THE THREE IMPORTANT QUESTIONS YOUR STORY SHOULD ANSWER
(Spoilers: Gravity, Little Miss Sunshine)
In my book, The Three Stages of Screenwriting, I describe what I refer to as the “Dramatic Question” of the story. This is the question that is asked by the Catalyst (also known as the Inciting Incident) and answered in the Resolution. At its most basic, the question is some form of: “Will the main character achieve their goal?” This question defines the scope of your story. On an unconscious level, the Catalyst lets the audience know what the plot is about by posing this question. The audience knows the story will be over when they get the answer. The Dramatic Question relates to plot. When I ask my students to define the Dramatic Question of their screenplays, they sometimes give me an answer along the lines of: “Will Keisha overcome her fear of intimacy?” Now, this could possibly be the Dramatic Question of a story, but usually this kind of internal question relates to the character arc, not the plot. Other times a student will give me an answer like: “Is humanity worth saving?” This is also not really a Dramatic Question. It’s a thematic question. I demand the students form their Dramatic Questions in relation to the plot because they will be using this question to structure their story. The act breaks and other structural beats will be related to this question. Since this is film, it’s important to make it external and measurable. And I encourage questions with a yes or no answer because it’s easier to figure out what should be happening at each structural beat. But I’ve been thinking lately that the other types of questions the students provide are also important, just perhaps not to structuring the plot. After all, the best stories typically have strong character arcs and deal with powerful thematic ideas. So maybe we should really be looking at defining three different questions in our stories: The Dramatic Question The Character Question The Thematic Question One of the films I use as an example in The Three Stages of Screenwriting is Gravity (written by Alfonso & Jonas Cuaron). The Dramatic Question in that movie is “Can Ryan make it back to Earth?” This is a good dramatic question that drives the plot, and the movie ends when we get the answer. So let’s consider what the other questions would be and try to determine how they work in the story. The Character Question in Gravity would probably be: “Can Ryan find the will to survive?” This question is set up when Ryan tells Matt about the death of her daughter. We see that she has lost her reason for living. This happens in the beginning of act two. It comes to a head near the Second Act Turning Point when Ryan decides to give up and turns off the oxygen in her capsule. It is resolved when she has her vision of Matt and he asks if she wants to live or die. She chooses life, and figures out how to solve her problem. This coincides with the Epiphany stage of the structure. Building from this, I would say the Thematic Question of Gravity is: “What keeps us going in the face of death and danger?” Though there is an answer to this question in the story, I will note that this is not a yes or no question. Perhaps that is what makes a thematic question different than the other types of questions. Maybe good Thematic Questions have more complicated answers. Let’s consider another film I use as an example in the book: Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt). The Dramatic Question of Little Miss Sunshine is: “Will Richard enable his daughter to win the beauty pageant?” (Richard is the main character of Little Miss Sunshine. If you want to know my justification for this statement, read the book!) The Thematic Question of Little Miss Sunshine has to do with winning and losing. Richard’s first words are, “There are two kinds of people in the world, winners and losers.” And when deciding whether to take Olive to the pageant, Richard asks her if she thinks she can win, because, “there’s no point in entering a contest unless you think you can win.” The themes of winning and losing are set up early in the script. And near the Midpoint, Olive confides in her grandfather that she fears Richard won’t love her if she doesn’t win. Of course, in the end she doesn’t win… but Richard has realized it’s more important to support his daughter no matter what. And that reveals the Character Question of Little Miss Sunshine: “Will Richard support his daughter even if she doesn’t win?” And of course the answer there is “Yes.” Here that character question is established at the Catalyst and again answered at the Epiphany when Richard jumps up on stage to join Olive in her crazy dance. I realize I never proposed an actual Thematic Question for Little Miss Sunshine. Let’s go with: “What is more important – being a winner or having people who love you?” You might notice that all of the subplots about the supporting characters involve that question in some way. Exploring the theme is a common use for subplots. So from these two examples, the Character Question seems to be important to the Epiphany of the film. This makes sense. We want the character arc to affect the plot, and the plot to cause the character to change. And the Thematic Question seems to be the result of what it means to place this specific character in this specific plot. As you may gather, I don’t yet have a fully formed theory about these three questions. But I will be watching for them in movies I study in the future, trying to figure out how they work. Stay tuned… there will be future posts on this topic!