Element 2 – Dramatic Question

The second element clarifies the overall question the story will try to answer, or the premise of the story. I use the formula I picked up from Eric Witchey’s Fiction Fluency class: X leads to Y, which results in Z.

X is the character’s starting internal and external conflicts.

Y is the change the character and story world undergo.

Z is the end state of the character as a result of what they’ve encountered and done as well as the changes to their story world.

Let’s look at how this functions in a couple books.


  1. In The Poppy War Rin’s ambition, coupled with the rigid classism of the Sinegard academy, leads her to embrace shamanism, which results in unleashing a terrible god of wrath upon the land.
  2. In my book, Survivors’ Club, Marius’ naïveté and desire to help others lead to a viral outbreak, which results in a suicidal attempt to stave off a global pandemic.
  3. In Assassin’s Apprentice, Fitz’s need for safety and belonging lead him to accept his role as an assassin, which results in him saving the Six Duchies (and emotional trauma to this reader that has lasted for decades. Highly recommended!)

The Dramatic Question is really two questions: 1) What does the Main Character (MC) want? 2) What does the MC need? A great way to add tension to your story is to make sure that these are not the same thing.

From our previous examples:

  1. Rin wants to avoid a forced marriage to an older man. Ultimately, what she needs is to study and understand how shamanism works. But she’s not interested in that. She wants to be a soldier so she can protect herself and exact revenge.
  2. Marius wants to research viruses and develop ways to treat and cure disease. Marius needs to survive and protect his friends and co-workers from the Infected. For extra fun, his attempts to do what he wants actually contribute to the pandemic that ultimately endangers everyone he cares about.
  3. Fitz wants be accepted as a Farseer. Fitz needs allies to survive at King Shrewd’s court. To gain allies and protectors, Fitz must make himself invaluable to the king. In agreeing to train to be an assassin, Fitz embarks on the road to a very lonely life and remember, he wanted friends and family.

Knowing what your MC wants and what they need helps you to craft a story where they are constantly struggling to get what they want, but you are pushing them towards what they need.

Element 2 – the Dramatic Question is where you must make it super-de-duper clear what your MC wants. You should at least hint at what they need, but this can remain unclear until much later in the story, especially if you’re writing a close first person point of view (POV).

What are some other examples of the Dramatic Question?

Once you start looking for it, you’ll see it everywhere!

Attendees at the 2011 Where’s Wally? World Record event in Dublin, Ireland