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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Entertaining Question

So your structure is great, your character arcs are satisfying, your premise is original, the dialogue is snappy and organic and you have a theme. Or, you think you do. But what is the entertaining question in your script?

The entertaining question is tangentially related to the theme. In fact, in some ways one might say that it's a specific expression of theme - posed as a question.

A significant part of the screenwriting learning curve is figuring out what theme really means. Many new writers say that the theme of their script is something like: love is all you need. Or an eye for an eye. Or time heals. Or family ties endure. Okay, these are not themes. They are truisms and - I'll go ahead and say it - cliches. Kill me with a spork and do it now. You know why these tired cliches are a no-go? Because the answer is freaking self-evident. When anything is self-evident in life - it's boring because now I have no reason to engage with it. Yup. Love heals all, alrighty....oh forgive me, I nodded off there for a minute.

Now, there is one glorious example of something being beautifully self-evident and that is when you are fighting with your boyfriend and it's SELF-EVIDENT he is wrong and then you've arrived at Valhalla, Nirvana and Avalon all at once. But that's another post. In scripts, a self-evident or cliched theme is boring. And boring anything when it comes to screenwriting is death.

Okay imagine Google Earth. You see the globe, right? That's the equivalent of saying the theme of your script is time heals all. Uhyep. Uhyep it sure does. So we're staring at this globe, right? Mining for a deeper, more specific theme is taking that Google Earth image and zooming in on a continent. Then a country. Then a city. Then a street. That's where you'll find an expression of your theme as an entertaining question.

So one might go from, on a global level, "time heals all" to something very focused and entertaining like "If your brother slept with your wife, could you forgive him? Ever?" See what I did there? I mean, you're going to start off with whatever your premise is, but the entertaining question is an expression of theme in a very personal way which allows the audience to engage it in a WWYD way.

Whenever audiences can engage with the material in such a way that is both meta (the premise) and micro (the entertaining question) then the experience of viewing your movie is both universal and personal. And because movies are a vicarious and cathartic experience for viewers, posing an entertaining question is the brass ring, is it not?

Audiences LOVE to think: Oh god, how can he DO that! I wouldn't do that! He should do this instead of that! Take one of my favorite movies of all time, DOG DAY AFTERNOON. The theme (or meta observation, if you will) is: Love drives one to desperate acts. But the entertaining question is: What would you do if you robbed a bank to pay for your lovers sex-change operation - and it went terribly wrong? Is there a way out? Can this situation be salvaged? Okay that's kind of clumsy, let's try a few others:

Or WHEN HARRY MET SALLY: the meta-theme is friendship can lead to love. But the entertaining question is: Can men and women be friends without sex entering into it? Ever?

A SIMPLE PLAN: meta-theme: Greed destroys humanity. Entertaining question: If you found a briefcase full of money on a downed plane with a dead pilot - would you take it?

3:10 TO YUMA: meta-theme: Pride forces a man to take risks. Entertaining question: Would you risk your life for the money to save your family and your pride even if you would wind up dead to do it?

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE: meta-theme: Destiny overcomes hardship. Entertaining question: Would you have the courage to risk your life to save the girl and go on national television when it would be easier to give up and accept your destiny of helpless poverty?

REVOLUTIONARY ROAD: meta-theme: Marriage requires sacrifice. Entertaining question: If you loved your spouse but HAD to experience change and excitement, would you leave the marriage to go get it? Or stick with it? What if there were children involved?

BLADE RUNNER: meta-theme: What makes us human? Entertaining question: Could you kill a replicant that had human emotion - even if those emotions were programmed?

You can see that some entertaining questions are more compelling than others (in my half-assed iteration of them this morning) for example, the BLADE RUNNER entertaining question is wildly engaging. I mean - wow!

So take a look at your script today. Can you articulate your theme - or meta-theme as it were? Don't beat yourself up if it's something kinda cliched like "friendship lasts forever." Just use that Google Earth function in your brain and try to locate the specificity of that theme within your story. Zoom in. Zoom in more. Zoom in again - what, specifically is the micro of that theme, expressed as a question that has an element of what would YOU do? So you are poking your theme with a stick and asking - DOES friendship last forever? Can it? What if THIS happened?

Now, instead of serving up a big bowl of yes of course it does, you are adding some texture to that. Because in reality, cliches and truisms are ideals. Yes, it would be great if friendship lasted forever. And maybe in the emotional ending of your script, it does. But I have to wonder, along the way (whether reading your script or watching your movie) if the resolution really will be so neat. How will this friendship arrive at that happy conclusion? Well, if you're going to entertain me, not without a bunch of pretty big bumps in the road, right?

Heads up tip. If your entertaining question is super specific (Would you marry Bob even if you knew he slept with Stephanie, like three years ago at that party behind your back?), try to articulate that in a slightly zoomed out way: Could you maintain a friendship with a friend who betrayed you with your boyfriend without ever dealing with it head on? Or something.

p.s. Dear Anonymous: yes, I am mixing meta with micro when it it should be macro and micro but this week I am a big fan of the word "meta" and the opposite of meta is "kata" but nobody knows that including me before I looked it up. So stuff it.

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millarprescott said...

Julie - Theme is the topic of this week's current lecture in Karl Iglesias' class at UCLA Extension, and your little nugget is the perfect capper. You articulated so well what I sensed but just couldn't put my finger on. Yes, of course 'time heals all'. Describing your theme this way can only result in a "So what"? It's too vague and broad a generalization, and deep down how does it really apply to your story. Specifically, you need to ask the Entertaining Question.


This one? Definitely worth the money. Thanks.

Cathy Krasnianski said...

Your article couldn't be better timed. I'd been struggling with the theme to my story for weeks, and finally found it: "Devotion trumps conscience".

Thank you.

Now, all I have to do is finish writing it!

Julie Gray said...

@Millar- cool! Tell Karl I said hello.

@Kathy - cool! But what is the entertaining question that arises from that theme?

Cathy Krasnianski said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cathy Krasnianski said...

The question would be: "What secrets would you keep to protect a friend?"

Milli Thornton said...

Thanks for the helpful examples. The theme for my first script is just like you said - universal and cliched. Reading your examples made my *much more specialized* entertaining question pop into plain view.

Luzid said...

@ Julie:

It occurs to me that the entertaining question, while posed as "what would you do if..." or the like, is actually aimed at a script's protagonist -- and that, by directing the question at us, it puts us in the protagonist's shoes.

It's a great way to ensure that the writer tracks the audience's connection to the protagonist and his/her goals/needs/wants.

Very good post!

Steve Axelrod said...

Fascinating post. I think the whole idea of intending to entertain lies at he heart of it. So many of the scripts I read as a story analyst seemed quite indifferent to that basic goal.
The question is a good tool. I'll be using it from now on.

VisitorX said...

Julie, another great blog. Like some of the others here, I am at the point where I need to iron out my theme and this helps so much.

Thanks again!


Mystery Man said...

Great post, Julie. This is just the kind of thing new writers should read. Plus, I can now scratch an article on theme off of my list. Hehehe...

I'm going to give you a big shout-out in my next "Around Blogospher" post.

Hope you're well,


Chicago John said...

Terrific post, Julie. Thank you! Getting to the essence unlocks so many ways to strengthen each element of the script. And personalizing it with the WWYD question, really does put you in the protagonist's head, as Luzid said.

A wonderful help!

P.S. A pretty cool coda that brings the exercise full circle back up to the meta is to then ANSWER the E Question, with a one-sentence expression straight from your story's thematic core. A great alignment check.