The Crucial Question that Writers Forget to Ask

A couple of weeks ago I was scrolling through an email from Powell’s Books highlighting their employees’ favorite books of 2011. One title stopped me dead in my tracks. It leapt out so viscerally that I instantly ordered the book. It was . . . a kids’ picture book. My kids are grown. None of my friends have little kids. I don’t make a habit of reading kids books.

But I had to have this one. Because I loved the title. The name of the book is:

I Want My Hat Back

I read the title and I felt it in my gut, it made me strangely happy. It was so clear, so concise, and so deliciously full of portent. Someone’s hat has gone missing! And clearly that person (bear, actually) is going to do whatever it takes to get to the bottom of this missing hat thing. I was instantly dying to know, will he find his hat? And if he does, will he get it back?

After I ordered the book I read the title over and over, and it made me grin every time. I still like saying it. I want my hat back! (BTW, the book came and it’s just as good as the title promised it would be. Even better, maybe.)

And it got me to thinking: Why is it that so many of the manuscripts I’ve read lately - adult manuscripts that is -- lack what I Want My Hat Back has? A main character who really wants something. Something the reader is aware of from the very first sentence. Something that we can root for, something that gives meaning to what the protagonist does, and shape to the story.

How is it that writers who’ve spent years studying, and who’ve poured their hearts and souls into their work, can still forget to answer this simple question: What does my protagonist want?

Because the answer? That’s what drives the story. How? We’ll talk about that next time. But for now,  tell me, who stole your protagonist’s hat? And what will she do to get it back?