with this. Having multiple main characters means that you will (most likely) have multiple goals. You can definitely tell a story that way, and without muddying this more for you, I'll say this: the Dramatic Question should be used by a writer as a tool to help them write. It's not something to be graded by a teacher. So, if it helps you, write a dramatic question for each main character. But I bet, if you really think about it, the goals of each main character will funnel into one mail goal and that should be/could be your DRAMATIC QUESTION. Think of Frodo and Aragorn and all the important characters in Lord of the Rings. They all have smaller goals, individual goals, but they have ONE MAIN GOAL. Destroy the ring. So, the dramatic question would be something like, "Will the fellowship destroy the one ring and save middle earth?" Simple. Yes. No. This isn't an easy exercise, but if you can focus your story into one question, it will thrust your writing forward.

      3. Then that first goal is not the goal of the story. You're talking about something bigger, right? You may want to find a writer pal and bounce your story around for a bit and get their feedback.

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    2. Thanks, Shannon, your answers really helped Sorry about the name mix-up by the way :)

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  7. Let's see...this is gonna be hard, because my first draft (which is almost complete!) is totally useless. Seriously. This story has NO plot. If I do a rewrite, I'll have to change everything.

    Well, this is the first time I've gotten so far, so no biggie.

    Anyway, I think the my dramatic question will be:

    Can Dorlin fight his fear of fire and accept himself as a Flameweaver before the Demigod gains ultimate power?

    This will most definitely change. DEFINITELY. But I'll keep the fear of fire thing: it's what ties the story together and makes it what it is. Anyhoo, this post got me thinky :). Thanks!

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    1. Good job, Jonathan! Write your dramatic question on an index card and stick it where you'll see it when you write. It will force you to stick to a storyline that furthers answering the question. It will drop you into a plot.

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    2. That sounds cool! I want to read your story;)

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  8. I've never heard of the dramatic question, but now that i know how to find it, i kinda understand my current WIP and other novels a bit better. Amazing!
    The question for my completed, but not revised WIP would be: will Raven marry the prince and find a better life, even if she has to betray those she loves in the process.
    The next novel in the series is: Will Robin pay of his debt to mother Ingrith and keep his sacred name?

    ~K.A.C.

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    1. It's intriguing how you name your protagonists after birds.

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    2. OMG I never even realized that! Thanks. I wonder how i could use that. Although, ive been thinking about changing Robins name since i have four characters whose names start with R. That will get very confusing.

      ~K.A.C.

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    3. Change it to another bird name:) Fans will probably love the connection if they make it!

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    4. You all are so creative! Great job.

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  9. Shadows of Ragnarok's dramatic question is: Is evil born or chosen?

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    1. Wow! Very deep. I wonder what happens when you re-ask that question and include the name of your protagonist.

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  10. Thank you so much for this post, Shannon! This is exactly what I needed right now. I have a good idea for a story, but I don't have a question to drive it. Your tips are going to be so helpful in figuring it out! Thanks! :)

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    1. Hooray! Like I told Jonathan up there, when you have it figured out, or at least think you do, write it somewhere you can see it when you're writing. It will keep you focused.

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  11. Thank you for this informative and thought-provoking post, Shannon! Here are the dramatic questions for the two main characters of my historical fiction novel:
    1) Will Conrad lay aside his pride and vault his fear in order to win the piano competition?
    2) Will Julienne relinquish her prejudice of Jews so that she can accept Conrad's love?
    I tried to construct the questions in such a way that intertwines plot and character arc. (And no, despite my references to pride and prejudice, I'm not in any way imitating Jane Austen. :-) )

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  12. Hello! Thank you for your post! I read a lot of writing "tips" blogs, yet this is the first time I've read one of yours. I must say yours is the most helpful I've come across in a long time! - At least for where I'm at right now. So thank you! :) My dramatic question for my (first) work in progress is:
    "Can Beauty, Beast and the Beast's sister untangle themselves from the Wicked Wizard's Web and break their curses?"
    I'm still working on names for the Beast's sister and the Wicked Wizard, which is fitting I suppose, since one of the themes is "What is a name?". The other theme explores "What is a beast?". I guess themes are a topic for a different conversation.

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  13. The dramatic question for my book is probably: Will Avartes save his friends and redeem himself, or will he let them die and hold on to his precious life.

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