A story question is little more than your book’s theme stated as a question. It’s not a particularly revolutionary idea, but it’s a great trick for quickly and easily determining what your story is about. And why do you need to know what your story about? Because if you don’t, no one else will either. If you’ve ever asked a fellow writer what their story is about and gotten a 5 minute stream-of-consciousness ramble, you know why this is a problem: If they can’t tell you, chances are, neither can their story.

In honor of the release of my debut picture book, Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters (Atheneum), I thought I’d run a short series of posts focused on the best lessons from the best books on writing for children. I’m starting today with a great primer that I’ve already written about: Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books: A Hands-On Guide From Story Creation to Publication (Writer’s Digest Books 2009). If you’re just getting into writing picture books, Paul’s book is a great place to start. Just click her name in the tag cloud to learn more about her book.

What is a Story Question?

Today, I want to talk about the idea of a story question, which Paul writes about in chapter 2, “Building a Frame for Your Story House.” According to Paul, “Enduring picture books must be about something bigger than a mere incident.” She continues, “The story problem must explore some large theme or issue. It must have a kernel of truth about life and the world.”

Whether you think in these terms before you start writing as you plot or after your vomit-draft, is up to you. I tend to think that theme is something you discover after you’ve written your first draft, but that’s not necessarily true. Thinking about themes that interest you is a great way to generate ideas. The danger is that focusing too much on theme as you write can make you sound preachy and didactic. A big no-no in books for kids.

Having said this, I still think it’s a useful way to conceive of and revise stories. As Paul writes, “It behooves writers to think of a general question about the underlying issue they are trying to unravel in each new story.” When you’re revising, knowing what question you’re exploring can help you focus and tighten your story.

Paul gives these examples to help us understand the idea of a story question:

While longer works can encompass multiple story questions, picture books, because of their length and audience, tend to focus on one.

Writing Exercise

So let’s put this idea to work for us. Can you identify the story question of your story or picture book? Alternately, pick up a published picture book and see if you can identify its story question. Write your answers in the comments and I’ll do the same!

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