• Alli Earnest

The Story's Essential Question

At the end of last week, I hit a wall.



We all come to that point. Every single one of us. It might be a wall you can simply kick over. It could be one just tall enough for you to grasp with the very tips of your fingers only to fall back down again. Or that wall might be two miles thick and three times as high.


If you've written for any length of time, you understand what I mean. Snap, even if you've simply considered putting pen to paper, fingers to keys, you know what I'm talking about.


So this past Saturday, I found one of those. Goes without saying, but it was incredibly frustrating. I'd been working on my YA fantasy on and off for about a year now, and I've never made much progress in the drafting phrase. I've rewritten Act I twice. I've blazed through an entire notebook with half-baked ideas and dead storylines. I've interviewed each character twice. I even wrote out a relatively detailed history of the world (complete with color-coded key terms and events). I've answered thousands of survey questions regarding the magic system. I've sifted through chart after chart trying to piece together my characters wants, needs, and flaws. I could hear my character's distinct voices in my head.


Yet, I still blasted right into a cement wall. Or brick. Or maybe steel. All I know is that it hurt running head first into it.


Because I was so focused on micro-goals.


And I didn't even realize it.


Frustrated with myself and the fact I thought I was on a roll only to find I wasn't, I sought help from some lovely writing friends. (PSA: find yourself a good group of writing peeps. For real.)



Long story short: I learned that I didn't have an "Essential Question" for my story. I didn't know what the readers would ask themselves at the inciting incident that would be resolved in the climax. All I knew was that there were dragons and the main character was going to learn illegal magic (#plantser). But my EQ wasn't whether or not MC was going to learn magic. It wasn't even asking if she was going to save the world (because epic fantasy, amiright).


No, it was that she would do anything to save her sister. Was it possible? Did MC have the wherewithal to fight through the obstacles she faced to save the only family she had left?


Because that's the emotional impact of the story. While on the surface, it is the external EQ, but it works in tandem with the internal plot.


And after I figured out that tidbit, everything else snapped into place. All the character motivations, flaws, and plot points I dreamed came together. I also came to realize my true theme.



So friends, as I sit here typing this up in a coffee shop and obsessing over my Pinterest mood boards, know that you can bust through that wall. You can make it to the other side. And if you need help, simply ask.

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