The Three Central Questions A Good Story Should Answer


It’s long been understood that all good stories have a central question which binds them together, and depending on the story, this can be many things, but it’s usually some variation of “does the protagonist accomplish their goal?”

  • Does Harry Potter become a wizard?
  • Does Luke become a hero and defeat the Empire?
  • Does Luffy become King of the Pirates?

An easy way to spot this question is that when the question is answered, the story is over.

However, what Schechter presents here is another level to that idea, that there are really three questions being answered in most well told stories, not one.

  1. Does the protagonist accomplish their private goal?
  2. Does the protagonist accomplish their professional goal?
  3. Does the protagonist accomplish their public goal?

Each of these questions represents a different layer to the story, and all of these questions must be answered by the end.

To differentiate these goals, we should break them down.

  • A private goal is a goal which is basically the main character’s inner want/need that they’re trying to fulfill.
  • A professional goal is a goal related to their role within the story and setting and usually connected to solving the problem (or overcoming the central antagonist) of the story.
  • A public goal is a goal which is the broadly stated thing they’re trying to accomplish in the story (this is what people usually think about when they’re talking about the central question of the story).

So, let’s look at some examples:

Harry Potter:

  • His private goal is to find love, belonging and acceptance.
  • His professional goal is to defeat Valdemort.
  • His public goal is to become a wizard.

Luke Skywalker: (looking at the trilogy as a whole)

  • His private goal is to find his place in the Universe.
  • His professional goal is to defeat the Empire.
  • His public goal is to become a Jedi knight.

Monkey D. Luffy:

  • His private goal is to be to be free to live a good life.
  • His professional goal is to find the One Piece.
  • His public goal is to become King of the Pirates.

According to Schechter in the video, all three of these goals need to be established in the beginning of the story in some way, and then answered in some way by the end of the story. They are essentially three complimentary lines of development that are playing out in each story as the main character moves through the story, and help to guide the story towards its logical end.

It’s an interesting idea, and I could see how it would be helpful for writers to understand these three elements of their main character’s story before they start writing, or maybe even during revisions as they work to bring the story together. Obviously, not all stories will answer all three questions, and some stories might just have one or two levels of the three. For example, I would argue in a typical mystery story the detective character is focused on Professional Goal of solving the case and the Public Goal of seeing justice done, but they often don’t really have much of a Private Goal.

Then again, with Sherlock Holmes stories Watson goes out of his way to tell us that Holmes does what he does because he’s bored at the start of most of the great detective’s short adventures, and he is usually shown to be happy and full of life at the end of them at having solved the case. So, would this mean that “alleviating boredom?” is Holmes’ Private Goal? Maybe that’s why Holmes’ stories still work so well – because they answer all three central questions like clockwork?

In any case, I have to say I’m impressed with Jeffrey Alan Schechter’s thoughts and ideas. I may just have to buy his book to see what else he has in mind.

What do you think? Is Schechter on the right track?


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