Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Writer's Wednesday: Core Story Question

Harlequin Romance author Susan Meier Gets to the Bottom of the importance of the Core Story

I do a lot of teaching, especially online. And one of the greatest tricks I have found to help myself and other writers get to the heart of our stories is a core story question.
Like it or not, every time a reader picks up a romance, she expects certain things. Every time a reader picks up a thriller, she expects other things. Every time a reader picks up a sci-fi, she expects a totally different set of things.
And how do we know what readers expect from every book in the genre or subgenre currently popular?
Because at its heart every genre and subgenre has a core story question.
Every genre or subgenre has its own "signature" question that makes a book fit that genre.  It’s a marketing tool for booksellers to know how to shelve books, but more than that it's also a tool that helps an author keep his or her book focused so it not only results in a tight book. . .it also ensures a book hits its market.
Some of you are going to rebel against this because you WANT to be writing mainstream. You WANT to appeal to a broad audience.
I agree. I applaud you, but don't turn away the tool that might jumpstart your story and give it enough focus that readers will love you.
For instance. . .
In CJ Lyons’ workshop, Thrills, Chills and Spills, How to Write the Modern-Day Thriller, she says, “The story question of a mystery is Who. Who done it?” LOL. The protagonist works to figure out who killed the cop, who murdered the mom, who blew up the bishop. Who done it?
The story question of a thriller is how? How will your protagonist save the world (albeit his or her own personal world) from the evil villain intent on destroying it?
That’s pretty obvious stuff. But how do YOU as author use it? How can it make writing your book easier? How can it make your book better?
To answer those questions, let’s look at the movie AIR FORCE ONE with Harrison Ford.
After the plane of the president of the United States is hijacked and most of the secret service agents on board are killed, it's pretty clear almost immediately that the president is going to have to save himself. So the question becomes how.
How will an aging military hero save himself when he's trapped on a plane, has no weapon, is outgunned and the villains are using his family against him?
Did you notice what I did there? I took the broad and general 'GENRE' question for a thriller (How will the protagonist save the world) and turned it into a concise story question for a specific story.
Because that's what makes your book unique. If you’re writing a thriller, the way you twist or turn or enhance YOUR version of the “how will the hero save the world” question is the way you make your book great, or different, or unique.
So right off the bat you need to know what genre you are writing so you know how to direct your story, but once you know that, you can manipulate the question with your story facts and make your story the best it can be.
The core story question of a romance seems to be:
How will the hero and heroine get together?
But that isn’t really a romance because there is no mention of conflict. And as we all know, conflict is at the heart of most great romance novels. So we need to show our conflict in that story question, which means we have to take that question one step further.
The real question is: How will the hero and heroine get together in spite of their differences – and the intense internal conflict that separates them?
Without the distinction of conflict in your core story question, the answer to "How will they get together?" could be that a neighbor arranges a date and they have seven more dates and, boom, they get married.
You'd still have a book, but you wouldn't have a romance novel because your story wouldn't be rich or deep in the way that today's romance novels are. So adding the conflict into the core story question reminds you that you must have a conflict that keeps your novel focused.
Let’s take a look at the core story question for my book SNOWBOUND BABY, an oldie but a goodie for Silhouette Romance.
The heroine is a single mom who needs a commitment. Her parents stayed together for her sake, but the moment she turned 18 they divorced and then basically abandoned her so they could start the “new” families they’d always longed for.
The hero is the middle brother of three who were left to fend for themselves when their parents died . . . and run the family construction company.  Because the oldest brother was 20 he became the “parent” to his younger brothers and didn’t do such a bang up job. In fact, the brothers got into a ripsnorter of a fight, and our hero left. His name is Cooper by the way. The heroine is Zoe.
So what’s the core story question?
How will an abandoned single mom who needs a commitment and a reclusive rancher who wants nothing to do with people ever get together when 1) they are stuck together in a cabin in the woods in a snowstorm; 2) he’s antisocial; 3) she believes she’s unlovable; and 4) as soon as the snowplow goes through they’ll never see each other again?
That question gives us a very strong sense of the book and could literally guide us the whole way through to the end, just by letting the conflict tell the story.
Letting the conflict tell the story! Now, that’s a great idea. In fact, it’s such a great idea I teach a whole workshop on it! LOL Unfortunately, we’re out of space…so we’ll save that discussion for another day.
Any questions on the core story question? I’ll be happy to answer them.

Find out more about Susan and her books on her website.  Her latest book for Harlequin Romance is Baby on the Ranch ( May 2011)


  1. Susan, love, Love, LOVE your workshops!

    The last one I took was Journey Steps, Taking the Trail to Somewhere. My writing is so much better because of you. Thanks!

  2. Thanks, Aimee! I love giving workshops (esp that one!) because it reminds me of things I already know. LOL


  3. Um...In case anyone's wondering, I have to post an anonymous because blogger seems to put me on an endless loop otherwise! But anonymous is me! LOL


  4. Google must be having trouble today; I had problems posting as Leigh Duncan, too.

    Love your post, Susan. You're such an excellent instructor. The core story question could make a great lead-in to a synopsis or query letter, couldn't it?

  5. It also makes an interesting elevator pitch, Leigh.

    and if you look at the question correctly, you can also sort of see turning points of the story. Those could serve as the skeleton for a synopsis.