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Friday, March 25, 2011

First Scene Essentials ~ Part Two

To briefly review what I introduced last month, I'll mention the first important elements again (and if you want more elaboration, retrieve that blog entry and peruse it).

Some of the main points discussed involved picking just the right starting place to begin your book. This means the story starts in present action, in the middle of something happening, with your POV character right in the situation and revealing her (or his) fears, dreams, needs, or goals and the obstacle that is in the way and presenting a problem. The visible "goal" of your protagonist needs to be revealed in some measure in the first few pages, and what we'll explore today is the need to establish both the plot question and the spiritual question your book is raising.

You may not have a deeply themed book, but there must be some reason you are writing this story. What is it about? If you were asked, "Why did you write this book?" (and spend months, maybe years of your life doing so!), how would you answer? Hopefully, there is a specific thing you want to say to your readers. It doesn't have to be a "message" or sermon on life, but every story deals with themes on one level or another, and your views as a writer will come through the story, sometimes whether you intend it or not. Better to begin a book with intention--intending to say something and leave your readers with that "take-home" thought when they read the last line and close the book. This ties in with your MDQ or major dramatic query.
I've never seen in any book on writing a novel the importance of setting up your dramatic query or question regarding plot alongside the protagonist's spiritual question. This is something I gleaned from Davis Bunn's intensive workshop at Mount Hermon two years ago. Learning this was a revelation to me, and took my writing to a much higher level. Now, with every novel I write, I begin with this.

The MDQ or major dramatic query is a yes-or-no question you ask at the start of the book. It's a question that MUST be addressed in the first scene, as it sets the stage for the entire novel. It is also called (by Michael Hague) the "visible goal" or plot goal. Your question may be "Will Mary save her brother before he kills himself?" or "Will Frodo destroy the ring and save Middle Earth before Sauron gets his hands on it?" or "Will Dorothy make it back to Kansas or be stuck with those munchkins for the rest of her life?" You get the idea. The are only a few variations of this plot question and they involve the character either getting something or somewhere, saving someone, finding something, or escaping something. Now, the answer that you reveal at the end of the book can be either yes or no. Maybe Dorothy will, after all, end up living in munchkin land, but she might enjoy it, and find her true path to happiness there. You're the writer; it's your choice.

But now we turn to another MDQ, and that's the spiritual question. It's a little harder to pinpoint, but it reveals the heart of your character and the heart of your story. Without it, you might have an exciting plot but will anyone really care about the story, or even read it to the end? Without a spritual question for your protagonist, the answer may be no. When I say "spiritual" question, I am not talking about faith or faith-based stories. Every good story has one. A question that involves the character's spirit--her heart--is what we're concerned with.
Think about Frodo. His MDQ spiritual question might be: "Will Frodo be able to live with himself and his world by the end of the book if he makes the choice to undertake his journey?" or "Will Frodo find peace and inner joy through his journey to destroy the ring, even if it kills him?" Dorothy's spiritual question might be: "Will Dorothy find her place in the world, feel she fits in, feel at home somewhere?" Think about how these spiritual MDQs are raised at the start of the stories, alongside the plot MDQs. Now, what it crucial to realize is that BOTH questions get answered AT THE SAME TIME AND IN THE SAME SCENE at the end of the book! This is amazing, and when done well, makes your book a winner. Dorothy gets home (plot) but at the same time she realizes she's always been home; that here, with Aunty Em, is where her heart truly lives (spiritual).

So before you even start writing (or if you are partway through your novel, stop and consider), write down your two MDQs--the plot and spiritual questions you need to raise in the first scene that will be answered in one of the last scenes in your book. This is what should shape and give impetus to your entire novel--these questions. Your plot arc and character arcs will all begin and end based on these questions. They seem simple, but the reader needs to know what they are. This doesn't mean you state them blatantly (although in my novel Conundrum, I decided to actually have my main character, Lisa, in first person, ask the MDQ in her head--literally and exactly word for word. That worked for my book, and it sure left no confusion on the reader's part as to what the novel was about and what Lisa's plot and spiritual questions were).
So ponder awhile on this, and if you have any questions or need help on determining your MDQs, drop me a line and I'll help (cslakin@gmail.com). Once you get the hang of setting up your novel at the start with these important elements, it will make writing your book that much easier. The MDQs become a beacon of light that guides your protagonist on her long, dark journey to the end of the story.


  1. Excellent post, Susanne. Definitely helped me sort out my novel opening. Thanks for sharing your expertise with us!

  2. That's excellent advice. It makes me want to take a writing class from you and/or Davis Bunn.

  3. Thanks for this Susanne. I will consider what you've said here for my project.