(SPOILERS: E.T., The Lord of the Rings Trilogy)
Last post I laid out the foundations of narrative structure. Today I want to discuss what I consider to be the single most important aspect: The Dramatic Question. If you understand nothing else about structure but understand the Dramatic Question and the Moment of Failure (which I’ll get to in a bit) you’ll probably end up with a fairly well structured story.
(If you’ve read other screenwriting books you may have heard the Dramatic Question called something else…“main conflict,” for example. I like the term Dramatic Question because I think it’s helpful to phrase it as a yes/no question for the main character.)
What the Dramatic Question is
The Dramatic Question is the structural spine of your story. Remember how I said last time that a story consists of a character, a dilemma and a resolution? On some level all Dramatic Questions can be boiled down to “Will the character solve their dilemma?” Of course that’s not very helpful to the writer trying to crack a story. You need to ask that question with the specifics of your character and dilemma.
So in Star Wars (written by George Lucas) the question is “Will Luke Skywalker defeat Darth Vadar?” In Amelie (scenario by Guillaume Laurant and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, dialogue by Guillaume Laurant) it’s “Will reclusive Amelie find love?” In Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) it’s “Will Olive win the beauty pageant?”
Those sound simple, right? Simpler is better when it comes to the Dramatic Question. But it’s not always easy to be simple. You have to know who your character is and what their dilemma is before you can craft a nice simple Dramatic Question. But then if you haven’t figured out your character and their dilemma you’re not really ready to start writing yet!
I also think it’s good to phrase the Dramatic Question as a yes or no question. So it’s not “Who will Susan marry?” it’s “Will Susan marry Bill?” Keeping it yes/no helps you tightly focus your narrative.
What the Dramatic Question is not
The Dramatic Question is not the theme of your movie. It’s not the hook. It’s not necessarily the character arc (sometimes it is, but not usually.) It doesn’t define whether your story is sophisticated or facile.
Do not think the Dramatic Question determines the quality of your story. It’s simply the spine on which you’re going to build your story. What you hang on that spine is going to determine how good your script is. However if your spine isn’t solid, none of the other stuff is going to hang properly.
How to use the Dramatic Question in your story
The Dramatic Question is an unspoken agreement with the audience. It tells them what the scope and shape of the story is going to be. They need to know this fairly early in the proceedings or you will lose them. If too much time passes before they understand the Dramatic Question they’re liable to walk out of the theater or turn the DVD off or put down your script. They’ll say something like, “I couldn’t figure out what the movie was about.”
The moment when the Dramatic Question becomes clear is the Catalyst. I’m going to get into that in more detail in a later post, but for now just understand that the Catalyst is the moment where the audience understands who the main character is and what their basic dilemma is. They may not understand the entire dimension of the problem, but they have an idea what the story arc will be about.
So in E.T. (written by Melissa Mathison) the catalyst is when Elliot sees E.T. for the first time. We don’t yet know that his mission will ultimately be to get E.T. home or even that first he’ll have to hide E.T. And we don’t know that E.T. will start dying from the Earth environment. But we know that this kid who nobody takes seriously just found a little lost alien – and that some scary men are looking for it. We have a character and dilemma.
Similarly, when the audience knows the outcome of the Dramatic Question your story is over. The audience will stick with you for a few minutes of wrap up, but if you go on too long after resolving the dramatic question they’re going to get restless. They’ll say things like “it was anti-climactic” or “it had too many endings.”
Once E.T. takes off in his space ship, the movie ends. Credits roll. The story is over. Compare that to the Lord of the Rings trilogy (screenplays by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson). The Dramatic Question of the trilogy is “Can Frodo destroy the ring?” He does so in the last movie, but then it continues for another forty minutes or so. Kind of got tedious didn’t it? The story was over. We wanted to go home.
The structural beat where you answer the Dramatic Question is called the Resolution. I’ll get into that more in later posts as well.
There’s one other critical structural concept you need to understand. That is the moment of apparent failure (or success). Whatever the Resolution to your Dramatic Question is, there needs to be a moment where the opposite appears to be inevitable. So if your character succeeds at the end, you need a moment where it appears the character will fail. And if your character fails at the end, you need a moment where they appear to succeed.
This moment should come late in the story as the tension is building toward the climax. We need it so the audience can’t predict how the movie’s going to unfold. We may know that in a big Hollywood movie the hero will beat the bad guy and get the girl, but we shouldn’t be able to figure out how they’ll be able to do that. Otherwise why should we watch? (See my post on unpredictability.)
In screenwriting, we call this moment of apparent failure/success the Act Two Break. Again, I’ll go into more detail in future posts.
If you have a strong Dramatic Question that defines your movie and you have a moment of Apparent Failure/Success, then your innate understanding of storytelling built from having heard stories your whole life will probably lead you to write a fairly well structured script.
However that doesn’t mean there’s nothing more to learn about structure! You can still get into trouble and the more you understand about the mechanisms of storytelling, the easier time you’ll have getting out of trouble. That’s what my next few posts will cover.
It also might be good at this point to emphasize that a well-structured script isn’t the same as a good script. To stretch the “spine” metaphor, just because a person doesn’t collapse under the weight of their own body doesn’t mean they’re beautiful, intelligent, interesting or emotionally complex. There’s a lot more to good writing than solid structure.
Which is lucky for me! Otherwise this would be a very short blog.