Gross Anatomy of a Novel: Dramatic Question

Gross Anatomy of a Novel: Dramatic Question


Firsts in Fiction

Gross Anatomy of a Novel: Dramatic Question

In Part 2 of our Gross Anatomy series we turn our attention to an element of plotting: Discovering the plot’s dramatic question(s).

    1. First, let’s define “plot.” A plot is a series of events in a novel or short story. It’s what drives the story from inception to conclusion.
      1. Usually done in three acts, but not always.
      2. Usually increases in tension as the story develops and ends in a climax of some sort that ends the story.
      3. It includes plot points, events in the story that heighten the story and move it in a different direction for the protagonist.
      4. These plot points usually occur at the transition between acts and at the midpoint “bump.” (Because Act II is the longest act in the three act structure.)
    2. But what leads to a working plot line? Questions. There is, in my mind, a “chain of questions.”
      1. What if? This is the start of every plot. It’s a simple question with a long answer.
        1. Big idea.
        2. Zuckerman calls it “High Concept.” It is the overarching idea.
        3. What-if questions lead to more what-if questions.
          1. What if someone cloned dinosaurs?
          2. What if he wanted to make it a commercial enterprise?
          3. What if he wanted to make into an amusement park?
          4. What if something goes wrong and some people on the island end up getting eaten?
          5. What if sabotage is involved?
        4. You get the idea. We may do a deep dive on this subject in the future.


  • It is important to note that, often times, the conflict arises from this dramatic question. For example, if you have dinosaurs, people will usually get eaten. The question is, how and why? This leads to other ideas that make the novel more well-rounded (it’s a theme park, and there’s industrial sabotage involved).
  • Sometimes this will lead to a theme, though it’s best to let the theme come from the novel, rather than writing the novel to make the theme.
  • For example, Jurassic Park makes statements about life (life will find a way), as well as about greed, ethical questions of cloning, etc. However, these are natural thematic questions for the subject matter. Crichton did not begin with, “I want to talk about the dangers of industrial espionage.”
  • My novel The Bargain explores some heavy themes about right vs. wrong and who determines what is righteous. But the novel only came into its own when I focused on the real thrust of the story: what will a man do for a dying wife? How much will he put up with? What if God was going to destroy a crooked town? What would Sodom and Gomorrah look like today?


    1. The term dramatic question comes from Albert Zuckerman’s 1994 book, Writing the Blockbuster Novel. It’s a good book to have.
      1. Once you have a solid high-stakes proposition then you move into the dramatic questions.
      2. Zuckerman calls these questions the spine of the story.
      3. Dramatic questions serve as the frame of the plot. I think of them as heart of the plot. The answers to the question reveal why the reader should care about what happens.
      4. Zuckerman uses Gone with the Wind as an illustration. He finds three dramatic questions:
        1. Will Scarlett get Ashley to return her love?
        2. Will she realize that Rhett is the right man for her?
        3. Will Rhett finally win her love?
      5. Let’s try this with Jurassic Park
        1. Will Ian Malcolm’s (the chaos theorist) prophecy about nature always winning out, and nature always finds a way to succeed, come to pass?
        2. Will Alan Grant’s knowledge of dinosaur behavior allow him to save himself and the others (including two children)?
        3. Will John Hammond see the errors of his ways?
        4. There are a number of smaller questions in the protagonist’s character arc.
      6. I would add to all of this the question, “What happens if my hero fails? Who gets hurt? How badly will they be hurt?”
    2. So how do we put this to use?
      1. First, have a solid What-if question.
      2. Make a list of your key players. They don’t have to be fully developed at this stage, but you should have a protagonist (and may a supporting protag) and a crisis or problem for the protag to face.


  • These key players are often intricately involved in the plot. If you’re writing about dinosaurs running amok in present day, you should probably have a dinosaur expert. If it’s a theme park, you need a rich man (or woman) to finance it. If it deals with cutting-edge technology, you’ll likely have greedy assistants. etc.
  • Sometimes it’s important to include players who are in over their heads: the teacher on the spaceship when the pilot is knocked out. The bus passenger who needs to learn to drive a bus and keep it above 50 miles an hour so the bomb doesn’t explode. It’s easy to write about the military genius, but often more compelling to write about those who are out of their element (the chaotician and lawyer in a theme park with killer dinosaurs on the loose).


    1. Remember that your characters have a set of emotions and part of the plot needs to deal with their internal conflicts. What do they need to discover?
    2. Frame these key issues of external and internal conflict as question.
      1. Will X learn this…?
      2. Will Y overcome his fear?
      3. How can my hero defeat someone who is so much more powerful than she is?
      4. What happens if my hero fails? Who gets hurt?

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