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Your Novel’s Central Dramatic Question Changes Everything

The Central Dramatic Question of a story is the driving force behind that story. Without it, there is no force, and there are no turning pages. The Central Dramatic Question provides a clear goal for the protagonist and sets up the stakes for the story, but what is it, really?

What is a Central Dramatic Question?

The Central Dramatic Question (CDQ) is a term used in literature, especially in novels, to refer to the fundamental question or conflict that drives the plot and engages a reader’s interest—the question the reader desperately wants to know the answer to. It’s a pivotal question or problem that the protagonist must resolve throughout the story. In short, it IS the plot of the book.

It should fulfill your promise to the reader. As a writer, you make an inherent promise to your reader that you will entertain them, and in order to do so, you need to give them a plot line they can mentally follow. How do you do that? You set up a question at the beginning of your story that the reader simply must know the answer to. And then you answer that question.

It should be a “Yes” or “No” question. Think…

  • Will the hero succeed in his quest?
  • Will the lovers overcome the obstacles keeping them apart?
  • Who committed the crime and why?
  • Will the protagonist be able to overcome their inner demons and find redemption?

Check Out: The Ultimate Guide to Quickly & Easily Outlining Your Novel

The Central Dramatic Question is NOT the Premise

But it does evolve from the Premise!

The Premise and Central Dramatic Question are both important elements in a story, but they serve different functions.

The Premise is the story’s basic concept. It typically includes the main characters, the setting, and the situation or conflict that sets the story in motion. It sets up the stage for the story and provides a general idea of what the story is about.

The Central Dramatic Question typically arises from the conflict or situation introduced in the Premise. Premise is the story’s basic concept, and it sets the stage for the story by presenting the main characters, the setting, and the situation or conflict that sets the story in motion. The CDQ, on the other hand, is a specific question that the story asks and seeks to answer, and it typically emerges from the Premise as the story develops.

In other words, the CDQ is a more specific and focused question that emerges from the broader situation or conflict introduced in the Premise. It’s the question that the protagonist (and the reader!) is trying to answer throughout the story, and it provides a sense of direction and purpose to the narrative. Every time a reader turns a page, they’re doing it because they want to know the answer to the Central Dramatic Question.

Where does the Central Dramatic Question Show Up in a Story?

The CDQ should show up early in the story—definitely by 15%, preferably closer to 10%, and often comes into focus with the Inciting Incident—and continue to build in tension and complexity as the plot unfolds.

A well-crafted Central Dramatic Question helps to create suspense and tension, and that’s what keeps your reader turning pages. It also provides a sense of purpose and direction to the plot, giving the characters a clear goal to work towards and a reason to confront challenges and obstacles along the way.

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How do you find your Central Dramatic Question?

To find your novel’s central dramatic question, ask yourself what your story is really about. What is the main conflict or challenge that your protagonist faces, and what is at stake for them?

Here are some tricks to find your Central Dramatic Question

  1. Identify the protagonist’s goal: What does the main character want to achieve? What are their motivations and desires? This can be a good starting point to develop a CDQ.
  2. Consider the story’s genre: Different genres have different conventions and expectations. For example, a mystery novel would have a CDQ related to solving a crime, while a romance novel may have a CDQ related to whether the main characters will end up together.
  3. Look for conflicts: Conflict is at the heart of any good story, and it can often lead to a CDQ. What obstacles or challenges do the characters face? What are the consequences if they fail?
  4. Explore themes: The CDQ can be related to the larger themes of the story. What is the story trying to say? What questions does it raise?
  5. Use the “What if?” technique: Imagine different scenarios and ask yourself “What if?” questions to explore different possibilities for a CDQ. For example, “What if the main character discovers a family secret that changes everything?”, or “What if the main character has to choose between their loyalty to their friends and their own self-interest?”
  6. Write a logline: A logline summarizes the story that captures its essential elements, including the CDQ. Writing a logline can help distill the story to its core elements and identify the CDQ.

Another way to find your novel’s Central Dramatic Question is to brainstorm a list of potential questions that your story raises.

You could also try asking questions like this:

  • Will the protagonist achieve their goal?
  • Will the protagonist overcome their fear/weakness/flaw?
  • Will the protagonist survive?
  • Will the protagonist find true love?
  • Will the protagonist discover the truth about a mystery?
  • Will the protagonist expose the conspiracy?
  • Will the protagonist learn to forgive someone who has wronged them?

One of these is likely to feel more “essential” to your novel than others, and that’s a great guide post for settling on your CDQ. Which question drives the plot forward the most? Which is the most interesting? Which will your readers be most invested in seeing answered?

Another way to find your novel’s central dramatic question is to think about the “so what” of your story. Why does it matter? What larger themes or ideas does it explore? The answer to these questions can help you identify the core conflict your story revolves around.

Ultimately, the central dramatic question of your novel should be something that your readers will care about and be invested in seeing resolved. It should be the driving force behind your plot, and it should create a tension that the reader needs to have resolved, but it should stay flexible and allow the story to evolve. The CDQ may change (often at the Midpoint) or become more nuanced as the story develops, and that’s okay.

Examples of Central Dramatic Questions (alongside their Premises)

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

  • Premise: When Nick Dunne’s wife Amy disappears on their fifth wedding anniversary, he becomes the prime suspect in her disappearance.
  • CDQ: Will Nick be able to clear his name and prove his innocence, or will he be convicted of a crime he didn’t commit?

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The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

  • Premise: In a dystopian future, the government forces children from each of the twelve districts to participate in a televised battle to the death.
  • CDQ: Will Katniss be able to survive the Hunger Games and overthrow the oppressive government, or will she fall victim to the brutal competition?

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

  • Premise: When a curator at the Louvre is murdered, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon and cryptologist Sophie Neveu must decipher a series of clues to unravel a secret society’s conspiracy.
  • CDQ: Will Langdon and Neveu uncover the truth behind the secret society’s conspiracy and prevent a catastrophic event, or will they be thwarted by powerful forces seeking to keep the truth hidden?

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

  • Premise: In 1930s Alabama, a young girl named Scout Finch learns about racism and injustice when her father, a lawyer, defends a black man accused of rape.
  • CDQ: Will Atticus be able to defend Tom Robinson against the racist prejudices of the town and secure his freedom, or will he be unable to overcome the deeply ingrained prejudices of the time and place?

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

  • Premise: Investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist teams up with computer hacker Lisbeth Salander to investigate the disappearance of a wealthy family’s daughter.
  • CDQ: Will Blomkvist and Salander be able to uncover the truth behind the family’s dark secrets and bring the perpetrators to justice, or will they become victims themselves in the dangerous world of corruption and crime?

Your Turn

Remember, the central dramatic question should create tension and suspense that keeps readers engaged and invested in the story. It’s what drives the plot forward and creates a sense of urgency that keeps readers turning the pages.

I would love to hear your Central Dramatic Question. Post a comment and share it. Let’s celebrate your hard work!

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Holly Ostrout is a book coach with a vision of changing the world one book at a time, by teaching big-idea entrepreneurs, coaches, speakers, and authors to create a book in a gentler, more effective way. A way that takes both you and your reader on a profound journey.
Holly Ostrout

Hi I’m Holly. If you’re going to change the world with your book, fiction or nonfiction, I can help you do it.

I'm a book coach for high-achieving, creative coaches, consultants, service providers, speakers, and authors who want to build a sustainable business around their book—whether that’s fiction or nonfiction.

I help you share your wisdom, ideas, and gifts by writing & publishing a life-changing book that helps you streamline your business, bring in more money, and change more lives.

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Find that magical zone when the words flow like honey + everything you want to say comes across in perfect harmony. Write your book joyfully + easily with this Writing Ritual Tracker & keep the flow with my helpful newsletter.

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Find that magical zone when the words flow like honey + everything you want to say comes across in perfect harmony. Write your book joyfully + easily with this Writing Ritual Creator & keep the flow with my helpful newsletter.