As I wrote the preceding series, I kept circling around a definition that I never really nailed down: What is the “dramatic question”?
The primary purpose of the dramatic question is to let the
audience know when the story will end.
What will constitute the final victory or failure?
In many stories, the dramatic question is so obvious that
the writer doesn’t have to worry about clarifying it: Will the couple find true
love? Will the hero defeat the
villain? Who killed that dead body that was discovered in the first scene?
But in other stories, the dramatic question is not
immediately obvious, so the writer has to carefully shape it in the audience’s
minds. I’ve given the examples of Charley Varrick and Never Cry Wolf a few times now, but in both cases it still would
have been fairly obvious that the movie was over, since each movie ends with the hero
leaving town. In these cases, the
question was intended to make an anticlimactic ending more satisfying.
But let’s look at stories that truly need the dramatic
question to be stated. The Godfather is a long, sprawling
movie. Our hero Michael even
leaves town in the middle, hangs around in Sicily for a half hour of
screentime, and then comes back for the final stretch. The primary relationship, between
Michael and his dad, ends halfway through when his dad dies. The secondary relationship, between
Michael and his fiancé Kay, seems to end when Michael weds someone else in
Sicily. Why doesn’t the audience
get (overly) frustrated?
Here, too, the end date is planted in our mind subtly at the
beginning of the movie, when Michael tells Kay, “In five years, the Corleone
family will be completely legitimate.”
So the dramatic question becomes, “Is that true?” No matter how many ups and down and
beginnings and endings Michael experiences over those long five years, the
ultimate question remains unanswered, so the audience is willing to go along
for the ride towards that five-year deadline without saying, “Jeez, I thought
this movie was over an hour ago!”
This, I now realize, is the primary purpose of framing
sequences, flashforwards, and past-tense voiceovers: If a story (American Beauty, for instance) does not
have an obvious dramatic question, then you must pose one at the beginning by
indicating what event we’re building towards in the future.
Keeping a movie going past the end of the dramatic question
is exasperating for the audience, even if they like the movie. In The
Big Sleep, the original mystery is solved 2/3 of the way through, leaving
the audience baffled as to why the movie keeps going.
And Gone with the Wind
never fails to exasperate me: The war ends, Tara is restored, the couple seems
to break up definitively, then get back together definitively, then marry, then
have a kid, then on and on and on.
Even when Rhett finally leaves Scarlet at the end, I don’t really buy
that it’s for good. What is the
dramatic question here?? Unlike in
The Godfather, this sprawling epic
saga doesn’t seem to have a pre-established end point. No dramatic question
unites the movie.
Tomorrow: Unfinished business…