If you've been following this blog for long, you've probably “met” my brother, scriptwriter Douglas J. Eboch. I love talking about writing with him and following his screenwriting blog, Let's Schmooze. Novelists can learn a lot from movie writers. Here's an excerpt from the essay Doug wrote for my book Advanced Plotting. This works with our exploration of building your novel.
Plotting Like a Screenwriter
by Douglas J. Eboch
Now let’s look at the components of three act structure. Probably the most important is the Dramatic Question. If you understand nothing else but 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.
What the Dramatic Question Is
The Dramatic Question is the structural spine of your story. 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 particular 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 E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (written by Melissa Mathison) it’s “Can Elliot save E.T.?” 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 anyway!
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. 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. However, if your spine isn’t solid, none of the other stuff is going to work properly either.
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 what the question is 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 called the Catalyst. The Catalyst is 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. 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 with a 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 (screenplay by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson). The Dramatic Question is “Can Frodo destroy the ring?” He does, but then the movie 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.
Douglas J. Eboch wrote the original script for the movie Sweet Home Alabama. He teaches at Art Center College of Design and lectures internationally. He writes a blog about screenwriting at Let's Schmooze where he shares techniques like the ones in this article.
See Doug’s entire 4000-word essay covering all the dramatic story points of three-act structure, plus much more, in Advanced Plotting. Get more essay like this one in Advanced Plotting, along with a detailed explanation of the Plot Outline Exercise, a powerful tool to identify and fix plot weaknesses in your manuscripts.