The Essential Question
This may sound obvious but it isn't. Before you start writing a story, you must determine what the essential question or Central Dramatic Question of your story is, for two reasons:
- It determines the spine of your story - the path your protagonist will take
- It determines the genre of your story (and genre helps you structure your story, because it defines the expectations of your audience)
The essential question is a SINGLE question, introduced at the inciting incident, that MUST be answered at the end for the audience to be satisfied. It is the question that sets the story in motion.
Will our protagonist:
- Free himself from oppression? (fairy tale)
- Get the girl? (love story)
- Solve the case? (police story)
- Stay alive? (horror)
- Save the world? (Action)
- and the list goes on...
A full semester course can't satisfy the concepts involved with genre and subgenre, and the gurus don't all agree. Basically, once you discover what your story's essential question is, find other movies with the same question and see how they do it. Study the expectations of that genre, once you figure it out.
In le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain (AKA, Amelie), our quirky, withdrawn protagonist comes into possession of a box that she returns to a stranger, and if it goes well, she'll become a "do-gooder," changing the lives of those around her. Well, it does go well, and she sets in motion a series of devices to make everyone's life better. Right?
But how do you know when the story should end? When HER life is changed. She was told she has a weak heart when all her heart was beating for was intimacy. She must break free of her isolation - THAT is the essential question! She must choose to open herself up enough to let Nino in - then we are satisfied.
So, a protagonist, given a curse (by the family), must make a conscious choice to break free of her constraints - that's a fairy tale, folks.
Another Fairy tale - Titanic. We know the ship goes down, and we know that Jack isn't with Rose at the end. We don't care who ends up with the jewel. Rose must break free - to live a fuller life, not simply to marry to save her mother from poverty. That's why people cried when she jumped back on the boat - she made her decision! Come hell or high water, she will blow that whistle for another lifeboat, and go on to live fully as her bedside photos showed.
Another fairy tale - The Godfather. Michael's curse is the family business, and that's our battlefield. He tells Kay, "That's my family, but not me." He needs to break free. Does he? NO! A DOWN ending! He loses the battle by becoming worse than his family, destroying his enemies, and alienating himself from Kay, his family and his soul.
The essential question runs deep. Pursue it! Send me an email if you have questions.