The Dramatic Question

Every story is built around a dramatic question the audience wants to know and the storyteller has promised to answer.

Stories answer questions; every story you tell, every movie you watch, and every book you read. The audience just wants to know.

But what exactly do they want to know?

Every story is built around a dramatic question. You have to make that question clear or else your audience will be confused for the rest of the story (if they stick around).

Lords of the Rings - will Frodo destroy the all-powerful ring?

Apollo 13 - how did the crew survive?

Molly’s Game - why did an ex-Olympian get arrested by the FBI?

The more clear the question, the more captivated the audience.

If your audience doesn’t understand the question your story is answering, they won’t care about the outcome. Storyteller and audience need to be on the same page. As the storyteller, you’re strategically sharing and withholding information from the audience; it takes work for the audience to absorb the information and process it. To get them to do that work, they expect the outcome of your story to answer the question floating in their head. 

Consider the three examples. 

Lord of the Rings. Tolkein makes no mistake in explaining that the ring must be destroyed; that belief is shared by his main character Frodo, and those who surround him. The dominant question throughout the multi-volume story is will Frodo be successful in destroying the ring?It’s not whether Frodo will survive or not, or whether the ring can be used for good if it’s in the right hands. The audience’s focus is on whether the ring will be destroyed. 

Apollo 13 - What happens when you’re telling a story about a historical event where everyone knows what happens? The audience wants to know howHow did 3 astronauts survive a critical failure of their spaceship and successfully return to Earth? If the story had focused on whether or not they survived, there wouldn’t be much appeal. If the story had questioned whether they make it to the Moon, no one would care. Those answers are relevant to the story but they’re known. Apollo 13 tells a detailed and dramatic story of how a seemingly impossible rescue mission ended successfully. 

Molly’s Game - The audience learns in the first 6 minutes that Molly Bloom gets arrested by the FBI. The question isn’t whether she successfully evades the law. We know she doesn’t. The question is how she got here. In the opening title sequence, we learn Molly is an Olympic skier who has a career-ending accident. How did an Olympic athlete end up getting arrested by the FBI? In the first 6 minutes, the dramatic question is set.

Every story needs a dramatic question to answer.

It can be as basic as: 

  • Can the superheroes save the planet?

  • Will she survive?

  • Do they end up together?

Or it can be as complex as:

  • What is he missing in his life?

  • Why did she come to that conclusion?

  • Can they ever be together?

Establish your dramatic question early.

Think back to a book or a movie that you stopped reading or watching. Or even a presentation at work where you tuned out. 

What was the dramatic question?

Chances are you felt distant from the material, like you didn’t know what was going on and didn’t care to find out. The storyteller was likely providing you with a bunch of details and you didn’t understand each one’s significance. That’s a symptom of a story that doesn’t have a dramatic question. The audience doesn’t know what the storyteller is getting at. 

To captivate your audience, you need to give them a question to be answered. And to keep them interested, you need to establish the dramatic question as soon as possible. 

Get your audience emotionally invested.

Movie trailers, book cover summaries, and well-thought out meeting invites help your audience understand the dramatic question early. Good hooks and previews suggest the dramatic question and sometimes explicitly state it. This helps the audience understand whether they’re interested in question that’s being explored. 

Will Frodo destroy the ring? How did the Apollo 13 astronauts survive? How did someone like Molly Bloom get into trouble with the FBI? 

If the Molly’s Game trailer suggested Molly may or may not get caught by the FBI, the audience would be confused in the second scene of the movie when Molly is arrested. All of a sudden, the dramatic question they thought they were pursuing is answered. Now what?

“I don’t get it. Didn’t…?” “But isn’t he…?“ “What’s happening?”

You’ve watched a movie or TV show with someone who asks these questions about 15 minutes in. In their head, they’re asking one dramatic question while the storyteller pursues another. 

The same happens in your meetings. “Why are we here?” echoes through conference rooms and Zooms about 20 minutes in. Attendees don’t know what question they’re trying to answer. They don’t understand what the presentation is answering. 

The next time you’re crafting a story, consider what your dramatic question is and how you’re sharing it with the audience. Like all storytelling, showing is better than telling. What sequence of events can you compile that give your audience a clear understanding of the dramatic question?

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