3 Magic Questions for Writers that will Strengthen Your Story

This past summer I had the opportunity to take an online workshop called "The Master Screenwriter" from Derrick Warfel,  a film producer. In the workshop he shared some wisdom from Paddy Chayefsky, a three-time Academy Award winner for Best Screenplay.

This is about STORIES - so it's not just for screenwriters but also for novelists, short story writers, or whatever story you're writing.

Chayefsky kept three questions taped above his typewriter. Derrick Warfel said it's amazing how many scripts he sees that don't answer these basic questions. (Tweet that!) He said if writers would answer these three questions, they'd be a long ways ahead of most of the other writers out there.(Tweet that!)

If you are participating in National Novel Writing Month, check your story now and see if you're answering these questions.(Tweet that!)

Whatever story you're writing, maybe you need to stop now and consider these questions to make your story stronger. (Tweet that!)

So what are these three magic questions?


1. Who is your main character?

Obviously this is not just the character's name, but who they are as a person. Their weaknesses and strengths. Their experiences. Their fears. It might include their job. Or their family. Or their connections.

This is not just make up quirky character traits time. This is making wise choices about who this character needs to be to carry the story. (Tweet that!)

2. What does he/she want? (Very badly!)

In every story, the main character must want something. This drives the story forward. If your character doesn't want something, and want it badly, this is a warning sign. (Tweet that!)

It may mean a lot of things (that I haven't thought of), but one thing I've thought of that it might mean is that you're going to have a passive main character. By "passive character" I mean a weak character, which is uninteresting in a story. Nobody roots for a passive character.

A passive character is one whom things happen to.  But that character doesn't actually do anything. They don't get mad. They don't get up and fight back. They are passive. They just sit there. They are a victim. Everyone feels sorry for a victim, but we don't root for a victim until that person gets up and fights. Beware of passive characters.

For more about passive characters, see my blog post from November 1, 2015: Writing Stories: What Your Story Needs - Part 1

3. What's keeping him/her from getting it?

Finally, whatever your main character wants, there needs to be a barrier to him or her getting it.(Tweet that!) It could be a big evil person or monster. It could be something monstrous in nature, such as big storm or natural disaster.  Or it could be something within themselves which they need to overcome. But there has to be something or someone standing in the way of your main character getting what they want. Otherwise, they'd just go get it and the story would be over (and pretty boring), right?

So what about your story-in-progress? Have you answered these three questions? If not, maybe you should stop now and find the answers. I can pretty well guarantee you'll have a stronger story if you do.

Need more help? Try this:


 Think of your favorite novel, story, or movie and answer these three magic questions for that story. Here are some suggestions. How would you answer these questions for:

  • The movie Lethal Weapon
  • The classic story "Cinderella"
  • The movie Finding Nemo
  • The movie Despicable Me
  • Your favorite movie.
  • Your favorite novel. 
  • The story, novel, or screenplay you're writing now.

Here's an example:  

The movie: Die Hard

Who is the main character?
A hard core, street smart New York cop visiting Los Angeles where the other cops don't know him.

What does he/she want?
He wants to reconnect and reconcile with his wife who moved to LA to take a great job.

What's keeping him/her from getting it?
The terrorists who have taken over the skyscraper where his wife's office is holding its Christmas party and have taken everyone, including his wife, hostage.

Now, how would you answer these three questions for your story? (Tweet that!)

Do you find these three "magic" questions helpful to you as a story writer?


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