If a story doesn’t pose a dramatic question, you’re probably reading a shopping list. Story questions are the narrative equivalent of a sales pitch, the means by which we’re convinced to stick a story out instead of mowing the lawn or something.
Moment to moment, the most basic is ‘What happens next?’, but for an audience to care enough to ask that, a strong story needs to reel them in with an overarching question or two in the first place. Here are some of the most effective.
This question is procedural catnip, and the interesting thing about it as a narrative hook is that it’s one of the only story questions that actively invites its audience to attempt an answer (at least it tends to in long-running crime shows). In anything from CSI to POIROT to CASTLE, we tend to have the basic elements we need to guess (or comfortably speculate about) who it is that shivved the mayor or impaled the curator of the National Gallery before the narrative tells us outright.
This is what sets this apart from other story questions: it aligns the audience directly with the protagonist, a neat way to pique their interest. Both audience and character are now trying to answer the same question; they have the same goal. This just isn’t the case with questions like ‘Will they make it?’ and ‘How will they do it?’ – though audience and protagonist may ask themselves both, it’s never the audience’s goal to make it, or to do it, whatever it may be. It can, however, be theirs to figure out who the murderer is.
That’s not to say that all ‘whodunit?’ plots need to function in this way. RESERVOIR DOGS operates around the same dramatic question, more specifically ‘Who’s the rat?’, without allying its audience too closely to any individual goal.
“So let’s just try and figure out who the bad guy is, alright?”
The question simply gives us a solid dramatic reason to examine the actions of each character more closely. It piques our interest by giving us an intriguing lens through which to view each exchange, i.e. ‘Do I believe what this guy’s saying?’. That way, the question can function as a way to re-contextualise what the audience sees, keeping them interested by keeping them in doubt.
Then we have narratives like SE7EN, in which we don’t even have a cast of potentials to choose from. The story still asks the same question; it just frames it differently. Rather than ‘Which of these characters is responsible?’, it becomes the more vague ‘What kind of person could do something like this?’, which actually carries just as much dramatic impetus if the ‘this’ in question is sufficiently horrific/impressive/both.
As contradictory as it may seem, it’s even possible to base a story around this question when we’re outright given the answer going in. ANGEL HEART and THE USUAL SUSPECTS both set up dangerous and elusive characters early on (Johnny Favorite and Keyser Soze respectively) who we more or less know are guilty of the crimes of which their accused. However, the lack of information surrounding them allows the narrative to draw drama from our speculation about who they are. So we know whodunit, but we don’t know who whodunit is.
Whodunit probably implies a stricter formula than most other story questions because it’s so easily linked to ‘case of the week’ style narratives, but the above demonstrates how broad a church it can be.
2. How will they do it?/How did they do it?
The reason these two go together is that stories that use the former often use the latter too. First, we need a seemingly impossible – or at the very least complex – task. Heist movies in particular tend use this as their hook. The job seems insurmountable, but we can be fairly certain (under the laws of fiction) that our protagonists will succeed in some capacity. Our interest is piqued by the narrative prospect of reconciling these facts in a convincing way.
The second question comes into play if the apparent answer to the first is subverted, which it often is.
Think OCEAN’S ELEVEN – we establish early on that Danny Ocean and co intend to rob Terry Benedict’s casinos. That’s our ‘How will they do it?’ Later, with that question seemingly answered by their apparent attempt to threaten Benedict into giving them half the money, the narrative shifts into ‘How did they do it?’ with the reveal that what we thought was money is actually a bunch of escort flyers.
Most HUSTLE episodes rely on the exact same one-two punch. It’s effective because it involves a dramatic fake-out, pretending to answer the first question before inviting us to ask a second. Just as the first question loses its dramatic momentum, we take a sharp left turn and keep the audience interested.
Obviously this is a very specific use for the question. It’s easily employed in other ways. THE PRESTIGE, for example, cleverly hinges on posing this question both to the audience and its characters, with each protagonist just as desperate to understand the other’s tricks as we are. It’s not a question that needs to span an entire story either (few are). THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, for example, asks it the second the warden steps into Andy’s empty room towards the end.
“He was in his cell at lights out. Stands to reason he’d still be here in the morning!”
The new trend of extended universes in film presents new opportunities for this one. ROGUE ONE is a film that exists purely to answer this question, despite the fact that it’s asking it of a different film. The odd thing here is that, taken completely in isolation, the film is fuelled by the question ‘How will they do it?’, but, given our understanding of its wider context in the STAR WARS franchise, our interest is actually piqued by the question ‘How did they do it?’ before the story even starts.
3. Will they make it?
This is a misleading one because it feels like it applies to almost any adventure, quest, action, superhero, or hero’s journey type narrative, but is actually far rarer than it seems. In a lot of narratives, particularly franchise or blockbuster films, we more or less know that the central characters are:
- Going to succeed
- Do so without dying (or rather without dying permanently)
Though, for example, the climax of something like THE AVENGERS appears as though it’s dramatically fuelled by ‘Will they make it?’ (Will they stop the invasion? Will they defeat Loki? And so on); deep down we’re well aware that’s not the case. It’s a ‘How will they do it?’ coyly dressed up as a ‘Will they make it?’ for Halloween.
For this question to work as the dramatic crux of any story, we need failure to be a genuine possibility. As a result, it often proves effective in horror, a genre in which we’re conditioned to entertain the possibility that a chunk of the cast won’t be met with the same narrative mercy afforded most heroes.
Even then, however, our interest can be ‘unpiqued’ if it’s made too clear who the protagonist is. In PROMETHEUS, for example, we’re pretty sure that Elizabeth Shaw is going to survive because she’s set up as our central character, which sadly answers the question for us ahead of time.
THE THING and ALIEN, however, nail this completely. Though it feels, looking at each narrative retrospectively, like MacReady and Ripley are definitely the protagonists, neither story actually makes that clear until surprisingly late in the day.
In both cases, the first half is spent flitting between various crew members, and the fact that we’re never given too much of a hold on anyone in particular allows the narrative to capitalise on the dramatic potential of ‘Will they make it?’ Essentially, no-one is made to feel safe in the audience’s eyes, which is always the risk run when basing a story around this question.
Obviously, it applies more generally than simply whether or not a character will die. HELL OR HIGH WATER employs it particularly well by making both the criminals (Toby and Tanner) and pursuing cops (Marcus and Alberto) empathetic, engaging characters. Our interest is therefore piqued by asking ‘Will they make it?’ in both directions, i.e. will the cops catch the robbers or will the robbers escape the cops?
4. How do we get there?
This is like the gruesome reversal of the cliffhanger, showing you the battered body on the rocks below without telling you how the character got to the cliff in the first place. Probably the purest example of this question in practice is theatrical tragedy. It’s the ROMEO AND JULIET ‘pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life’ line, the glimpse into our protagonists’ future that the narrative is going to take time to explain.
Essentially, this story question is constructed by showing us a narrative A and B and making the contrast the hook – we are shown or told something that’ll happen late in the plot, then jump back to the start where all’s (comparatively) dandy, leaving us wondering how on earth things are going to end up that way.
BREAKING BAD loves this technique like a spouse. In the first episode, it’s Walt’s trousers floating over a dusty desert road. In the second season we have a charred teddy in the family swimming pool, plus the episode five teaser of Tuco’s grill on the riverbank. In the final season, it’s a ragged Walt eating alone on his 52nd birthday, clearly on the run, shotgun in his trunk.
THE PRESTIGE, again, uses this one when it shows us a field of top hats. Probably the purest example, however, is MEMENTO, which is almost entirely fuelled by this question, each new scene cluing us in on how Leonard ended up in the previous one.
This is, really the magic trick of story questions. The writer is telling the audience what they’re going to pull ahead of time; like showing a crowd a whole person and telling them you intend to remove their legs. The leap from A to B is often deliberately drastic (e.g. Leonard suddenly finding himself, bottle in hand, with a man in his cupboard or Walt on the run vs Walt in control), in some cases drastic enough that we might be forgiven for worrying if the explanation is going to prove convincing enough. That’s where the magic trick dynamic comes in; the satisfaction of seeing the magician/writer pull off the crazy transformation they promised you they would.
The reason the answer often proves so satisfying is that it re-contextualises the initial image. So:
- the narrative piques our interest by showing us something we don’t understand
- Tantalisingly cuts away without explanation
- Then satisfies that interest by making it fit retrospectively
It’s its own weird brand of cathartic. The teddy in the pool in BREAKING BAD suddenly means something tangibly tragic when we realise where it came from. Or a more subtle example: the old man’s laugh after Leonard sips the ‘free beer’ in MEMENTO shifts from apparent senility to cruel mocking once the subsequent scene reveals the drink was full of spit.
5. What happens when they meet?
This operates at a more implicit level than the story questions above, in the sense that it often complements other, more overarching story questions. It necessitates two central, well-established characters inherently at odds with one another because, obviously, we’re not overly fussed by the sparks that might fly between ‘Man On Street’ and ‘Cheerleader 5’.
One of the few narratives that could be argued to rely almost exclusively on this story question is HEAT, though that’s possibly as much down to casting as it is story structure. Nonetheless, in Hanna and McCauley we have two characters set up as so unparalleled in their respective fields that the very idea that they might come face to face ends up being one of the most compelling reasons to invest in the story. The film even doubles down on the question by using their first meeting to fuel our anticipation for the second – McCauley’s adamant ‘I will not hesitate’ line lets us know that next time they meet, one of them will die, ensuring that this single dramatic question alone is enough to keep us engaged.
At its most basic level, this question piques our interest by setting up two opposing forces and then keeping them apart. And the longer it does so, the more our anticipation grows. We can see this in anything from LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL, in which Leon and Stansfield are antagonists throughout but don’t actually meet till the end, to STAR WARS, in which there’s almost whole two films before Luke and Darth Vader actually meet face to face, to GAME OF THRONES, in which we have a whole slew of well-developed characters consistently on the move, allowing the show to play the ‘what will happen when x meets y?’ card whenever two previously unconnected characters end up in the same place.
The reason this question can prove so effective is that it builds on existing character development in a way that many of the above questions don’t, piquing our interest by encouraging us to speculate about potential character interactions before they take place. So, like ‘whodunit?’, it encourages participation.
Story questions fuelled by characters meeting have gained a whole new significance in recent years, because, on a ‘meta’ level, they’ve become the basis for the current ‘shared universe’ model in studio film. The weird upshot here is that it’s no longer simply a question posed by the story, but by the entire existence of films themselves. The MCU, for example, is founded on the idea that the prospect of one character meeting another will pique our interest before we know anything about the plot itself, creating a situation in which we have story questions before we have a story.
Bigger picture aside, these story questions are essential because they work in tandem with the stories themselves: if the inciting incident is the moment that kicks the plot into gear, the fundamental question it (hopefully) poses is our reason to care.
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