How To Find The Major Dramatic Question Of Your Story

story structure
How To Find The Major Dramatic Question Of Your Story

Every story has one major dramatic question. It’s the central question that readers should be asking from the beginning of your story—and one that you’ll answer for them by the very end. But how do you find the MDQ for your story? Let’s dig in to find out!


How to Find the Major Dramatic Question of Your Story

Every story has one main question that it raises in the beginning and answers by the end. Usually, these questions are determined by a story’s genre.

  • Action: Will these characters survive the asteroid attack or not?
  • Crime: Will the criminal be brought to justice or not?
  • Horror: Will the character survive the monster or not?
  • Morality: Will this character learn to act in service of others or not?
  • Performance: Will this character win his boxing match or not?
  • Romance: Will these characters get together or not?
  • Society: Will this character cause a shift in personal or worldly power or not?
  • Status: Will this character redefine their definition of success or not?
  • Thriller: Will this character survive and stop the bad guy?
  • Worldview: Will this character grow and mature or stay stuck?

(If you’re wondering why science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, or women’s fiction isn’t on this list, check out this article on genre.)

The key to finding your story’s major dramatic question is to understand your protagonist’s specific goal and whether or not they’ll achieve it. 

This will help you form the spine of your entire story—and it’s what will help you write a story that’s full of narrative drive (aka the thing that keeps readers turning pages).

Each act of your story should try to answer this question, but it shouldn’t be easy—once the MDQ is answered, your story is essentially over. This is why developing conflict for your story is so important. Conflict is what makes the MDQ harder to answer.

Now, once you know your story’s generic major dramatic question, you can make it more specific to your story.

Let’s look at a few examples from three popular stories across different genres—Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros, Ugly Love by Colleen Hoover, and Yellowface by R.F. Kuang.

Example: Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros

The major dramatic question of Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros is, “Will Violet survive the Riders Quadrant? Or will she die trying to become a rider?” 

Every scene in the story aims to answer this question. Some scenes move Violet closer to survival, while others move her farther away. For example, whenever Violet gets injured during a training exercise, her survival is compromised. But on the flip side, whenever she gains a new weapon or ally, her chances of survival are increased.

Example: Ugly Love by Colleen Hoover

The major dramatic question of Ugly Love by Colleen Hoover is, “Will Tate and Miles end up together? Or will they sabotage their chance at true love?” 

Every scene in the story aims to answer this question. Some scenes move Tate closer to falling in love with Miles, while others move her father away. For example, whenever Miles acts distant towards her, Tate’s feelings waver. But on the flip side, whenever they spend time together, their feelings for each other grow.

Example: Yellowface by R.F. Kuang

The major dramatic question of Yellowface by R.F. Kuang is, “Will June get caught for stealing Athena’s manuscript? Or will she rise to fame because of it?” 

Every scene in the story aims to answer this question. Some scenes move June closer to getting found out or caught, while others move her closer to the fame she so desperately seeks. For example, whenever June makes a mistake while talking about the manuscript, it seems more likely she’ll be caught. But on the flip side, whenever June gets a new opportunity, it seems like she’ll actually get away with stealing her friend’s manuscript and passing it off as her own.

So, hopefully, you can now see how the generic major dramatic question of each genre can be personalized to suit the specifics of your story. 

If you’re having trouble coming up with your story’s major dramatic question, this is a sign that you need to work on the foundation of your story.

To do that, you can grab a copy of my Story Starter kit here and work through the questions inside to figure out what your story is really about before moving forward.

Now, speaking of moving forward… Once you know your story’s major dramatic question, what do you actually do with it?

Using Your Story’s MDQ While Writing And Editing

You can use your story’s major dramatic question to guide you through every part of the writing, editing, and publishing process.

While writing, your MDQ helps keep your story on track and focused so you can produce a stronger draft. 

It determines what your protagonist’s goal will be, plus what’s at stake. As your character pursues their overarching story goal, they’ll be met with conflict. In each scene, they’ll have to weigh the stakes (or risk) of moving forward to pursue that goal or turning back and abandoning it. While this happens over and over again throughout your story, readers will feel tension over whether or not your character will succeed, and they’ll just have to keep turning the pages to find out.

While editing, your MDQ helps you get rid of anything that doesn’t serve your story. 

Remember, every scene in your story should be moving the character one step closer to achieving his or her goal AND moving the reader one step closer to learning the answer to the question raised at the beginning of the story. It’s what every line of dialogue, every scene, every sequence, every subplot, and every act should be contributing to. Because if it doesn’t, what’s the point of including it in your story? This is an excellent way to filter through what should be kept vs. cut.

While publishing, your MDQ helps you talk about your story and pique a reader’s interest.

It can help you write effective back cover copy, inspire social media posts, write teaser email copy, and so much more. My favorite example of this is on the cover of Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros—it literally says, “FLY… OR DIE.” As a reader, this helps you know exactly what kind of story you’re in for before you even read the back cover copy. Pretty cool, right?

Final Thoughts

So, hopefully, you can see just how important identifying your story’s major dramatic question is no matter where you’re at in the writing, editing, or publishing process. 

When in doubt, rely on the generic MDQ that your genre provides to help you write your first draft, and then you can make it more specific and tailor it more to your story as you get to know your plot and your characters a bit more.

And if you need help developing the foundation of your story, grab a copy of my FREE Story Starter Kit that will walk you through 5 important questions to ask (and answer!) before you start writing. You can get your copy here →

Savannah is a developmental editor and book coach who helps fiction authors write, edit, and publish stories that work. She also hosts the top-rated Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast full of actionable advice that you can put into practice right away. Click here to learn more →