The Five Questions

Please forgive me, readers, for taking so long to post another blog.  I have been busy… well writing and getting produced, (see  so I think I have a good excuse.  I have also been lecturing on story structure to various writing organizations, in particular, the Southern California Writers Association and the Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights.

In this blog, I would like to address the issue of the five most important questions you need to ask yourself before you start writing your book, play or screenplay.

Early in the prewriting stage, you should ask yourself:

  • Who is my book, play or screenplay about?  In other words, who is the protagonist?
  • What does the protagonist want or need? (consciously or unconsciously)
  • What gets in the protagonist’s way? (antagonistic forces)
  • Does the protagonist succeed or fail? (resolution)
  • How does the protagonist change?

Let’s take each of these in turn:

Who is it about?

Who your story is about, your protagonist, is the character with whom the audience most engages and whose problem they want most to see resolved.  This does not mean the other characters won’t be fully developed, with problems and conflicts of their own, but having a central character is what helps focus the piece both for author and audience.   Think of that character as the voice of your piece.

What does the protagonist want?

The protagonist must have a compelling need that drives him or her throughout the story.  This need is usually established by an inciting incident at the beginning of the book, play or screenplay.    The inciting incident is an event that throws the character out of his or her status quo condition by introducing a problem.   It is the protagonist’s need to resolve this problem that drives the action forward.

The protagonist’s need can either be external or internal, conscious or  unconscious.  Sometimes there is both a conscious need and a conflicting unconscious need operating within the protagonist.  In this case, one need is usually resolved at the expense of the other.

What is in the protagonist’s way?

The obstacles in the protagonist’s path are called antagonistic forces.  These can be a person or persons, a situation, the protagonist’s own inner conflict, an institution, society, even the weather!  The most important thing to remember about antagonistic forces is they have to equal the effort and will put forth by the protagonist, otherwise not enough energy is generated in the piece.  It is also important to remember an antagonist is not always a “bad guy” but simply what thwarts the character’s want or need.  You can write interesting, nuanced pieces where your protagonist and antagonist have equally compelling actions and motivations.  But again, your protagonist is the one we are the most “invested” in.

Does the protagonist succeed or fail?

A question is posed when a story begins:  Will the boy get the girl?, will the man gain fame and fortune?, will the woman overcome her prejudices?  By the end of the story, in the resolution, you must answer the question, with a Yes, or with a No.  Protagonists do not have to succeed for the story to resolve.  Sometimes they will gain something by not getting what they want.

How does the protagonist change?

An essential element of story is that the protagonist, by the end, changes or evolves in some way.  Think of story as a crucible.  Like metal transforms under the application of high heat, so the protagonist transforms through the challenges and obstacles s/he faces in struggling to resolve his or her problem.  Depending on the story, this transformation can be subtle or dramatic, but it must be there.

Although many of these questions will, of course, also evolve during the drafting of your book, play or screenplay,  mapping them out in the prewriting phase helps you establish your story’s bone structure, which will guide you through the entire writing process.   .

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