Tessa posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
I followed the Writing Fiction for Dummies book to the letter after I wrote my novel, all except the part about a scene list. I thought it would take too much effort. I realized yesterday that I need to shift the scenes around, and I so regret not writing that list.
I’m going mad with trying to figure out how it all connects if I move two of my scenes earlier (so that the REAL story question of the book is in the first quarter, and not closer to the middle). There’s ton of things happening in the first 1/3 to keep the reader occupied, and I’ve been dropping clues left and right, all carefully concealed to the best of my ability.
The real story question is basically if the kids should choose between good or evil, but up until then the reader will have thought that the story question is how to get home, since that’s what the kids have been doing up until about 1/3 of the story.
How to get home is the ultimate goal, and the story question of the whole trilogy (this is book one).
How important is it to have the true story question of the book in the first quarter as opposed to nearer to 1/3 of the book?
Thanks in advance. I’ll appreciate help with this.
Randy sez: That depends on which of the “five pillars of fiction” are most important in your novel. The five pillars are Storyworld, Characters, Plot, Theme, and Style. For a plot-driven novel, you really want the story question to be as clear as possible as soon as possible. For novels driven by one of the other pillars, it’s okay to be fuzzier on the story question and to delay it a bit.
Let’s look at a few examples.
THE GODFATHER is a novel about a Mafia family in New York in the 1940s. This novel is, in my opinion, driven by the Storyworld itself — a world of violent crime, backstabbing, and dirty money. The story question takes quite a long time to emerge: Will Michael Corleone ever be able to come home? And the novel would be a fine novel, even if this story question was never clearly asked or answered.
THE TIME TRAVELLER’S WIFE is a novel about a man who has a genetic flaw which causes him to spontaneously travel through time, and it’s about the woman who loves him. I would call this a character-driven novel. As the story continues, it gradually becomes clear that it’s rather dangerous to be a time-traveller when you always end up at your destination buck naked. But the story is about the characters and their love for each other, which transcends time. Even if the story question were never asked, this novel would still work. So it’s okay that the story question only becomes clear late in the game.
THE DAY OF THE JACKAL is a novel about a group of terrorists trying to assassinate Charles de Gaulle in the early 1960s. This is a plot-driven novel and a very good one. The story question is very simple: Will they succeed? The story question sharpens up early in the story to this one: Will the Jackal kill de Gaulle? This is remarkable, because the reader knows very well that de Gaulle was NOT assassinated. Yet the story works because the reader believes that the story could have happened, in principle, exactly as told.
THE SHACK is a novel about a man who spends a weekend with God in the shack in the Oregon wilderness where his daughter was murdered. This is a theme-driven novel in which the primary question is theological: How can a good and all-powerful God allow innocent children to be murdered? The story question is related to that: Will the protagonist come to terms with his loss or won’t he? But again, the story question is actually less powerful for the reader, who cares more about the theological question than a story question about one man’s loss.
It’s a rare novel that’s driven mainly by style, although I suppose I could think of one if I worked at it hard enough. In literary novels, style is very important, but generally they also have either a strong Storyworld, Characters, Plot, or Theme to carry the narrative forward.
So getting back to Tessa’s question, is it okay for her to finally make her story question clear at the 1/3 mark instead of the 1/4 mark? Tessa, if your story is strongly plot-driven, then you probably need to rethink things and bring that story question closer to the beginning of the story. Otherwise, you may be fine as you are.
Question for my Loyal Blog Readers: Think about the current novel you’re working on. At what point does the story question become crystal clear to your reader? Is it soon enough for the category of fiction you’re writing? Leave a comment and tell us!
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.