What is the Narrative Question?

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As you study screenwriting, you’ll find that there are many approaches to structure. My best advice is that you should consider them all and then use whatever works best for you. Most theories about structure, though, focus on tentpoles. End of act one, the midpoint, the dark moment, etc. What they tend not to talk about is what connects the tent poles. This is where you should think about the narrative question.

The narrative question is what’s happening in the audiences’ mind or, more specifically, what you want happening in their minds. At any given point in a film, there is a question in your audience is thinking about. As the writer, you should know what that question is. And, you should have put it there.

At the beginning of any film, the audience is asking several questions. Who is this person? Who are these people? What is this movie going to be about? It’s your job to answer those questions. Once you have, you can move on to the inciting incident or call to adventure. In that scene, you clarify the narrative question–sometimes for the rest of the film. After this point, the audience should be asking a much clearer question. Will he save his kidnapped daughter? Will the team win the pennant? Will she get the guy?

How will Liam Neeson rescue his daughter in Taken. Photo courtesy 20th Century Fox

Whether or not the question changes from this point to the end of the film is really a question of genre. If you’re writing an action movie the question will likely stay very much them same. If you’re writing a thriller the question will adjust and change at every major structural point.

Now, the audience doesn’t always have a well-articulated question in mind and that’s fine. You as the writer, though, should be able to articulate the narrative question as you write your script. This is where phrasing the question correctly can actually help you craft your story. You want to be careful to avoid questions like Will they save the world? Or, Will she get the guy? In certain genres, these questions are forgone conclusions. The audience already thinks they know how the film will end and will be angry if it doesn’t end that way. So, how do you create a narrative question when the audience already knows the answer? Well, what you really want them asking is, How will they save the world? And, How will she get the guy?

Focusing on how rather than will, reminds you that you have to find a unique and exciting way for your characters to save the world, find the kidnapped girl or get the guy. Recognizing that’s what your audience is there for will help make your script great.

Julia Roberts plots to win Dermot Mulroney’s heart in My Best Friend’s Wedding. Photo courtesy TriStar Pictures.

Occasionally, there will be a movie that turns genre on his head. My Best Friend’s Wedding is an example of a romantic comedy that does not end with the girl getting the guy. What’s interesting is that through most of the movie the narrative question is, Will she get the guy? The trick to a film like this is that you want the audience answering the question with God, I hope not! long before the end of the film. I remember the first time I saw My Best Friend’s Wedding thinking, If she gets the guy I’m going to hate this movie. And that’s exactly what the writer wanted me to think.

As an experiment, re-watch one of your favorite movies and think about the narrative question as you watch. Make a note each time it changes.

author-avatar

Marshall Thornton has an MFA from UCLA in screenwriting. He spent ten years writing spec scripts and has been a semi-finalist or better in the Nicholl, Samuel Goldwyn, American Accolades, One-In-Ten and Austin Film Festival contests. As a novelist, he writes the Lambda Award-winning Boystown Mysteries. The eight book series follows the cases of a gay detective in turbulent 1980s Chicago. Marshall has also been known to write the occasional romantic comedy. You can find him online at marshallthorntonauthor.com. You can follow him on Twitter: @mrshllthornton

23 Replies to "What is the Narrative Question?"

  • comment-avatar
    Michael Wilde June 6, 2017 (2:37 am)

    Your description of the narrative only applies on the scene level. The true narrative (Consisting of or characterized by the telling of a story) has to demonstrate how human action actually works.

    Those taught the 3-Act structure wouldn’t have the foggiest idea of the structure used in the recent film “Trolls” because it is universes away of the 3-Act structure. “Trolls” came from a 3-Act structure script, but had to be completely rewritten to actually contain a Structure to make the film filmable and to contain character, story… and plot (which is what the character DOES).

    The 3-Act structure is not actually a structure, but the box it came in. You can’t buy a microwave oven and expect the box to nuke your food instead. But that’s what 3-Act writes are doing. There are NO tools in the 3 Act Structure and tells you nothing about how to write your story.

    No you know why Hollywood rejects 3-Act structure scripts and you will never sell a script using it.

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton June 6, 2017 (4:42 am)

      Thanks for sharing your opinion. Of course, character is plot and plot is character. It just didn’t happen to be what this article was about. I hope everyone understands I wasn’t attempting a comprehensive theory of film writing in six hundred words or less.

      That said, if you don’t design your characaters well you won’t have a compelling narrative question. Thinking about the narrative question is simply a way to come at your script to make it better. I believe screenwriters should equip themselves with a toolbox of writing strategies–rather than follow one system or one writing guru or one Hollywood trend. The more ways you have of looking at your script the more likely you are to solve problems as they arise–and they inevitably do.

      As for 3-Act structure (which also was not the topic) I think you’re right in the sense that if all you have in your toolbox is a basic understanding of the three acts you’re not going to get very far. I do find, though, that even writers who reject 3-Act structure still write films that fall into that structure. They’re simply focusing on other elements. One of the best pieces of advice I got at film school was that you should learn all the rules and then forget them.

      • comment-avatar
        Jenna Milly June 6, 2017 (6:27 am)

        I love a “toolbox of writing strategies!” That way you’ll have some backup if you get stuck – genius!

  • comment-avatar
    William Sommerwerck June 6, 2017 (6:01 am)

    Though I’ve basically abandoned screenwriting, I found this of great interest. I’ve learned over the years that all writing (even technical writing) is, in a sense, story telling. A solid “narrative question” helps you better focus on that story.

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton June 6, 2017 (6:04 am)

      Thanks for the comment. I use everything I learned about screenwriting each time I write a novel.

  • comment-avatar
    William Tracy June 6, 2017 (7:52 am)

    My first screenplay, done 2 years ago-with 2 rewrites after my first draft (The Oldest Soldier), I thought about one person’s feedback. (An entertainer/public speaker who was also an ex Ranger who fought in Mogadishu in 1993.) I realized that as it ultimately worked out, my main character was both protagonist AND mentor, not a typical arrangement-and I think it was ultimately the right view to take.

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton June 6, 2017 (8:00 am)

      Interesting comment. There’s no way to teach writing without using generalities, which means all sorts of things that “shouldn’t” work often do work when you get down to actually writing. And if you listen closely to good teachers you’ll realize they’re not giving you the right answers, they’re giving you the right questions.

  • comment-avatar
    Lisa Waugh June 6, 2017 (9:33 am)

    Thanks for this, Marshall. We were talking about this a while back in our little writer’s group. Asking all of the questions even if they are ridiculous or silly. In fact, we have a running joke where someone will spout, “But why are they driving? Isn’t there a train nearby?” Or “Who are these people? It’s the third act?” Usually, we do it in silly voices. I don’t know why. But you’ve reminded me how essential those questions are. Thanks!

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton June 6, 2017 (9:53 am)

      Thanks for the comment. I took classes with Meg Lefauve (Inside/Out) the question she liked to ask “Was why don’t they get on a bus?” It’s a good question and a reminder to make sure your character needs to be in the story.

  • comment-avatar
    Kyle Rosehille June 6, 2017 (10:08 am)

    Hi Marshall. As a new writer, I like your articles and approach. Mostly because you are accessible and aren’t about things being black and white. You also have manners. I appreciate that.

  • comment-avatar
    Dancy D. Jr. June 6, 2017 (10:15 am)

    Oh man. You saved my bacon. I usually don’t fall into this pit but I got clobbered in a major way when I didn’t ask such questions, especially of my lead character’s motivation. The whole story fell out from under me and it was not fun going back in to salvage things. I’m starting something new next week and I’m glad I saw your piece. I needed the reminder.

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton June 6, 2017 (10:20 am)

      Glad I could help. We all need reminders…different ones at different times. One of the things I’ve always loved about writing is that there’s always something new to learn or a new way to look at things.

  • comment-avatar
    Leslie June 6, 2017 (10:38 am)

    This cut through a lot of overthinking.

  • comment-avatar
    Leslie June 6, 2017 (10:41 am)

    I hit send before I could finish. Sorry! I meant that you cut to the chase on a topic that has plagued me in the past. I have studied and read and so much advice and instruction out there is word salad after a while. It’s nice to see straightforward advice for a change.

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton June 6, 2017 (10:44 am)

      Thanks. I think different bits of advice make sense at different point of your journey. Glad you connected with this.

  • comment-avatar
    Shanee June 6, 2017 (2:04 pm)

    I agree Marshall. The central question in any story is imperative to connect the tent poles. Great observation.

  • comment-avatar
    Jennie Evenson June 7, 2017 (11:12 am)

    I love this way of thinking about story structure — that it’s really a matter of narrative questions. Wonderful article!

  • comment-avatar
    Margery June 7, 2017 (11:29 am)

    Thanks. Good points. I’m working on a screenplay-my first although I’ve been writing fiction for years. I have clearly structured plot points but it’s helpful to keep in mind that I need to keep the audience rooting for my main character even as his journey takes him to very dark places.

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton June 7, 2017 (12:46 pm)

      Thanks for the comment. Yes, root-able characters are so important. It’s often not just a matter of how you design your character but also when you give information to the audience.

  • comment-avatar
    Lisa Kovanda June 14, 2017 (2:31 pm)

    This is useful information not only for screenwriters but also for novelists. Like you, I spend my time almost evenly divided between film and print, and find some of the best feedback I bring to the table in my predominantly novelist writing group come from screenwriting sources. I’ll be sharing this post with them for sure.

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton June 14, 2017 (2:36 pm)

      Thanks for the comment. Everything I learned in film school has been invaluable to me as a novelist. My favorite writing books are still screenwriting books. That said, I’m a genre writer and I can see where “lit” writers might not be as interested. But then, I stopped reading “literary novels” a long time ago since they often don’t have great stories.

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