The Dramatic Question

You are likely to know the structural item  ‘The Dramatic Question’ (DQ) in story.  Important as the DQ is, it is the tension of opposites in attempting to answer it that brings real power and sophistication to a story.


The dramatic question is a central part of any story but not  in the story -it is in the audience’s mind. It is what keeps them in their seats. The question comes to mind shortly after or at the inciting incident in the story, that event which sets off the protagonist to pursue a path of action leading to the climax where the dramatic question will be answered by the final action of the protagonist. (“Will he be able to prove his innocence in time? – The Fugitive.  “Did she inherit her father’s genius or madness” – Proof).  The real power of the DQ  is in the level of doubt sustained by the audience as to their own prediction of the outcome. This is the Tension of Opposites.   If they do not believe their own prediction, then there is doubt.   Doubt is good.

The audience may not be consciously thinking the question aloud but it compels them nonetheless to stay and watch the rest of the story unfold.  Indeed, the question can change, redirect and become more subtle with the protagonist action since we are not talking rules here. Often it is difficult to be absolute about the question and to say it succinctly depending on the movie, play or book.  Audiences will rarely talk about the dramatic question and may not even understand the term but book readers will say  ‘That book  was a real page turner’  meaning the dramatic question was strong.    Within each scene of the work there is a smaller but connected dramatic question that in it’s own way leads the audience to sway one way or the other regarding the central dramatic question.

Structurally a DQ requires a setup, tension between the two sides of that question   and the payoff.    Here’s an example: Will the sergeant in Lady Gregory’s play ‘The Rising of the Moon’ help the revolutionary escape or will he turn him in for the reward?  The setup is the  discovery by the audience that the beggar is actually the revolutionary and the key to the sergeant’s reward. The tension of opposites is how the writer made the audience veer to both sides. At times you think he will and then at others you think he won’t.    A good DQ can win a Pulitzer! The play and film ‘Doubt’ by JP Shanley has the keystone of the dramatic question in the title.  The DQ is Did the priest molest the  pupil? The audience is brought from positive to negative and back again on this question by the writer planting doubt in their minds as to their own prediction of the outcome leading to an ending that divides the audience down the middle.
Watch for Tension of Opposites in your story and the ones you read and watch. Are you moved from one plausible outcome to another? Do you find yourself changing your opinion of what’s going on, despite yourself? If so then you are in a story of sophistication with a writer who has the power to move minds.


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