Three Key Questions to Ramp Up Your Story’s Mojo

Lately, we’ve been running a series on fiction offered to us by our good friend and bestselling novelist Larry Brooks.

Click here to read Larry’s first post, Five Things You Need to Know to Write a Novel, click here to read his second post, Six Elements You Must Master to Write a Publishable Novel. Or, read on and enjoy the next in the series.

For an extra boost of fiction advice and tips, check out our other posts on fiction writing, too.

Nobody likes to admit to the fact that there really are a few magic pills where story writing is concerned. Three magic pills, in fact. Taken together, they’re a little like Viagra-meets-steroids but with no banned substances to worry about.

I’ll even go so far as to say that if you use as directed, success is just about guaranteed.

But if you don’t use them, your story will likely deflate right after you write your killer hook – just like a few nights you probably recall from your single days, no doubt.

These three magic pills are questions. They are asked of you, by you, about your story and about your reader. The degree to which you answer them and truly understand what they even mean is the degree to which your story seduces your readers into a literary orgasmic swoon.

Your story might even sell. And that’s an orgasmic swoon of your own.

The Great Diversion of Knowing Too Much

As basic as the questions seem, they’re easy to miss. They’re like the mythical hot girl back in school who was never asked out because she was, indeed, too beautiful. (That’s a load of hooey, as you probably know – I certainly do, because I asked her out.)

My point is that your story may be stuck in first gear because you were too afraid to ask a question. You might miss these basic tenets of storytelling effectiveness while you’re sweating your plot points and crafting a backstory.

Question #1: What does the hero need or want, and why?

We’ve all heard about the hero’s journey. But what does that even mean? Is it a story about a drunken joy ride to Mexico on spring break? No. The hero’s journey needs to be a trip that is as inwardly focused as it is reliant upon a destination in the form of a mystery solved, a disaster diverted or an opportunity seized.

This breaks down into two parts:

First, what does the hero need or want in life or within the context of the story arena you’ve created – before the first major point? The answer defines who he or she is, what’s at stake and why readers should care.

Then, when you unveil heavy dramatic hardware at the first plot point (and if you don’t know what this means, these three questions won’t give your story legs), everything changes.

What the hero wants is either derailed or redefined. At minimum, it’s put on hold until the hero addresses – in other words, responds to and then attacks – the problem at hand.

The more succinct, dramatic and empathetic you can make both contextual needs, the more your reader cares about what happens next.

Question #2: What are the stakes of attaining the goal, and why should the reader care?

Stakes are critical when it comes to writing a story. Essential, even. No stakes, no sale.

If the character’s “journey” is, for example, getting his grades up so he can graduate with his class… well, that sucks. It’s too pedestrian. You can write that story and nail every academic story architecture criteria in the textbook and it’ll still suck.

There are no meaningful stakes. At least not any that emotionally involve readers.

But what if the character’s terminally ill and slightly whacked-out billionaire estranged father has unconditionally stated that if a timely graduation does not occur, your hero is disinherited – and at the same time, the character’s equally estranged loser sibling tries to kill him before graduation night rolls around…

Now those are stakes.

The more the reader feels the weight of the stakes, the better the story works. That novel you’re writing about your grandmother’s passion for gardening… not so much.

Question #3: In any given scene, what is the underlying tension of the moment, and how does it relate to the overall dramatic tension of the story?

Yes Virginia, there are two levels of tension in every story. Three, actually, depending on how you slice the pie.

A scene without its own microcosm of drama – a set-up, scene-specific stakes, risk and surprise, and consequences – is a scene you should consider cutting. Not every scene needs to be a pivotal story point, but every scene does need its own mission and some element of drama that begins and ends within its confines.

Every scene in your story needs to give something to the reader, either in the form of exposition, character or both. The more dramatic, the better.

But to make things even more difficult, that intra-scene tension needs to be in context to the larger dramatic landscape of the story itself. This tension is Storytelling 101, but the risk is that you write drama-void expositional scenes that either don’t relate or contribute to forward movement.

Great stories always use the inner tension of the hero or other characters as an element of drama that directly bears on the outcome of the scene itself. Their fears, their temptations, their lapsed memory, their greed, their backstory, their driving need… all are the realm of inner tension.

And inner tension is the stuff of character arc and emotional resonance.

Hey, even Hamlet had a thing for his mother – man, talk about an inner demon – and look where it got him in terms of dramatic immortality. I’m just sayin’.

Want some coaching on story writing? Contact Larry for fiction coaching services or an evaluation of your manuscript – and get published faster. Or, click here to visit Larry’s blog, Storyfix.

Post by James Chartrand

James Chartrand is an expert copywriter and the owner of Men with Pens and Damn Fine Words, the game-changing writing course for business owners. She loves the color blue, her kids, Nike sneakers and ice skating.