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?
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.
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.