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 do all novels need a major dramatic question? And how do you know what the right one is for you? We’ll break down this essential element of writing, along with 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 one-sentence summary of the protagonist’s central conflict over the course of a story. This question is established near the beginning of the story, and then each major plot point and choice the protagonist makes will bring them closer to answering it. “Will the star-crossed lovers finally end up together?” is a classic dramatic question.
You can think of it a bit like a thesis statement for a work of fiction; everything that unfolds within the narrative somehow supports this question, for better or for worse.
You’ll find that many of your favorite novels have a central dramatic question. In a horror novel, for example, this might be something like “Will the hero make it off the island alive before the zombies/contagion/eldritch evil kills him?” Maybe, maybe not. Your horror story may have subplots, lighthearted moments, and deep, reflective characterization, but every major turn will build suspense and somehow lead to answering this question for the reader.
A writer’s job is to deliver a narrative that will keep the readers glued to the page from beginning to end. This is why your central question is so important—it has to be powerful enough to capture the audience’s interest for your entire story, because once the audience has a definitive answer one way or another, the book is finished. Your horror novel might end with the main character 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, we now know the answer to the big question, so there’s no more story to tell.
Once you’ve finished, this overarching 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 the plot, or is the plot built around the central 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 protagonist and their objective within the story. It should always be clear before the end of the first act. Once you know what it is, you can use this central thematic question to build the rest of your plot and other elements, and keep your characters focused on what matters.
For example, maybe you have an idea about a man who 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 major 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 that as the story elements gather, each plot point 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.
Can writers have more than one dramatic question?
The short answer is, “Yes.” The slightly longer answer is, “… sort of.”
You’ll always have one single, overarching question that spans the entire narrative. You might see this being called the “major” or “central” dramatic question. It’s the single driving force of the story as well as the major theme around which your story revolves.
However, a good story raises lots of smaller questions that bind together a single act, chapter, or scene. In each moment your character should want something, and then face an obstacle, large or small, to get it. It’s the tension within these moments that creates suspense in your story.
In the example we looked at above, the central 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 book. But along the way, the audience might find other questions that come from internal or external conflicts, 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 intriguing questions is always “yes” or “no.” Every time one of these smaller questions is answered, the pendulum of the central dramatic question swings a little bit closer to a resolution.
Let’s recap: writers should always have one major dramatic question around which your story revolves, but you can have endless smaller questions that are each connected, in some way, to your core central question.
3 examples of dramatic questions from literature
Now that you know why these questions are so essential, 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 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 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 this central thread to teach us what happens when you throw caution to the wind and allow love to consume you.
Although Shakespeare’s most famous play is a complex romantic tragedy with several richly drawn characters, everything that happens to them in some way contributes to answering this question. The readers know the tale has come to a close because they finally have a definitive, irreversible answer.
2. Beauty and the Beast, by De Villeneuve
A classic French fairy tale which has now taken hold of popular imagination through Disney’s beloved reimagining. In a reversal of standard fairy tale fare, the hero 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. The hero and the heroine take steps forward, they experience setbacks, and the readers know that by the time the story is over they will have answered this underlying 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 protagonist 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 readers understand 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, isolating the central question is essential in guiding the events of your novel, communicating powerful themes, and holding your reader in suspense. Now for the most important question of all: how do you find the right one for your story?
Questions to ask to find your major dramatic question
To find your own major question, you need to isolate the driving force of your narrative. 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 major 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 major 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?”)
These questions will always be some variation of “Will my hero or heroes find what they’re looking for?” These questions are deceptively simple, but essential in finding the driving force of your narrative. The key is to identify who the central character is (the hero) and what ultimate objective will guide their actions through the arc of the plot.
How do you know if you’ve found the right major dramatic question?
You’ll know that you’ve found the big dramatic question when the journey your protagonist takes to answer that question parallels the 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 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 reveal the answer, your story is over.
So how do we troubleshoot this floundering story? In the first instance, you need to build suspense and 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 question is that connects every plot point your protagonist faces. In this case it 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 big 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 the dramatic question right away.
You definitely can, and that’s okay too. But you can also allow your story to surprise you. If the major question is, “Will Sidney Warbucks pull his crumbling family together before his wife leaves him for good?”, you might not know the outcome 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.
The major question of the narrative doesn’t just carry the reader—it can also carry the writer through the writing process. As long as you have your central question in place to anchor you to the story, you can take time to explore possibilities as you learn the outcome along the way.
Your dramatic question keeps your reader glued to the page
A strong thematic question is integral to building suspense and an engaging narrative. When you know your central question and keep it firmly in place, allowing it to guide the events of your plot and the choices of your characters against near-impossible obstacles, your writing can be elevated to a truly thrilling and engaging reading experience.