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Posts Tagged ‘Major Dramatic Question’

Lin-Manuel Miranda wastes no time hooking the audience in his musical Hamilton. Not only do the first few beats of the opening song  “Alexander Hamilton” grab your attention, but there is no wasting time jumping into the story:

How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore
And a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot
In the Caribbean by providence impoverished
In squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
The ten-dollar founding father without a father
Got a lot farther by working a lot harder
By being a lot smarter
By being a self-starter

There is no set-up, just boom. It’s like sprinter Usain Bolt coming out of the blocks at the start of a race. We don’t know who is singing or who he’s singing about. (But since the show is called Hamilton we have a clue who they might be talking about.)

Within the first four lines we get an exposition dump and a major dramatic question. It’s was an extremely creative way to jump into what could be an extremely boring history lesson. The one that starts “In 1879, Alexander Hamilton became the first United States Secretary of Treasury….”

Often times history doesn’t grab our imagination because it’s presented in dry facts. Miranda’s opening line of a“bastard, orphan, son of a whore” is lets us know from the start that this isn’t your father’s history lesson about the Founding Father’s of the United States.

My post The Major or Dramatic Question has remained one of the most read ones over the years. Having a major dramatic question helps the audience avoid asking the question, “Wait, what’s this story about?” Essentially the major dramatic question in Hamilton is Who is Alexander Hamilton?  (And what did he do that was so special that he ended up on a ten dollar bill?)

One of the limitations of the stage is it is much harder to “show, don’t tell” than is done in movies. The filmed stage version of Hamilton simply starts out with Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.) walking on stage and singing. No sweeping aerial cinematic shots of the Caribbean island in the West Indies where Hamilton was born like a feature film on Hamilton might start.

Instead Miranda embraces his limitations and  uses words to stir your imagination.

How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore
And a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot
In the Caribbean by providence impoverished
In squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

We have an underdog to root for from the get-go. Over the years I’ve written several posts about exposition and I’ll put the links to some of them at the end of the post. Two movies that came to mind regarding Hamilton’s opening were Jerry Maguire and Citizen Kane.

Jerry Maguire opens with Jerry basically saying the earth is a big place, and millions of people live here, I’m one of them and I’m a sports agent. Here’s what I do?” A pure expo dump. But with the writing of Cameron Crowe, the talent of Tom Cruise, and some fine cinematography it doesn’t come across heavy handed or spoon feed.

In Citizen Kane, Charlie Kane dies and a reporter basically asks “Who was Charlie Kane?” Simple. The audiences expectations are set. I guess we’re going to find out who this Charlie Kane dude was, and what was the meaning of his final word “Rosebud”? (Here’s the 2 1/2 minute opening with a single spoken world—Orson Welles as uttering “Rosebud.” That’s a hook for the movie that AFI listed as the #1 greatest American movie ever made.)

Miranda hooks the audience at the start, and continues to build empathy for this guy who:

Put a pencil to his temple, connected it to his brain
And he wrote his first refrain, a testament to his pain

Hamilton makes it to New York as a young man and is destined to make a name for himself in the new America. He does—but we learn in the opening song that he also ends up shot to death.

We won’t know why until the end of the story,  but Hamilton’s open is one fine example of hooking your audience early and setting expectations. And the ending is implied in the beginning.

Related posts:

Screenwriting & Exposition (an oldie from 2008 post)
“Exposition is BORING unless…”
10 Solid Exposition Examples
‘A Quiet Place’ Meets ‘Screenwriting from Iowa’
Mysterious Minimal Exposition from ‘A Quiet Place’

Scott W. Smith 

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“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
Story, page 198

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.'”
Daniel Noah
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)

What 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 the 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.)
Who is Keyser Söze? (The Usual Suspect)

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? (The Verdict)
Will Dorothy find her place in the world? (The Wizard of Oz)

(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 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 questions you always want audiences asking is, “What happens next?” and “How is this going to end?”

Related post:
Writing from Theme (Tip #20)
One Clear Dilemma
Magnetic Endings (Tip #100)
Insanely Great Endings
‘What Happens Next?’—Mamet

Scott W. Smith

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