The central dramatic question of your novel is the driving force behind your narrative. It is what your protagonist wants and is fighting for throughout the book. It is the structural spine of your manuscript. If you don’t have an easy-to-articulate central dramatic question, you probably don’t have a book that will sell.
Nobody Puts My Novel in a Corner
Your novel is your baby, and your baby is unique. Creative work should be honored, but even art requires structure. As much as some don’t want to admit it, there are conventions to novels. One is that every story must have a central conflict. Without it, your book won’t have the structure necessary to compel a reader (or ideally, many readers) to move from Page One to The End.
The central dramatic question puts your hero on a clear journey. On that journey, she will encounter increasingly difficult obstacles that she must overcome to get what what she wants. There is no book without this conflict.
But what if my story is about coming to terms with the past, you ask? Or about a character growing into a better person? Surely these humanistic tales are worth telling. Perhaps they are the only stories worth telling, and if so, does that make them exempt from convention and structure? No, they are not.
Although the theme of your novel could be growth or healing, the story part of it is more pedestrian. It needs a protagonist with a clearly articulated goal that he cannot achieve without pushing himself to the edge. If you wrote a book about healing without a central conflict, you will probably need to do some editing.
Examples of “Thinking” Books that have a Central Dramatic Question
Anne of Green Gables was a favorite in my household when I was a child. If you’d asked me years ago what it was about, I’d have told you it’s a heart-warming tale about a spirited girl who changed the lives of an elderly brother-sister pair for the better when they adopted her. Note, there is no clear dramatic question in that description. It seems like a slice-of-life story, or that it’s a character study of people learning to love.
These were the themes I took away from the books (and wonderful PBS miniseries from the 1980s) as a reader/viewer. My job as a consumer was to keep reading or watching. A bonus is if I felt connected enough to the characters and story to recommend it to others. The reader’s job is different from a writer’s. I wasn’t supposed to notice the work that went into making me turn a page or put in the next VHS tape (it was another era!). The writer had to craft a compelling central dramatic question to give the series legs.
Writing with a Question in Mind
To ensure that Anne of Green Gables could stand up for multiple episodes, the writers constructed the series with drama and conflict top of mind. The central dramatic question in the beginning is, Will Anne, a spirited young girl, acclimate to the rules and regulations of her new home before she gets sent back to the orphanage? Every scene, dialogue choice, character’s reaction, etc., flowed from that central question. That central question gave the story a structure that the writers could then use to build upon those more interesting humanistic questions like what is a parent? Can opposites learn to live together? Can love warm a reluctant heart?
Usually the central dramatic question is posed sometime around the moment of the inciting incident. If you’re plotting, make sure you think about this question before you start writing. If you’re done with your first draft, look at it again, and make sure that central dramatic question is clear. Your future readers will thank you.