“What question or questions are you asking through your story?”
This is one of the first things I ask an author when I start working with them, and the foundation for our entire process moving forward.
A good question is one of your most powerful tools as a writer, more than a strong opinion or a clean writing style. It challenges you to think more deeply about the underlying themes of a piece and stays with you long after you’ve finished reading.
Most crucially, it creates a dialogue between yourself and your audience. When you focus on the query and not on the answer, you invite the reader to unpack the question with you. Now you’re both trying to figure something out via the story you’ve told.
Framing the work in this way can also simplify your development process. The core questions you identify serve as a centerpiece of sorts for the story, giving you something to come to whenever you get lost or overwhelmed.
Some writers call this concept the Golden Thread writing method, a type of story development that takes one core idea and builds the rest of the story out from that center. When you hit a wall, you can come back to that Golden Thread to find the story again.
I’ve been working with this developmental method for nearly a decade as a writer, editor, feedback partner, and now writing coach. In that time, I’ve found that while reframing your story can initially feel overwhelming, the process itself is all about simplifying and clarifying the work.
To get started, you’ll need to decide what question or questions you’re interested in.
Whether you’re deepening a piece you’ve already written, or starting from scratch, the first thing you’ll want to do is figure out the Why behind your story.
As you go, jot down any questions that come to mind, big or small. Let this be a free-writing exercise, where you cast a wide net first.
Once you have a good list, cross out the ones that have an easy, tangible answer. For instance, Why did the Titanic sink? has a known explanation, therefore won’t leave a lot left to explore.
Instead, narrow it down to the broader ideas. For instance, What are the consequences of power? or Can the modern woman truly have it all? are two queries that you and your readers could investigate to kingdom come. Leaving this more open-ended allows both you and your reader to use that idea as a platform to better understand your world and the systems within it.
Of the remaining questions on your list, look for the ones that feel most urgent to you. Which, when asked, light you up with curiosity?
What’s left on the page is your Golden Thread.
Like anything, it could take several passes of this exercise to arrive at the right question. Your story may even evolve as you continue to develop the manuscript.
However many passes it takes you, as long as you’re able to break down the core concepts of your story and frame those ideas as questions, you’re already expanding the impact of the writing and connecting more deeply with your community of readers.
Once you feel confident about your Golden Thread, the next step is to place it at the center of your story. In other words, every plot point, action, character, and decision should in some way support your main queries.
As you start to frame the work in this way, you may start to see parts of the story that aren’t as necessary as you thought, or other parts that need expanding.
Whenever you get bogged down in the details or lose perspective (it happens to us all), come back to your Golden Thread for guidance.
For me, the most impactful part of question-driven storytelling is its ability to connect not only the writer to the reader, but readers to each other. By asking something urgent and unanswerable, you build a community of people who want to share in that pursuit of knowledge, and who perhaps have a stake in what you’re investigating.
To ensure that these ideas are landing with your audience as intended, ask your beta readers, editors, and feedback partners what questions lingered for them. If their queries line up with your own, or even lead to their own follow-up questions, great job, you’ve started a dialogue.
As with any writing advice, this is one of a thousand ways to approach storytelling and speaks to my own preferred method of development.
Personally, I find questions more interesting and long-lasting than statements or lessons. Stories that both have the curiosity to pursue knowledge and the humility to know the limits of that knowledge, to me, feel deeply honest and impactful.
More importantly, when you allow readers to participate in your inquiry and question your collective reality, you lay the foundation to build real-life worlds through fictional ones.
I'm a fiction book editor and writing coach, specializing in anti-perfectionist writing habits for indie authors.
In this house, we leave perfection at the door and write with curiosity, clarity, and joy.
Sound like your jam? Click "Work with Me" below to get in touch. I would love to hear your story.
A biweekly newsletter about story development, anti-perfectionism, and the lovable chaos of creativity.