The Central Question: Part 1
Whether I am analyzing a book I have read or working on a story idea of my own, I like to try to figure out how the story is structured. To figure out how a book is organized I find it useful to ask myself, what is the central question posed in this book?
What is a Central Question?
When I am talking about a central question I’m referring to something like a topic sentence. It might be something like will our hero defeat the evil villain and save the world? Or it could be something like will our hero and love interest end up together?
Notice that these are very simplistic and have nothing to do with theme or subtext. They reduce a story down to brass tacks.
The central question is usually tied up in the protagonist’s primary goal, or conflict. It is laid out somewhere in the first quarter of the book and answered in the climax. This question will bookend your story because the desire to know the answer will create a tension that pulls the reader through to the end. How you make a reader care about that question is a topic for a later post. For now let’s focus on identifying the central question and what it is used for.
Here are some examples from a wide-range of books:
- The Goldfinch: Will Theo return the painting?
- The Hunger Games: Will Katnis survive the hunger games?
- Tess of The D’Urbervilles: Will Tess be able to make a new life for herself after having been raped?
- Uprooted: Will Agnieska defeat the corruption in the wood?
- Seveneves: Will humanity survive?
- Dealing with Dragons: Will Cimorene find out what the wizards are up to and put a stop to it?
- The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: Will Toru find his wife?
- The Taming of the Shrew: Will Petruchio tame Catherine?
- All The Kings Men: Will power corrupt Willie Stark?
- The Road: Will the father manage to protect the son in the post apocalyptic wasteland?
- The Odyssey: Will Odysseus make it home?
- Hamlet: will Hamlet be able to reveal the truth of his father’s murder?
- Treasure Island: Will Jim find the treasure and foil the schemes of the pirates?
Why Is This Useful?
The central question reduces a novel to a few straightforward details, which can be a helpful touch point when you are wrestling with a long or complex story.
The question reveals the outline of the story. You can identify the plot points by following how the character progresses towards answering this question. The biggest achievements and setbacks will mark the major events of the story. When the main character takes on this task the real story begins, and when they succeed or fail the story is over.
The central question ties the events of a story together making it seem like a coherent whole rather than a series of unconnected events.
It sets up the reader’s expectation about what sort of story they are going to read. If a story starts to deviate too far from the question, it risks pulling the reader out of the story by making him wonder why he is hearing about this and why he should care.
Stories use this question to create a sense of order in the events of life. Even though other things are likely happening in our character’s life, we only care about them in so far as they relate to the main story. That’s why books are not filled with scene after scene of people eating, sleeping, and going to the bathroom. Even if you relate an interesting event that might plausibly be happening, it will feel like a distraction if it doesn’t tie to the question in one way or another.
In your own writing, you can use this as a test for whether a particular scene belongs. Does it move us closer or farther away from the answer to the central question? Does it move your character closer or farther away from their goal? If not, it probably needs to be cut.
What If I Don’t Follow The Rules?
Like a lot of writers, I like to bend the rules. I’ve experimented with trying to jam in multiple questions, writing purposely abstract and mundane scenes, and providing little to no resolution. It did not produce the best results.
Why is that? What happens if you don’t answer the central question, resolve it too early, or abandon it entirely?
Let’s consider some of the examples above.
What if instead of listening to the ghost, Hamlet decided to move on with his life and we never heard from the ghost again?
What if after Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place in the hunger games the officials said, oh never mind, you don’t have to compete?
What if by the middle of Treasure Island Jim had already found the treasure and defeated Long John Silver and the second half of was completely dedicated to how he invested the money?
You can see right away that these would be very different stories. The reader of a story like this would likely be frustrated, bored, and confused because she has been teased with the promise of one type of story, and then ended up with something entirely different.
If you answer the question too early, like in the case of treasure island, you are deflating all of the tension from your story. What goes in the rest of the pages? You either have to introduce a new question, which will feel fragmented or meander on about peripheral topics. There is a reason why resolutions are usually kept to only a few pages.
What if you don’t have a central question at all?
While there are probably some experimental works that have tried this, I imagine that the audience for this type of story would be extremely limited. With no promised conflict, it becomes a lot harder to build tension. Without tension why does the reader want to turn the page? A strong writing voice or interesting imagery can get you some of the way there, but without a purpose, the story will have a much harder time attracting readers.
Having a point of focus is important in most writing, but especially in the long form of the novel that has to sustain a reader’s interest for much longer than a poem or essay.
I’m sure you can easily find plenty of examples of books with extraneous scenes, or sequences. The question then is, does the scene add to your enjoyment of the story, and if so, how? Could it have been more effective if it had been woven into the central story? While you can have some success out on the fringes, I believe that straying too far from your central question makes it much harder on you to produce something enjoyable.
In part two of this series on the central question, we will complicate this concept by exploring the difference between internal and external questions, how they can pair with one another to create a more interesting story, and the ways in which the genre you are writing in can determine the nature of your central question.