The central dramatic question is simple. Will your protagonist succeed by the end of the movie? That’s the question you need to raise in the first act and answer at the climax in the third. All films ask this central question and you, as the screenwriter, must not only answer yes or no, but you must answer it in a way that is believable and satisfying to the audience. For example, here are the central questions asked in some iconic films of the past:
- Jaws – will Chief Brody kill the shark and save the town?
- Back to the Future – will Marty McFly get back to 1985 from 1955?
- ET – Will Elliott get ET return home?
By now, we know the answer to all three questions. Yes. But consider the journey the main characters went on to arrive at that answer. Because it is how you craft the journey through various obstacles and stakes, as well as fulfilling your characters’ arcs, that answers the question in a satisfying manner and makes for a great screenplay.
The central question must be raised and hammered home from the beginning. This is what makes us invested in the story through to the climax and resolution. The central dramatic question comes from your central theme, which is the emotional spine of your story and drives your character forward. Films take us on a journey of discovery and intrigue, but never allow us to lose sight of the central question.
Knowing your central question and it’s answer is crucial for structuring your screenplay. Knowing your character’s goals and desires will not only help you craft the question, but also will allow you to build the obstacles that keep the answer in doubt.
When watching your next film, analyse how and when the filmmaker raises the central question early and how it affects the progression of the story through to the climax. Even though you may know the answer, jot down ways in which the screenwriter crafts the important beats of the story, including the stakes and obstacles encountered along the way.