The central question

A few months ago my agent asked me to write a covering submission for my novel. Honestly, I thought that once I had an agent, the days of writing a covering anything were over! Turns out there is no way around writing a synopsis, a blurb, or any other part of the covering submission. At this point, it wouldn’t even surprise me if J.K. Rowling still has to.

The beauty of this exercise, though, was that I had already done the hard work when I did my outline. I’d mapped out each character. I’d decided on the tropes and hooks, and even (though I didn’t realise it at the time), the themes. I’d posed and answered the central question. Indeed, the central question is the most crucial element of all. Although the covering submission didn’t ask for it by name, this element defined the terms. So, I thought I would cover it here for you this month.

What do I mean when I say “central question”? It is the question that drives your novel. It must be tangible—it can’t be ephemeral or theoretical. It is the question your protagonist will initially refuse. Right up until the end of Act 1 when they answer the call. The central question should be simple, because the complexity comes with its answer, which should be unexpected.

I make mine super simple. For the romance, my central question is: will my hero and heroine end up together? For the suspense plot, simply: whodunit? I don’t have a generic central question for the faith element, but if had to pick one it might be: how does he/she come to Jesus?

You may be wondering how the protagonist can refuse these kinds of generic questions. Let’s take your hero. He might refuse the idea of any relationship, setting the scene for a complex answer. The initial refusal kiboshes the thought of ending up with the heroine… Right up until he reacts to the question by wondering about the heroine romantically — end Act 1 (recall from my previous post, each story has its own three Act structure, so Act 1 will end for each story at different points in the novel).

As for the suspense plot, the “whodunit” starting point is fleshed out with a little more specificity, depending on your story. For example, “who has been sending those anonymous letters”? The refusal can be the hero’s denial that there’s anything to see here (ie, he considers heroine to be an over-anxious kook)… Right up until circumstances force his hand and he reacts to the question by taking it seriously — end Act 1.

I use the examples of romance and suspense, but every story no matter the genre must have its own central question. I highly recommend The Seven Basic Plots to help think about how you might formulate your central question as it conforms to your story. For example, in my picture above I imagine you might have a quest scenario, where the central question could be “will she find the magical kingdom?”.

Once you have a central question (or questions), you have your structure. You have the question or questions to keep checking in on. You have the question that will help you integrate your setups and payoffs. You have a landing for your false ending — where it appears the central question has been solved, though that doesn’t last long. You know exactly where to write to — even if you’re the pantsiest of pantsers. And when your agent asks you to write that pesky covering submission, you have a starting point. Which is why the central question should be front of mind when you begin to write.