Every story begins with a question. That question remains unanswered until the end, but that unanswered question is what motivates the hero into taking action in between the beginning and the end.
In “Die Hard,” the initial question is whether John McClane will get back with his wife or not. In the end, that question is answered because he does get back with his wife. In between, John McClane’s actions are all channeled by answering the initial question, which is to get back with his wife.
The simplest way to define any story is to start with an initial question and then define the answer at the end. In “The Godfather,” the hero’s goal is to stay out of the family business. In the end, he fails and becomes the new godfather.
In between, he keeps resisting the temptation to take over the family business and this tension between trying to answer the initial question once and for all is what creates tension in the story.
Basically, define an initial question that your hero wants to achieve and then decide the answer in the end. If the hero achieves this initial question, then it’s a happy ending like “Die Hard” where the hero finally gets back with his wife.
If the hero fails to achieve this initial question, then it’s a tragedy like “The Godfather,” where the hero fails to stay out of the family business and becomes the next godfather.
Once you know your hero’s initial question and ultimate answer, then everything in between is nothing more than a constant struggle between the hero trying to achieve the initial question or risk failing.
In “The Hunger Games,” Katniss’s goal is to save her sister by taking her sister’s place, but after she does this, the new question is will Katniss survive? In the end, she does, and that creates the happy ending.
In between, Katniss’s fate is always in doubt. She’s initially looked over by the judges until she shoots an arrow at them. After the judges rate her highly, then she becomes a target for the other tributes to kill her first.
The basic structure of any story is this:
- Define an initial question
- Show the hero constantly struggling to achieve the initial question but leaving the final answer in doubt
- Answer the initial question
In the middle of any story, the hero keeps struggling to achieve the initial question. Each step brings the hero closer to success, but it’s never complete so there’s always the possibility of failure. Only at the end do we know for sure one way or the other what happens to the hero.
Once you know that your entire story is about this struggle between answering the initial question positively or negatively, then you’ll have a better idea what types of obstacles your hero needs to face. This helps keep your story focused by simply identifying the initial question and answering it in the end.