Do you ever wonder why some novels are easier to put down than others? Sometimes you might pick up a book and feel your mind wandering, while other times you find yourself riveted to the page. This is because of the power of the dramatic question—the Big Question that binds your plot, characters, and conflicts together into a thrilling and cohesive whole.
But does every book need a major dramatic question? And how do you know what the right dramatic question is for your story? We’ll give you a quick and easy dramatic question definition, some helpful hints for discovering your own story’s major dramatic question, and examples from beloved works of literature.
What is a dramatic question in a story?
The dramatic question is a statement formed as a question that addresses the central conflict your protagonist faces over the course of the book. You can think of it a bit like a thesis statement for a work of fiction; everything that unfolds in the story from beginning to end somehow supports the dramatic question, for better or for worse.
In a horror novel, for example, your dramatic question might be something like “Will the hero make it off the island alive before the zombies/contagion/eldritch evil kill him?” Maybe, maybe not. Your horror story may have subplots, lighthearted moments, and deep, reflective characterization, but every major turn the story takes will somehow lead to answering this question for the reader.
Your dramatic question has to be powerful enough to hang your entire story on, because once your reader has a definitive answer one way or another, the book is finished. Your horror story might end with the hero finally making it off the island safely, or it might end with them failing and succumbing to their central conflict once and for all. Either way, your reader now knows the answer to the dramatic question, so there’s no more story to tell.
Once you’ve finished your story, your dramatic question also becomes an essential part of finding the right hook to sell your query letter to an agent or publisher.
Which comes first—dramatic question or plot?
Does a dramatic question fit into a story, or is a story built around a dramatic question?
In general the premise of a story, or the core idea, comes first. However, your dramatic question will become apparent fairly quickly once you know a little bit about your characters and their objectives within the story. Then you can use your dramatic question to build the rest of your plot and keep your characters—and your readers—focused on what matters.
For example, maybe you have an idea for a story where a man lies about his credentials to secure a job he’s unqualified for. That’s a good start, but it’s not quite a story yet. Now ask yourself, what’s the dramatic question that encompasses what this character wants and what’s standing in the way?
The dramatic question might be something like, “Will the man sustain his deception long enough to succeed in his new job?” Now you know everything that happens in the story will somehow tilt the scales to one answer or the other. By the end, he’ll either be outed and unemployed, or he’ll have made his mark and been accepted as part of the team. That’s the story!
Can you have more than one dramatic question?
The short answer is, “Yes.” The slightly longer answer is, “…sort of.”
Your story will always have one single, overarching dramatic question that spans the entire story. You might see this being called the “major” dramatic question or the “central” dramatic question. This big dramatic question encompasses the central conflict of the story as well as the major theme around which your story revolves.
However, a well-constructed story will also have several smaller dramatic questions that bind together a single act, chapter, or scene. In each segment of your story, your character should want something, and then face an obstacle, large or small, to get it. It’s the tension within these smaller dramatic questions that creates suspense in your story.
In the example we looked at above, the major dramatic question is, “Will the man sustain his deception long enough to succeed in his new job?” This question will be answered by the end of the story. But along the way, the reader might find other dramatic questions, like:
“Will he get his assignment done and submitted to his boss on time?”
“Will he sacrifice his personal ethics to take a game-changing opportunity?”
“Will he outsmart his rival colleague, who’s asking suspicious questions about his (nonexistent) previous employer?”
And so forth. Notice that the answer to these dramatic questions is always “yes” or “no.” Every time one of these smaller dramatic questions is answered, the pendulum of the major dramatic question swings a little bit closer to a resolution.
Let’s recap: you should always have one major dramatic question around which your story revolves, but you can have endless smaller dramatic questions that are each connected, in some way, to your major dramatic question.
3 dramatic question examples from literature
Now that you know why dramatic questions are so essential to your story, let’s look at a few examples from classic stories to show you what a dramatic question looks like in practice.
1. Romeo and Juliet, by Shakespeare
Ah, the classic lovers-to-cautionary-tales story that launched a thousand literary tragedies. The dramatic question of Romeo and Juliet is, “Will the young lovers overcome their families’ rivalry and live happily ever after?”
The answer to that dramatic question is, “Well… not really.” The young lovers (spoiler alert) do not live happily ever after, though their tragic deaths do finally mend the rift between their warring families. Romeo and Juliet uses its dramatic question to teach us what happens when you throw caution to the wind and allow love to consume you.
Although Shakespeare’s most famous romantic tragedy is a complex story with several richly drawn characters, everything that happens to them in some way contributes to answering this question. The reader knows the story has come to a close because they finally have a definitive, irreversible answer to the dramatic question.
2. Beauty and the Beast, by De Villeneuve
A classic French fairy tale that may have been inspired by the older legend of Tam Lin, and which has now taken hold of popular imagination through Disney’s beloved reimagining. In a reversal of standard fairy tale fare, the hero of the story is under a curse and needs a woman to rescue him with the purity of her love.
The dramatic question of Beauty and the Beast is, “Will Belle reach the Beast’s humanity before he and his kingdom are cursed forever?” Once again, all roads point to answering this question by the end of the story. The hero and the heroine take steps forward, they experience setbacks, and the reader knows that by the time the story is over they will have answered this dramatic question once and for all.
3. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Harper Lee’s progressive yet ultimately tragic masterpiece examines social responsibility in the face of a broken justice system. When a black man is falsely accused of sexual assault, the hero of the story, Atticus Finch, takes on the daunting task of trying to clear the man’s name.
Here, the dramatic question is, “Will Atticus Finch find a way to prove Tom Robinson’s innocence?” The reader knows that the story can only come to a satisfying conclusion once they know the answer. Atticus will either secure Tom’s freedom, or Tom will go to prison. There is no third option. Waiting to find out is what holds the reader’s attention until the very end.
How to find the dramatic question of your story
As you can see, the dramatic question of a story is essential in guiding the events of your plot, communicating powerful themes, and holding your reader in suspense. Now for the most important question of all: how do you find the right dramatic question for your story?
Questions to ask to find your major dramatic question
To find your story’s dramatic question, you need to isolate the driving force of your story. To do this, consider:
Who is my protagonist?
What does my protagonist want more than anything?
What’s standing in their way?
What’s the major source of conflict in their life? Does it come from without or within?
What lessons or themes do I want my readers to come away with?
In hard genre fiction, such as fantasy, science fiction, or romance, you’ll often be working within predetermined genre conventions. In a fantasy, your dramatic question might be something like, “Will a young, untrained hobbit manage to reach the fiery mountain and destroy the one ring before it consumes him?” (i.e. “Will my hero save the world against impossible odds?”) In a romance, your dramatic question might be, “Will Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy overcome their pride and internalized prejudices before they lose each other?” (i.e. “Will the hero and heroine reach their happy ending against impossible odds?”)
Your dramatic question will always be some variation of “Will my hero or heroes find what they’re looking for?” The key is to identify who the central character is (the hero) and what ultimate objective will guide their actions from beginning to end.
How do you know if you’ve found the right major dramatic question?
You’ll know that you’ve chosen the right dramatic question for your story when the journey your characters take to answer that question parallels the story’s entire plot.
For example: imagine you’ve written a novel about a woman who’s just come out of a toxic, long-term relationship, and you’ve decided your dramatic question is, “Will Sandra Lonleyhart ever find love again?”
So far, so good.
But then Sandra meets a great new partner on page 6, and everything’s fine.
And then she brings him home to meet her family, and everything’s still fine.
And then they start talking about a future together, and where they want to live, and what their hypothetical children’s names will be, and everything’s still fine. And your readers are scratching their heads not quite sure what they’ve walked into, because your novel still has 250 pages in it.
There are two possibilities here:
You’ve resolved your dramatic question far, far too early because your protagonist didn’t have enough obstacles along their journey;
“Will Sandra Lonleyhart ever find love again?” was never the real dramatic question to begin with. Because once you answer your major dramatic question, your story is over.
So how do we troubleshoot this floundering story? In the first instance, you need to introduce more obstacles that force your central characters to fight for their happy ending. What keeps Sandra from finding a new chance at love? What gets in the way?
In the second, you need to take another look at what the real overarching dramatic question is that connects every scene in your story. In this case, the dramatic question might be, “Will Sandra Lonleyhart overcome her trauma and insecurity before she loses her true love forever?” The reader wants to see Sandra get her happily ever after, but she’s going to need to work for it. This might mean addressing internal flaws that are sabotaging her new relationship with the cutie from page 6.
Dramatic question bonus tip
We’ve got one last piece of advice for finding your dramatic question. Hold onto it, because one day it just might save your life. Here it is:
You don’t need to know the answer to your dramatic question right away.
You definitely can, and that’s okay too. But you can also allow your story to surprise you. If the dramatic question of your story is, “Will Sidney Warbucks pull his crumbling family together before his wife leaves him for good?”, you might not know how the story ends until you get to act three. Do not panic. You might want to learn a little more about Sidney along the way before you decide whether or not he deserves a happy ending.
Your dramatic question doesn’t just carry the reader—it can also carry the writer through the storycrafting process. As long as you have your dramatic question in place to anchor you to the story, you can take time to explore possibilities as you learn the answer along the way.
Your dramatic question keeps your reader glued to your story
A strong dramatic question is integral to building an engaging story. When you know what the dramatic question of your story is and keep it firmly in place, allowing it to guide the events of your plot and the choices of your characters, your writing can be elevated to a truly thrilling and engaging reading experience.