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The Central Question

This post was first published here on January 28, 2013.

Every plot hinges on a central question. Posing the question at the beginning of the tale and answering it at the end is sound story architecture. Does that task make your head spin? It shouldn’t. It’s as easy as choosing a story skeleton. Let’s explore a few examples.

1) The Romance skeleton poses the central question: Will they or won’t they end up together?

The answer had better be yes or a satisfying equivalent. The girl can find out guy A isn’t what she wanted after all because she found guy B, but this is not the genre for an I’m okay on my own ending. That story uses the Literary (or Women's Fiction) skeleton. Romance readers want passion and fulfillment and are very disappointed if they don’t get it.

2) The Mystery skeleton poses the central question: Who did it and will they catch him?

The answer is yes. The criminal may escape at the last moment to torment the detective another day, but the case that is the focus of the story is considered solved. Twists where someone other than the detective solves the crime or there wasn’t a crime after all should be rerouted to the Thriller section.

3) The Thriller skeleton poses the central question: How will they, and by proxy we, survive the threat to an individual or society? 

For an up ending, the hero succeeds. If you want a down ending, the hero can fail and learn an ugly truth. Twists often provide an unexpected answer in this genre.

4) The Horror skeleton poses the central question: What brought the danger near and how will they escape it?

The answer can go either way as long as you reveal the reason why. Some horror stories ignore the why, but fans consider that a weak story. Fans want the main character to live to be frightened another day, even if every other character is knocked off by the tale's end.

5) The Science Fiction skeleton poses the central question: Will the hero find, change, or stop something in time?

Most fans prefer an up ending. They want to believe that we can overcome the challenges to our existence, especially if you plan a sequel.

6) The Fantasy skeleton poses the central question: Will the hero obtain or learn to use the power to defeat the evil that has disrupted his world in time?

The force is usually with the hero. The wicked witch gets her just due. Lord Voldemort is defeated. If you plan a sequel, the villain can live to fight the hero another day, but the story must show a resolution to a skirmish in the battle.

Once you've chosen a skeleton, the challenge is providing riveting obstacles between question and answer to keep the reader glued to the page. The reader knows from the outset that the hero will likely survive. Your mission is to make her question the outcome anyway. You do that by choosing believable obstacles.

Diana Hurwitz
 is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. Diane, yours is a particularly clean vivisection of the popular, genres, their structure, and what self-identified readers of each genre expect. My first reaction was that it is too glib, but the more I thought about specific examples or putative counter-examples, the more I had to agree with the essential truth of your skeletons.

    In some ways, this is a depressing reality, particularly for those of us who dare to cross boundaries or flout conventions. It did confirm for me why I do not write to the Romance, SF or Fantasy templates, and why I think of my work as Thrillers first, with elements stolen from across the borders. A scan of your list confirms that the most flexible skeleton lies there: up or down ending, crime or no crime, detective or other, twists and turns welcome with the ending not necessarily known until the end. Only Literary Fiction offers as much.

  2. Long ago, when people were dissing romance as "formulaic", the counter-argument that I heard and still prefer is "reader expectation. Skeleton is a new term, and perhaps a better one. Blending these skeletons (now there's an image!) might be confusing to readers, but if you write with skill and don't try to call your book something it isn't, they should accept it. When a reader plucks a book off the mystery shelf, there ARE expectations that the crime will be solved, and violating that trust can turn readers off.

    Terry's Place

  3. Following formulas has never been my strong point, yet I think your skeleton point is valid. Having said that, I often find books that strictly follow genre rules less appealing than those that cross the lines. Life crosses genres. Happy (or satisfying) endings are great, but they're not always reality. Do I write happy endings? Let's say they're plausible, and they have an up side. I'm a realist, occasional optimist, and less occasional pessimist.

    This is a thought-provoking post, Diana. It's never a good idea to disappoint readers, at least if we want to sell our next book.

  4. Okay, I'm going to weigh in here ... I agree with Diana's premise, because readers don't fall in love with plot points, they fall in love with characters ... the plot is just the vehicle those characters happen to be riding in at the time.
    Clever metaphor, eh what? Now watch me torture it: Predictable plots don't necessarily kill a good read ... a ... ahem ... clunky car can still get you from A to B ... but if you don't care about the folks in the car ... the ride will be boring. That's not to say a sleek ride isn't fun ... but isn't nearly as interesting without a good travel companion.
    I've done all the damage I can do here ... now I've got to lay down for while.

  5. A skeleton is just that: bare bones. You can apply flesh, color, contour, clothing, and plop it in any location or time frame you like. There's a difference between multiple layers of conflict in a story (say mystery with a dash of romance) and a story that doesn't know what it wants to be. I refer to plots as skeletons and characters as mannequins because bending, twisting, and torturing them is where your originality as a writer comes in to play. But if I, as a reader, hate romance and you try to sell me a mystery that is more snogging than mystery solving, I'll be turned off. If I want a hot-blooded romance and there's never any snogging just a lot of serial killer chasing, I'll be equally turned off. Genre is a promise. That doesn't mean you can't fill a mystery pie crust with a romance filling, just tell the reader up front what you're selling so they aren't disgusted when they bite into the wrong thing. Disgusted consumers rarely give your product another chance!

  6. Good questions to keep in mind as we're writing!

  7. Diana, this is really good. And I'm hoping our readers can figure out that thrillers and science fiction aren't really the same. ;)

    Writers are often confused as to whether they are writing romance, say, or mainstream with romantic elements. The answer lies, by extrapolation, in your post. If the hero and heroine ending up together is THE main answer to the story question, you are writing a romance. If the resolution to the romance is a side benefit of answering another more urgent question, you are writing mainstream (or perhaps women's) fiction with romantic elements.

  8. I agree, Kathryn. It's clear and to-the-point... even better, easy to remember! You could expand on discussion for each of the skeletons in future posts, and show examples of some of the overlapping genres.

  9. Diana, I mentioned genre crossing in a previous comment. However, I concur with Kathryn and Dani that this must be done with great care. One genre will no doubt dominate, but some elements of others -- if appropriate and if they fit the story without interrupting flow -- may be present. It would, indeed, be helpful to see each of the skeletons enlarged upon in the future.

    Great post, Diana.

  10. I tried to categorize my own books with the genres noted, and none of them fit well. This is a topic I will explore further before publishing my two revisions or completing the stories that have been waiting for my return.


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