Setting up the story question

This entry is part 19 of 24 in the series The plot thickens (Mwahahaha)

We discussed the Story Question at the beginning of our series on plotting. The more we’ve discussed plotting, however, the more I realize I have more to say on this topic.

The first time we talked about it, we defined the story question like this (well, we’re using different emphasis this time):

The story question is the basic concept of the story. It’s asked (or hinted at) at the beginning of the story, and answered by the end. It’s the controlling, overarching action of the story.

So how do we hint at the story question at the beginning, especially if we don’t plan to formally ask it until the Call to Adventure, or Plot Point #1?

In all the plotting paradigms we’ve looked at, there’s a period at the beginning of the story where we get to see the character’s world: the Ordinary World, the Setup. Note that the three act, the five act and Brooks’s story structures all place the transition from this world at the 1/4 point, where we’re introduced to the BIG conflict.

But how can we introduce the story question in the beginning if we can’t actually “ask” it for some 25,000 words?

As we show the Ordinary World, we have to show something is wrong there—something is missing. Something is lacking—something that the conclusion of our story will bring to him or her.

If it’s a romance, we need to see in the beginning that the hero and heroine are lacking something—they’re alone. If it’s a mystery, we need to see a lack of justice (which an unsolved murder portrays nicely). Perhaps our main character is naive (or jaded), and the end of the story will bring knowledge or wisdom (or crack his hard exterior).

That doesn’t mean, however, that our characters have to spend the first quarter of the book whining about how lonely they are, and it doesn’t mean we have to wait until the 1/4 point to introduce them (conversely, we aren’t obligated to have them meet, sparks flying, on page 1, line 1).

We have to have conflict in the Ordinary World. If you’ll recall, in The Incredibles, this conflict related directly to the main plot—each member of the family was having a hard time, challenged by the Ordinary World. When we ask the story question (well, at each of the turning points), the stakes are raised for each member of the family.

This conflict in the Ordinary World should relate to the main plot. Imagine if we spend 25,000 words worrying about whether Pa’s crop will come in, and at the 1/4 turning point, we ask if Angelica can find true love. Can you imagine readers’ whiplash—and disappointment (or even outrage) that they just wasted X amount of time reading about something that has nothing to do with the story? That all those characters we cared about don’t matter anymore?

Even if we ask if Angelica can find Pa’s murderer, was the treatise on chopping cotton really necessary? Only if someone killed him for his crop, and even then, the first section might need to be adjusted a little to focus on the story question and not the agricultural practices of white sharecroppers in the 1930s.

What do you think? How have you set up your conflict before asking the story question?

Photo credits: question—Svilen Mushkatov

Series NavigationThe Hero’s Journey with Story StructureThe End

16 thoughts on “Setting up the story question”

  1. When we know what both the concept and theme are, (or the story question) we can plan some events in those first pages that will entice the reader and give them a clue as to what’s going to happen. For example, in Harry Potter #1 the first plot point is when the letters start to arrive and Hagrid arrives to take Harry to Hogwarts. However, we see him living in the cupboard under the stairs, him talking to the snake, and strange things happening before that PP#1. That is the introduction of the theme and the teaser information that sets up that first plot point. Besides if the ordinary world is so completely diferent then the post PP#1, or post first threshold world (unless you are in OZ) that world will be shocking and unbelivable. We know that witches and wizards exist because of the first scene in HP#1, so when Hagrid arrives, its not a total shock. (Well that scene is a bit of a shock at least in the movie but its filmed that way LOL)

  2. Hmm… I’m not clear whether you’re saying that you don’t ask the story question until the Call to Adventure OR Plot Point #1? Or are you saying that the Call to Adventure IS Plot Point #1? Because I agree with the guest poster that “The Call to Action in HJ is not plot point #1.” It would make the pacing too slow, for one thing, but most of all, everything doesn’t definitely change yet. It’s a CALL to change…but not the change itself. That change is made when the hero accepts (reluctantly or not) the call and crosses the threshold into Part #2.

    But that said…what you say here makes sense. However, I think that, quite frequently, that call to adventure is the best hook you can possibly start the story with!

  3. Hey Katie,

    Actually as I said in the comments to the last post, I think that the Call to Adventure CAN be Plot Point 1, since part 2 is Reaction, and refusing the call is definitely a reaction to that call. Plot Point 1 doesn’t require the character himself to change—just that things around him have changed. That’s why the second part of the structure is Reaction, because the hero(ine) is still trying to preserve the status quo, instead of proactively navigating the new world. Truly accepting the call and becoming proactive about it is saved for part 3, Attack. (But it also depends on how you execute.)

    But what I’m saying here is that we set up the story question in the beginning of the story (the first quarter/act/part), but it’s not actually “asked” until PP1. So we see that Luke is bored with his life as a moisture farmer on Tatooine in the set up and that there are big things happening in the galaxy, but it’s not until he’s called to adventure and commits to adventure that we actually get the story question—Can Luke defeat the evil Empire?

    Until he received the call from Obi-Wan, he doesn’t actually conceive of joining the rebellion (though he knows about it) or doing anything except trying to apply to the academy (an arm of the Empire). The idea that he could leave Tatooine on his own and try to work against the Empire (and PS his dad was a Jedi) changes his concept of the galaxy. His reaction, then, is to refuse (until he finds Beru & Owen dead, in the stormtroopers’ one display of firing accuracy).

    While the call to adventure is a great hook, and lots of stories begin there, the call may not mean a whole lot to a reader if we haven’t set up the Ordinary World. That’s why this first part is so crucial—we establish the stakes, we create sympathy with the characters. If we started with young man and old man in desert hut, “Luke, you must come with me to Alderaan, and learn the ways of the Force if you are to become a Jedi like your father,” hey, that sounds cool. But if we know that they also need to save the Alderaani princess from the evil Empire, and that Luke’s withering away on Tatooine and his uncle wants him not to grow up to be like his father, and actually, young man knows almost nothing (true) about said father, we’re a lot more invested (and interested) in his story.

    (Plus, we don’t have to spend 20,000 words refusing the call.)

  4. I really am beginning to appreciate the importance of the Story Question. Not only should it be introduced early, I think it should be in the first line. Or relatively close. Show the reader right up front what the character’s problems are and why they can’t immediately solve them.
    The Call to Adventure is like a Summons…you’ve been served. But it’s not like the process server drags you down to court immediately. You’ve got time to fight it. The point is to notify the character that change is going to occur.
    In my new WIP I’m working on for NaNoWriMo, my MC is fed up with her lot in life and leaves for a new town. She leaves in search (essentially) of love. This sets up the story question of “will she find what she’s looking for?”
    On this journey (within a journey) to a new town, she meets a man who will change her life, which is her Call to Adventure. So we find out why she leaves, what drives her, and what her goals are. I’m interested in seeing how this will all work.

  5. I think I missed your post on Story Question. I just now went back and read it, and I think I see what you’re talking about now.

    And yeah, not all stories can start with the Call to Adventure. What I was thinking, though, is that when the Call is the hook, but the Call is initially refused, it’s while the character is refusing it that you’re also slipping in the stakes and the backstory and so forth, so your reader simultaneously comes to understand the meaning behind the call and why the character is reluctant, etc. It’s that very refusal that provides the emotional tug that pulls us into the story. This way, the story keeps moving forward, and by the time the Call is accepted (or forced upon them) and they cross the threshold and their lives change, we know everything we need to know.

    My understanding of Reaction, after reading the whole series on StoryFix yesterday, is that it’s not the character’s reaction to the Call, but rather the character is reacting in the new world they’ve entered, because they don’t know they’re way around it yet. They have no control or power in this new world…they’re a Wanderer in it.

    Does that make sense? It’s not going to work for all stories…but I see that it does in a LOT of stories. To me, the Call in Star Wars was when R2 played Leah’s recording. Luke started feeling that “we’ve got to do something! We’ve got to save her!” When Obi-wan officially “asked” Luke to join the resistance, he was only verbally stating a call that Luke already felt. It was that hook…that call within him that caused the tug of war inside of him that kept us, as the viewers, on the edge of our seats, waiting to see how it all would play out. It was THAT call that also began to show us the scope of the worldbuilding and the battle that was going to be played out…to give us a setting for the verbalized call that Obi-Wan would shortly give.

    Or maybe this is another instance of how subjective writing is. How not even the elements of a popular story are viewed the same by everyone. 🙂

    My concern with not providing the Call to Adventure until Plot Point #1, which is 20-25% through the book, is that we’d end up with so much backstory and set up that today’s readers would have given up in frustration because “nothing happens.” Kristin Nelson on PubRants talks about the “trigger point” that catapults the story forward. She says it should happen within the first 30 pages. It seems to me that the trigger point she talks about is either the Call to Adventure or the Threshold. There’s definitely not anything BEFORE the Call that can be a trigger point.

    Now, in a 300 page full-length novel, (which is what she’s talking about) that’s only 10% through. Page 60, or page 75, (20-25% into it) would be much, much too late. In fact, that would mean your trigger point / Call wouldn’t even make it into your partial. So the Call, at the very least, should come within your first 30 pages. According to her. I’m not sure how you’d manage that and still make it your Plot Point #1.

  6. These things are flexible. As I’ve said all along, you can do it the way you’re saying, but that’s not the only way.

    I think that the Call to adventure can certainly come at the 20-25% mark. The “trigger” doesn’t have to be the call. You have to make the conflicts in the Ordinary World compelling, and introducing the stakes can be a trigger point. There must be conflict in the Ordinary World. There must be something lacking. The Ordinary World of itself must have something going on. We can’t just totter along until we come to the Call. You can’t have nothing happening in the Ordinary World.

    It can’t just be back story. In fact, it shouldn’t be back story. It’s not. It’s conflict in the present (that will have to do with the quest at least in some way), it’s showing the characters, establishing their problems, and showing the stakes. If that’s not compelling, the Call won’t be either. If our characters and their stakes don’t matter to our readers, why would their quest?

    I’ve used the example of the Incredibles before, too—the Call comes exactly 25% into the movie. It’s the first plot point (when Mr. Incredible is summoned to save a remote island from a robot on a rampage). We sit through a quarter of the movie because the Ordinary World is interesting. It’s compelling. They’re at loggerheads—he’s lost his job, he’s unfulfilled, he and his wife fight over their kids hiding, their daughter’s too shy to speak in school, their son’s acting out. Too much more of that and we probably would lose interest, but largely because there isn’t a way for them to resolve their conflicts

    By definition, the Call has to be issued to the hero (or someone with the hero’s qualifications). So Leia’s “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope,” can’t be Luke’s call. It’s Obi-Wan’s. “You must come with me to Alderaan” is Luke’s call (though earlier I said it’s when Beru & Owen died. I changed my mind.). Remember, too, that Luke says, “We gotta do something,” but then he doesn’t. He just kind of accepts C-3PO saying, “Oh, I don’t know who that is. Probably just old.” He even loses R2 (whom he fetches because it’ll mean his hide, not because of the princess—still fully believing he has no reason to go anywhere. They’re going to wipe R2’s memory, remember).

    Personally, I would disagree with starting with the Call only to go back and fill in all the rest. When books do that to me, I wonder if this stuff we have to go back and fill in is really important, and if so, why we didn’t just start there, then.

    Finally, Larry Brooks refers to the first plot point as “the call to a new quest.” He defines it as “the moment when something enters the story in a manner that affects the hero’s status and plans and beliefs, forcing her or him to take action in response.” This is the moment when the core conflict is introduced, where the story “really begins,” which can (and perhaps even should, in his paradigm) be the Call. And, he says, “Inherent to that moment is the call for the hero to do something they weren’t doing before – react, attack, solve, save, speak out, intervene, change, rebel, grow, forgive, love, trust, believe, or just plain run like hell”—so refusing that call can certainly be a part of that.

    By definition, it can be done, and in practice it has been done. But like I said before, that doesn’t mean it’s a requirement or set in stone. It’s just one possibility.

  7. ::shrugs:: I guess we just have different understandings of “the Call.” (I don’t consider “the call” in the Incredibles to be the same as you do either.) I suppose what I consider “The Call” is more what you called The Story Problem.

    But that’s fine. As long as we learn what works for us, right? 🙂

  8. If this is just a terminology problem, that’s one thing. And you’re welcome to call the parts of your story however you like.

    But these terms aren’t really mine, and neither are the definitions—they’re Campbell and Vogler’s. In their methods, the Call is pretty clearly defined. As I put it before, “A herald arrives, announcing the change. . . . The hero must act—it’s not an open-ended kind of catchall cast call. In some cases, a ‘we need someone who has X, Y and Z characteristics’ might work, but we often see more of a ‘We need YOU’ call.”

    That’s why it’s not until Obi-Wan says to Luke that he has to come. Luke really would have just gone on with his life if it hadn’t been for that (and his aunt and uncle dying). Seeing the message from Leia didn’t actually change anything in his life—he was already interested in the rebellion and he’d been wanting to leave the farm for years, but his uncle needed him. Seeing part of what he’s told is an old message addressed to someone else doesn’t fit the classical definition. (However, even if you want to use that part, it’s still a good 25-30 min into a 2 hour film.)

    I really can’t see a Vogler/Campbell Call in the Incredibles other than when he receives the message from Mirage. That’s 30 minutes into a 2 hour movie.

  9. Okay… yes, that is ONE way the call is defined. But another they used was the Inciting Incident. So perhaps it would be better for me to use that term for this particular movie. And I’m not the only one that sees it this way:

    But then, there are more that see Obi-Wan’s invitation as the Call, and still others who see the Call as a progressive thing, starting with the hologram and ending with Obi-Wan’s invitation.

    I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on this. Which is okay with me!

  10. Here’s “The Call to Adventure” in a nutshell:

    If you build it, he will come.

    For me, when the Mr. Incredible goes to the island, that’s clearly Crossing the Threshold. It occurs 25% of the way in which is right where it should be. He’s now on a path he can’t turn back from.
    I threw in my trusty The Incredibles DVD and found “The Call”: it’s at 19:18 (16%) when Mr. I reads the newspaper and sees that Mr. Paladino, longtime advocate of superhero’s rights, has gone missing. It’s the new piece of information that starts the whole ball rolling so to speak. The newspaper is the Herald. He doesn’t immediately act on this information, which is the Refusal. But it’s still brewing in the back of his head. I disagree with Brooks, the Call does NOT force the hero to take action. The next scene after he reads the news, he’s sitting in a car with the ice guy which is clearly Meeting with the Mentor, reinforcing my belief that the news is the Call.

  11. Bingo! Iapetus999. I agree about the call in the Incredibles. Again, I still say that Plot Point #1 is crossing the threshold. In the Incredibles, I think there are valid points for saying that he crossed the threshold when he accepted Mirage’s proposal or when he got on the plane. Accepting her proposal is when he started working out, hiding things from his wife, etc. He changed. Getting on the plane was the final nail in the coffin. It was too late to back out of this assignment. Actually, since he said on Story Fix that a Plot Point often takes several scenes to play out, he’d probably consider this whole section the Plot Point.

    The Call is not always (in fact, not often) verbally stated by “someone.” It can be…but often it is not. It is someTHING that places a call or a desire upon the hero’s heart… it’s that very first thing that starts the ball rolling, as you put it. I think that verbally calls and physical location changes are much less reliable indicators of where these plot points are, compared to emotional calls and emotional and mental changes. Why? Because, as all of these lessons say, they change HOW THE CHARACTER ACTS. What his goals are. What is motivation is.

    I also don’t agree that the call forces the hero to take action. I agree with Vogler that the hero can refuse the call. In that case, something else (that’s not the call, obviously) forces acceptance of the call.

    Okay…I think I’ve hung around this post for too long…gotta get to work on my own story!

  12. Look, I know that the Call can come from a thing or an event. But according to your definition from Vogler in Adnrew’s blog, the Call must give the hero an opportunity, a chance to engage or refuse.

    Reading the newspaper doesn’t give Bob a chance to engage. Something happened to Gazerbeam. Darn. There’s nothing he can do about it. He’d like to do something. It piques his interest. It shows us once again that all is not well in the Ordinary World. But there just isn’t anything he can refuse. There’s no reading between the lines of the article to figure out how he can save his friend, there’s no research to figure out what happened to him—and what happened to Gazerbeam is obviously not the Story Question.

    Yes, going to the island is obviously crossing the threshold. But Mirage’s message meets all the criteria for the Call: it gives him an opportunity to engage or refuse. It gives him something to DO, something he can act upon. Reading the newspaper doesn’t give him anything to do. He can’t engage with the information he has from the newspaper article. It foreshadows the Call, but it doesn’t issue it.

    Same with Leia’s call to Obi-Wan that Luke happens to see. There’s no response possible—even if she’s in trouble, as he believes, he knows nothing about her. He doesn’t know how to help her, or how to begin looking for her, or even if she’s still alive anymore. It’s Obi-Wan’s call that enables Luke to engage or refuse, because he has now sufficient information and it’s addressed to him—he has an opportunity, and he can either engage or refuse.

    The Call is supposed to change things in his world, make him see things in a new light. It gives him the chance to DO something. Neither reading about Gazerbeam nor seeing Leia does that.

    But these definitions have drawn us away from Katie’s original question—can we wait 25% of the way in for the Call?

    All of the plot methods that place events along the story course—Field’s 3 act structure, Freytag’s 5 act structure, Brooks’s story structure—put the big, story-changing moment around 25% of the way through (which, as I’ve argued, can be Crossing the Threshold or the Call). As I said before, even if you want to use Luke seeing Leia’s hologram as the Call, that’s like 25-30 minutes into the movie. We’ve already established some of the core conflicts—rebellion vs. Empire, Luke vs. boring life. We see that there’s something rotten in Denmark the galaxy. We don’t feel like nothing’s happening (even though Luke does, LOL).

  13. I guess we’ll agree to disagree. Of course it gives him an opportunity to engage. He talks to Frozone about it even. He’s engaged whether he wants to be or not. By talking to Frozone, he’s already gathering his allies in preparation for the adventure. Not to mention the fact that he’s being followed immediately after he reads the news. The universe has shifted.
    I think you’re reading too much into the Call. All it is is new knowledge that _hints_ of the adventure to come. And, of course, there are multiple Calls, basically growing in urgency until the Hero acts. I think what Kathleen and I are getting at is pointing to the _first_ incident that is out-of-the-ordinary. The initial Call that goes unheeded, but gives the readers an idea that something big is coming. Getting the message from Mirage is a much bigger Call. All these Journey pieces can overlap to some extent. I just like to think of the “Call to Adventure” as starting with the initial Call through the time the Hero begins to act on it, including whatever Calls come during that time.

  14. I have a hard time taking your dissent seriously, Andrew, since I know you like to disagree just because other people agree. 😉

    I disagree that talking about an event constitutes engaging. He could talk about it forever, but there just isn’t anything for him to do. Also, he talks about it, is told to forget it, and it never comes up again. The Story Question (that the Call is supposed to pose) isn’t whether he can save Gazerbeam, or what happened to him, or really anything to do with that news story. (There are multiple possible story questions here, but I’d probably say the underlying one is whether Mr. Incredible can be super again.)

    If we’re going to take multiple Calls, then there are a lot of hints of the adventure to come. The whole Ordinary World set up shows that there’s something wrong here. The whole Ordinary World has to hint at the coming adventure.

    Thank you for recognizing Mirage’s message as a Call. I call define it as THE Call because it’s the one event that gives Bob a chance to act, gives him a choice to make.

    These first foreshadowing calls don’t give the hero the opportunity make a choice. They give him a snippet of information, but that info isn’t enough to invite him on a quest. It just illustrates once again that the Ordinary World sucks.

    I do agree that the calls you identify go unheeded. But I’d argue that’s because it’s hard to heed a call that doesn’t ask you to do anything. There is no way they could heed those calls. They take in that new information, their interest piqued, but even if they want to act, there’s no way for them to.

    (Aside: I would classify Lucius as a threshold guardian. He discourages Bob from thinking about Gazerbeam. He wants to stop even their moonlighting hero work. And he’s not involved even tangentially in any of the events until the final confrontation. [If he knew about Mirage’s final Call, he would probably discourage him there, too.])

  15. Okay. A) I’m not disagreeing just to disagree
    B) Lucius is a mentor. He’s trying to guide Bob. He doesn’t need to be changed to allow the story to proceed. If anyone’s a Guardian it’s Helen.
    C) It’s the fact that he can’t act that is the Call. He can’t act…because he’s stuck in the Ordinary World. That’s the Refusal. “Geez, I’d like to do something, but what can I do? Poor Gazerbeam.”

    But anyways, to (hopefully) end this discussion, I will concede that Mirage’s message is a clear and unavoidable Call, that requires an immediate response. Where the newspaper is just a fluttering light in the distance, the message is a 747 landing on the interstate.

  16. Okay, I’ll take that he’s trying to guide Bob. It’s just in the opposite direction from the adventure. (Mentors can be TGs, too.)

    And I will concede that the new, unheeded information in the newspaper foreshadows that ultimate Call.

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