Enriching the ‘Dramatic Question’
There is an entire banana boat full of stuff that, by the time you stamp “final” on your manuscript, you need to know all about.
My personal contention is that the more of these literary nuts and bolts you suspect you know before you actually begin writing it – otherwise known as story planning – the quicker you’ll reach that final draft.
And the more valid the word final will actually be.
The trick is to make “final” synonymous with “best.” With optimized.
That very differential, when it exists, is often the unspoken explanation behind a rejection slip or a self-publishing dream that doesn’t come true.
You need to know the story’s concept. The premise. The backstory and arc of your protagonist. The First Plot Point. The Mid-point. The Second Plot Point. And, perhaps more than anything, the ending, one that’s on the table (in the writer’s mind as a context-creating destination) from Page 1 of that “final” draft.
These are the ABCs of storytelling at a professional level. By any other name – and there is a boat-load of those, too – they are non-negotiable.
But there’s something else in play that makes it all work, the thing that connects all of these story elements and milestones into a cohesive whole. Think of it as the fuel for your story’s fire, rendering all of these other things to the role of kindling.
In fact, this is the one story essence that separates the published from the unpublished. The viral from the lost-in-the-digital-crowd. More so, in fact, than the writer’s linguistic chops. Because even if those elements and milestones lean to the vanilla side, this one, when you nail it can raise them up.
And yet, it appears for better or worse in virtually every story out there. Which is the risk of it… it’s hiding right in front of you. Easily taken for granted. Easily dismissed as a consequence of those more basic elements… when in it fact, it drives them.
I’m talking about the DRAMATIC QUESTION your story poses.
And as the title says, it’s not the “what” of it that counts, but the “how” of it.
We’ve all heard the term whodunit, as it applies to mysteries (as I type that word, which is pure slang, a squiggly red line does not appear beneath it, evidence of its arrival in the lexicon of the genre). In and of itself it is a dramatic question: who is the guilty bad guy in this story? The story is always about the hero discovering – the means and route of that discovery – whodunit.
In romances, the dramatic question is this, in several forms: will they fall in love? Will love endure? Will love conquer all?
In both of these genres, two words universally apply: well duh!!!!!
How many times does a mystery not reveal whodunit? How many romances show us a story without an HEA (that’s Happily Ever After for those who haven’t darkened the door of a romance writing conference lately)?
Every genre demands that a dramatic question be put into play.
Regardless of genre, the story usually boils down to a simple and obvious question: Will he escape? Will he/she find justice/peace/vengeance/love/self-respect… whatever the hero needs to find in your story?
Of course he/she will.
But wait, screams the cynic… if it’s obvious, why is it so important?
Because right there, at the intersection of obviousness and creativity, is where opportunity awaits. In the green room sitting right next to risk.
The dramatic question is at once a litmus test, and a gateway for your story’s inherent potential.
If you can’t state your story’s dramatic question at all, that’s a sign of an episodic collection of story beats that have no connection and no destination. An “adventures of…” story, perhaps based on a string of smaller dramatic questions (not a good idea). If your answer is obvious and therefore less than compelling, then that’s a sign you may be undervaluing this most critical of all story physics.
Because even the most obvious of dramatic questions are begging for some sauce.
To gain access to the power of your dramatic question, no matter how obvious, you benefit from addressing each of these connected queries, relative to both your dramatic question and the answer to it:
So… how? How does the hero reach the goal?
Why will anyone care?
What is compelling about the implied journey of how?
Will your reader vicariously embrace the quest with your hero?
What will the reader feel once the dramatic question has been answered?
Will satisfaction come from the journey, or the destination?
Many readers of The Davinci Code, for example, found the destination underwhelming, while the ride had them riveted. Will your readers be saying “Yes!!!” or “OMG!!!”… or will they feel let down?
All of these questions spring directly from the rich well of available story physics, the forces that make a story compelling… when absent, not so much.
What seems obvious isn’t. Even when it is.
By that I mean, when your story boils down to something as simple as whodunit, your success is hitched to something other than the answer. The juice resides in the journey… the how of it all. The means of discovery, with all the twists and thrills and emotions that come with it.
And yet, in a very risky bit of seeming contradiction (it’s not, be clear on that), a journey without a dramatic question is a tough sell.
How are you doing with those facets of your dramatic question? Take a closer look and ask if it’s dripping with juice, or dry as a legal footnote?
Something to think about.
The validity and potential of the word “final,” whenever you choose to use it, depends on it.
For more on the forces that make a dramatic question compelling, check out my new book, “Story Physics: Harnessing the Underlying Forces of Storytelling.”
And if you’d like an assessment of your dramatic question, evaluated in context to your intended concept and premise, click HERE.