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“I try not to think about theme until later. If I’m adapting a book I’ll extract a theme if I can from something that’s already written, but if I’m writing something I don’t say, ‘oh, here’s the theme.’ I feel like the movie feels – this word I keep using – it feels ‘built’ if you start with the theme ahead of time. If you arrive at a theme that’s great. If there are themes you know you love, that’s great. But for me, if I start writing it seems it doesn’t matter to me early on. I know there are certain themes I automatically always go to, but it’s not anything conscious.”
Screenwriter Scott Frank (Minority Report, The Wolverine, Marley & Me)
2012 BAFTA Lecture

Related posts:

Writing from Theme (tip #20)
Sheldon Turner on Theme
Sidney Lumet on Theme
David O. Russell on Character and Theme
Theme=What Your Movie is Really About

Scott W. Smith

“The MDQ (Major Dramatic Question) is the linchpin of the dramatic narrative – the purpose for which the story is being told.”
Christopher Lockhart

“Hunger for the answer to the Major Dramatic Question grips the audience’s interest, holding it to the last act’s climax.”
Robert McKee

This whole concept of a Major Dramatic Question should have been screenwriting tip #1 (instead of #101) on this blog— but here it is unpacked a little and I hope you find it useful in your writing.

“At the center of every good movie there is a single driving force around which all other elements gather. It has the rage of a hurricane, the focus of a cougar, the horsepower of a Lamborghini. It’s not the movie’s star. It’s not a special effect. It’s not the awe-inspiring action sequence or the most tearjerking dialogue. It is deceptively simple, so sly and stealthy, you don’t even know it’s there.

It’s a question.

Sure, a good story raises lots of intriguing questions, but there is one question at the white hot center of all others. This is the ‘major dramatic question,’ or MDQ for short. Every good story has its unique MDQ. Think of it as the story’s nucleus. It’s a centrifugal force that propels the story along its path of action, accelerating it steadily and breathlessly toward a climatic conclusion. And once the MDQ is answered, the story is over.

…The MDQ is the thing that keeps us watching, wondering how things will turn out. By the end of the movie, there will be—there must be—an answer to the MDQ. A ‘yes’ or a ‘no.'”
Writing Movies: The Practical Guide to Creating Stellar Screenplays 
Gotham Writers’ Workshop edited by Alexander Steele

According to the writers at Gotham Writers’ Workshop the way to find your MDQ is through your protagonist who has a tangible goal with obstacles that presents conflict in achieving their goal. Here are some MDQ examples they give:

Will Scarlet win Ashley? (Gone with the wind)
Will Indy obtain the legendary Ark of the Covenant? (Raiders of the Lost Ark)
Will Clarice catch Buffalo Bill? (Silence of the Lambs)
Will McClane free the hostages? (Die Hard)
Subtle films have a MDQ—but they tend to be more internal than external.
Will Miles pull himself out of a Rut? (Sideways)

While some call the Major Dramatic Question, others call The Central Dramatic Question, and Joe Bunting at The Write Practice simply calls it The Dramatic Question and here are some examples from his website:

Is Odysseus going to make it home from Troy? (The Odyssey)
Will Romeo and Juliet ever be together? (Romeo and Juliet)

Here are examples from Act Four Screenplays:
“Who/what is Rosebud?” (Citizen Kane)
“Will Chuck Noland survive this ordeal? (Cast Away)

And a couple more recent examples from Daniel McInerny:
“Will Walter find missing negative #25? (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty)
“Will P.L. Travers sign over to Walt Disney the rights to the Mary Poppins books? (Saving Mr. Banks)

While a single MDQ isn’t always clear (and sometimes it even shifts) here are a broad range of films that come to mind when I think of a MDQ:
Will Rea (Jennifer Lawrence) find her father? (Winter’s Bone)
Will Marlin find his son? (Finding Nemo)
Will Kramer be able to keep custody of his son? (Kramer vs. Kramer)
Will a freed slave find his wife? (Django Unchained)
Will the troops find Ryan? (Saving Private Ryan)
Will Pee Wee find his bike (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure)
Will Phil (Bill Murray) find a way to stop reliving the same day over and over? (Groundhog Day)
Will E.T. get home? (E.T.)
Will Scotland find freedom from tyranny? (Braveheart)
Will Neal (Steve Martin) make it home for Thanksgiving? (Planes, Trains & Automobiles)
Will three buddies find their friend—before his wedding? (The Hangover)
Will a man buried alive survive? (Buried)
Will a stranger protect a small western town against outlaws (High Plains Drifter)
Will a sheriff protect a small western town against outlaws (High Noon)
Will Erin bring justice to a small town? (Erin Brockovich)
Will Matt Damon’s character reach his potential? (Good Will Hunting)
Will Ida ever return to convent and become a nun? (Ida)
Will Butch, Sundance and Etta make it to Bolivia? (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)
Will Jerry land a large contract for his client and save his business? (Jerry Maguire)
Will C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) get a promotion? (The Apartment)
Who killed the under-employed screenwriter? (Sunset Blvd.)

WME Story Editor Christopher Lockhart on his post Screenwriting 101 gives these examples:

Will Dorothy get back to Kansas? (The Wizard of Oz)
Will Sheriff Brody kill the shark? (Jaws)
Will Galvin win the case? (The Verdict)

Lockhart adds that while the MDQ tends to be external (physical), a connected internal dilemma (psychological) can be proposed in the form of minor dramatic question.

Will Galvin win beck self-respect?
Will Dorothy find her place in the world?

(Playing off of Lockhart’s physical/psychological idea let me drop in two of my favorite films and ponder if you can ask a single layered, mash-up question. Will Rocky beat Apollo Creed (physical/external)or at least go the distance with him—and prove to himself that he’s not a bum (internal/psychological)? Is it possible for the MDQ to—pardon the pun—have a one-two punch? In the indie film Pieces of April, “Will April find a way to cook a turkey for Thanksgiving AND make amends to her family?” Now we’re tying in theme and climax into the MDQ—powerful stuff.)

But it’s the MDQ that drives the story and is tied to the major goal of your hero/protagonist. And I’ll let Lockhart drive home the importance of The Major Dramatic Question:

“The MDQ is the THROUGHLINE. It carries us from the END OF THE FIRST ACT through to the CLIMAX. The dramatic narrative builds to the climax – which is the dramatic and emotional pinnacle of the story. It is the moment of cathartic release.”

P.S. There are always exceptions, and biopics and ensemble movies seem to be the trickiest in dealing with a Major Dramatic Question. For instance in both Apollo 13 and Schindler’s List, the MDQ is not “Will the astronauts survive? and “Will Schindler save lives in Nazi concentration camps” but a question of how they were accomplished. And even in cases where a MDQ is not 100% clear, the question you always want audiences asking is, “What happens next?”

Related post:
Writing from Theme (Tip #20)
One Clear Dilemma
Magnetic Endings (Tip #100)
Insanely Great Endings
Insanely Great Endings 

Scott W. Smith

Stealing from Poets

“Read poetry every day of your life. Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don’t use often enough. Poetry expands the senses and keeps them in prime condition…Poetry is compacted metaphor or simile…Ideas lie everywhere through the poetry books…From Byron’s, And the Moon Be Still as Bright, came a chapter for my novel The Martian Chronicles, which speaks for a dead race of Martians who will no longer prowl empty seas late at night. In these cases, and dozens of others, I have had a metaphor jump at me, give me a spin, and run me off to do a story. What poetry? Any poetry that makes your hair stand up along your arms. “
Ray Bradbury
Zen in the Art of Writing
(How to keep and feed a muse—pages 36-37)

Related post:
Stealing from Shakespeare
‘Steal Like an Artist’
Movie Cloning (Part 1) 

Scott W. Smith

Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451) is yet another writer who had that Midwest/Hollywood thing going on. Born in Waukegan, Illinois, and raised on comic books, carnivals, and Edgar Allen Poe, he graduated from Los Angeles High School in 1938. (And for what it’s worth, he did not attend college.)

When he died in 2012 at the age of 91 he had been a best-selling author, co-wrote the Moby Dick (1956) screenplay with John Huston, and was a Daytime Emmy-winner (The Halloween Tree). He published over 50 books and his IMDB credits span over 70 years.

“If you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer. It means you are so busy keeping one eye on the commercial market, or one ear peeled for the avant-garde coterie, that you are not being yourself. For the first thing a writer should be is—excited. He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms. Without such vigor, he might as well be out picking peaches or digging ditches; God knows it’d be better for his health.

How long has it been since you wrote a story where your real love or your real hatred somehow got onto the paper? When was the last time you dared release a cherished prejudice so it slammed the page like a lightning bolt? What are the best things and the worst things in your life, and when are you going to get around to whispering or shouting them?”
Ray Bradbury
Zen in the Art of Writing
(
Chapter on The Joy of Writing, pages 4&5) 

Public Morals is proof that even in this time of television’s Great Overcrowding, one should never judge a show by its genre… Public Morals is a picaresque, briskly written and quickly captivating series that is neither afraid nor ashamed of entertaining its audience.”
Mary McNamara
Los Angeles Times review

Public Morals, created by Edward Burns, premieres tonight on TNT and I’m hoping for its success as Burns been a constant filmmaking light for the past 20 years. He’s made indie films and studio films and now turns to TV for telling his long time dream project.

Here’s some inspiration from Burns for all indie filmmakers to consider:

“[Television is] the natural progression for any indie filmmaker. Back in ‘07 we put Purple Violets onto iTunes exclusively. That is where that indie-film-loving audience that used to go to the art house [goes]. They are now home in front of their televisions. This is really a case of where is the best place to tell this story. A friend of mine had a great line the other day, he told me ‘When we were kids, films were for adults and television was for children. And now the reverse is true.’ And there actually is some truth to that. So for me, with [Public Morals], what I was able to do was… I could not ever have gotten this story made as a film. And if I did, it would have been very hard to reach a wide audience. And I think that’s why you’re seeing a lot of indie filmmakers making the decision to bail on the film career and embrace this new medium as the place to tell those stories.”
Filmmaker Edward Burns
IndieWire Interview with Ben Travers
August 21, 2015

Related posts:
The Rebirth of Edward Burns
Edward Burns ‘Newlyweds’ (Part 1)
The 10 Film Commandments of Edward Burns
‘Don’t try and complete with Hollywood.’— Ed Burns

Scott W. Smith

“My first impression of the Raiders was that they were violent, and they were a little rough around the edges. And I think that’s what I liked about them.”
Ice Cube, rapper (N.W.A.) and producer (Straight Outta Compton)

“When you got to N.W.A. you had this merger of sort of a gangster football team and a gangster rap group.”
Tim Boyd. Ph.D.
USC School of Cinematic Arts

photo-182-e1340638493794

It was the first time I saw a billboard as fine art. One day when I was in film school in the early ’80s, as I drove from Burbank to Hollywood, I saw the above Nike billboard on the Universal Studios side of Barham Blvd. of Los Angeles  Raider football player Lester Hayes. It captured the spirit of Los Angles at that time, and there is a direct connection to the movie Straight Outta Compton

I haven’t seen the movie yet, but plenty of people have. Domestically the film crossed the $100 million mark in its first 10 days and been the number one box office movie in its first two weeks. Very impressive for a non-superhero, non-action movie.

But I have seen the ESPN documentary Straight Outta LA which covers what it meant for the Raiders to move from Oakland to Los Angeles in 1982. How “Commitment to Excellence” billboards popped up all over town. It was a great time to be in L.A.—the L.A. Dodgers won the World Series in 1981, the L.A. Lakers won the NBA Championship in 1982, Randy Newman released the song “I Love L.A.” in ’83, UCLA football teams won Rose Bowl games in ’83 & ’84, the L.A. Raiders won the 1984 Super Bowl, and the 1984 Summer Olympics were held in Los Angeles.

But what stands out to me more than Magic Johnson, Fernandomania, and the others was silver and black—the colors of the L.A. Raiders. In the Straight Outta LA doc they mention that one of the reasons silver and black was embraced by L.A. and rappers is they were neutral colors for gangs. (Red was the color associated with the Bloods and blue for Crips.) So silver & black was cool with everyone.

While I was in film school I worked as a photographer for Yary Photography (a team sports photography company then based in Cerritos)  and got a front row experience to South Central L.A. Not the night-time craziness, the drugs or the other crimes—but the daytime calm. I did sports team photos throughout Southern California including the areas where are the guys from N.W.A. (and Snoop Dog) went to school and started their music careers.

I was coming from Miami at a time that was well documented in the documentary Cocaine Cowboys, so South Central did not shock me.  But I also thankfully didn’t experience the gang violence. I was just a white guy passing through from time to time taking in the mostly black and hispanic scenery—bathed in the same beautiful California light as their nearby neighbors in Bel Air, Santa Monica, and Beverly Hills.

In 1984 I was also part of the Yary Photo team who set-up and took the team photo of the Raiders at their headquarters in El Segundo. There in front of me were some of the Raiders greats; Marcus Allen, Howie Long, Matt Milen, Jim Plunkett, and Lester Hayes.

I’m sure my L.A. experience was much different than the N.W.A. rappers (Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Easy-E, DJ Yella, and MC Ren) that put together the Straight Outta Compton album, but I’m interested in seeing the Straight Outta Compton movie, L.A. of the ’80s again, and how director F. Gary Gray and his creative team made a mainstream hit out of a story set in a gritty culture.

P.S. Colors (1988), Boyz in the Hood (1991) and the Grand Canyon (1991) reflected an L.A. culture preceding the 1992 L.A. Riots which began in South Central Los Angeles following the acquittal of police officers in the Rodney King beating trial.

Related post:
Screenwriting Straight Outta Compton
Straight Outta Connecticut

Scott W. Smith

Straight Outta Iowa

Thug Writer, University of Iowa Grad, &

Thug Writer, Oscar-winner, University of Iowa grad, & “Screenwriting from Iowa” muse Diablo Cody

Related Posts:
The Juno-Iowa Connection
Screenwriting Quote #1 (Diablo Cody)
‘Ricki and the Flash’—Meryl and the Screenwriter
Screenwriting’s Biggest Flirt
Juno Has Another Baby (Emmy) 

Scott W. Smith

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