Sunday, 1 April 2012

Two Types of Key Question

Leading on from my last post on The Subtext of Character Growth, I would like to refine - and hopefully clarify - the information by using this post to identify two types of key question. I am calling these an 'Event' key question and a 'Character Development' key question. Let's look at two simple children's stories and see what's going on.

Event Key Question
As discussed, the classic story structure we learn in our first year of story theory looks like this: an inciting incident raises a key question in the mind of the audience. The key question is pushed and pulled in the battle between the forces of protagonism and those of antagonism until the climax when we find out the answer to the key question. So, for example, the tortoise challenges the hare to a race (inciting incident). The key question is raised: 'who will win the race?' At climax, we find out the answer to the key question (the tortoise won the race).

This is a key question raised through an event. A 'plot' level key question - and although this is very clear and simple and is a fine mechanism, found in many great stories, it is evident that the very finest and most highly rated stories often do not have a clear and evident Event Key Question. So what do the finest stories have instead?

Character Growth Key Question
In the more highly rated stories, we in the audience are asking ourselves: 'What will happen next?' and we are gripped, but there is no clear and identifiable inciting incident raising a key question that carries us forwards. The Ugly Duckling is an example of such a story. A duck is born. It is different from the other ducklings, and suffers bullying, ridicule and social exclusion. No obvious key question is raised. So why are we intrigued?

Because we are powerfully locked on to the question of fulfilment for our protagonist. We are aware that our protagonist has a yearning - an ambition - with which we empathise. In life, we naturally crave a sense of belonging; we desire successful relationships and we feel secure if we fit in with communities and groups. So we want the duckling to be fulfilled as we desire to be fulfilled ourselves. We recognise the character suffering in these terms, and we are gripped by our own feelings about these issues in our own life, so we want to see what will happen to the protagonist's fortunes. The duck becomes a beautiful swan, achieves a sense of belonging in a group of other glorious swans, and the bad guy animals who ridiculed and excluded the ugly duckling look foolish and rather ugly themselves. The Ugly Duckling becomes fulfilled through an unexpected reversal in fortunes, and we are heartened and satisfied by the story and by the 'life' lessons we have understood. So the key question is there, but it is: "Will the protagonist find fulfilment?"

This is kinda important, because every single story of all time has either an 'event' key question, or a character growth key question, or both. Always and forever. Although a character growth key question tends to characterise the very finest stories, I would suggest that the easiest high power stories to write are probably those that have both. The Hare and The Tortoise is based around a very clear key question (Who will win the race?) but also has a second strand of character growth. We (and The Hare) learn a life lesson along the lines of 'more haste less speed'.

So as a writer, I would suggest that when you find a story idea that has potential, you need to look for how the story idea is going to describe a character arc of growth up the ladder of human values, and how that character arc is going to be achieved in the context of the real world challenges presented by the plot level 'event' that look like they will take the protagonist downwards in life.

Or to give an example from a story that has both, let's look at - guess what - Back to the Future. Marty McFly is sent back to 1955 in a time machine ('plot' event) raising the key question: 'Will he ever get back to 1985?'. Answer at climax - yes, he will); but the real story lives and grips and engages us on the question of George McFly's character growth. When George grows from weak and unassertive to take out Biff with one punch, he grows into a strong and confident man, and it is this life growth that defines the whole story.
 Will George find fulfilment? He certainly does, and there is the Character Development Key Question.


  1. Hi David,
    I recently bought on Kindle The Story Book. It is really very useful and insightful. But there are great problems with the formatting, which make this really hard to use as a work of reference.

    The the contents page, cannot be accessed except by scrolling from the beginning of the book. The contents links do not function beyond chapter six, so it is necessary to scroll for hundreds of pages to try to find anything thereafter. Only the headings of the chapters are linked, which makes finding anything within a chapter quite a lengthy process.
    I am not a great fan of Kindle. I wondered if the same problems occur on the iBooks edition of this? I would like to devote time to study your book, but I am feeling really frustrated by how much time I have spend uselessly shifting around. Gah. Grateful for your help on that!

    1. Apologies for that and thanks for the feedback. I had no idea there were formatting issues with that version - never even seen it on a Kindle! Contact me directly and I'll help you get what you need.