Not the obvious ‘how does it end?’ but something more basic; every story asks questions.
‘What’s is about?’ isn’t really the question either. Jaws isn’t about a shark, it’s about friendship; Fast and Furious isn’t about cars, it’s about family. But those are themes. Both ask different questions of the audience. Can our Three Men in a Boat(!) overcome their fears and band together? Do our street-racers overcome their distrust and become family?
Will Lizzy overcome her pride and Darcy overcome his prejudice? You have to give it to Austen, she really nailed that central question from the very title and the very first line:
‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’
Austen leaves you, the reader, to insert the question mark, to challenge the validity of that solid statement of ‘fact.’ Austen creates the modern Romance genre with an absolute gem of a question.
Connecting the Beginning and End
Author and coach Savannah Gilbo discusses the central question in fiction that “connects the beginning of your story to the end of your story.”
“From the beginning of a story, the reader tracks this question and wants to know what the answer is. It’s what gives a story narrative drive…”
In terms of story structure, the Inciting Incident asks the main story question to be answered in the Climax.
A Question of Genre
You might think the genre determines the question: do the lovers get together in the Romance?
Does the player or the team ‘win’ in the Performance genre – a term for every sports movie ever? Every sports story from The Mighty Ducks to Karate Kid, Cool Runnings, Pitch Perfect (a sports underdog/team-building movie) and Tin Cup asks the ‘winning’ question. The answer may not be the cup or the title, but the team-build, the found-family or the moral victory.
The question in the Action genre is ‘will the protagonist survive and defeat the antagonist?.’ No one says The Question has to be complex. In ‘World-view’ stories it is a question of character growth and transformation – everything from To Kill a Mockingbird to Gatsby to Catcher in the Rye.
Where should your story start and end?
My fantasy series is in the Action genre, which means it has to
Start with some kind of attack by the antagonist:
- Jovanka is on the run after an assassination attempt by the Emperor.
- Varla, the rebel, is on the run from the Vipers
End with the protagonist confronting the antagonist:
- Jovanka and Varla fight the Emperor’s Tracker and the Vipers.
But the genre doesn’t limit the central question. The readers knows from page one it’s an action genre piece, but the central question borrows themes from others. Will my characters bond as found-family and come together in a romance. Will they ‘win,’ will they grow and change their world view?
I know I’m writing magic and sword-fights, but my characters have to address more basic questions of identity and beliefs; who am I and what do I stand for?