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Tracking the Question - Lesson 3

The most important objective in storytelling requires keeping the audience’s attention engaged in the moment to moment as the plot unfolds. Some storytellers have an intuitive understanding of how to maintain this attention, but the rest of us need to develop those skills. Previously, I introduced the strategy of getting the audience’s curiosity engaged in a question so that their interest leads them toward the promise of answers. Generically, we want them interested in “what’s going to happen next?” We can then design telling to predict what their thinking and therefore manipulate their experience: tension, expectation, desire, etc.

I did a little experiment with my 8 year old son Calvin to test the question theory and see if his interest hinged on seeking the answer to questions. I had a hard time keeping his attention, so if a movie can keep his attention, I was determined to uncover the secret!

George Hey Calvin! Calvin!

Calvin Yeah?

George Wanna watch a movie with me?

Calvin Sure.

George Step into my laboratory.

Calvin Why?

George Just… come here and sit.

Calvin What are we watching?

George It’s called The Shining.

He looks at me with a blank expression. Then–

Calvin Cool. What’s it about?

“What’s it about?” His curiosity already had him engaged in a question. I figured an 8 year old’s interest in the storytelling would be intuitive and fundamental. I simply wanted to ask him about what he was experiencing as he watched and see if he responded with questions. So, I fired up the film and away we went!

The ominous music began, mountains, a winding road, a car driving…

George Calvin, what do you see?

Calvin A car driving.

George What do you want to know?

Calvin Where’s it going?

George Anything else?

Calvin Who’s in the car?

That’s literally all it took. That was the whole conversation. He didn’t have to think about it. The film sequence commenced and then–

Calvin Oh!

George What?

Calvin That’s where they’re going. What is it?

George Okay, you’re done. Get outta here.

He took off without hesitation. I had my results. He would have to wait for that film to traumatize him some other time, like it did me when my parents let me watch all but the nudie bits when I was his age.

And if you study that simple sequence, you can understand why Kubrick made the choices he made–> to drive the audience’s interest toward those very questions. The ominous music sets a foreboding tone, the omniscient God’s eye camera focuses on this little car traversing this huge terrain. He calls upon clear genre conventions to cue the audience’s expectations. Namely, something bad is going to happen to whoever is in that car.

Questions are central to how an audience engages with storytelling. What we as storytellers need to do is use the question as a way to structure how we deliver a plot. Not just any question though. Questions that are generated through conflict: a character with an objective trying to overcome opposition. If the audience looses track of a question, the storytelling is over and their attention moves on. This can happen in two key ways: 1) the immediate questions get answered before a new question is generated and 2) the story wanders too far from the generated questions, the audience forgets the question and looses faith in the promise of an answer.

A good exercise is to watch a film and “track the question.” Scene by scene, outline the main action of each scene and write down questions that are generated. Moving through the scenes, keep track of each question, when and how are they answered, and what new questions are generated. It becomes much easier to spot problems in the storytelling when the urgency of the questions subside or seem to drift away from the main action of the scene.

Using this strategy, we can derive a fundamental strategy to good storytelling in how questions create structure: there must be an immediate question unanswered at the end of every scene, leading the audience to the next scene in search of an answer. When reading scripts, the first thing I address at the end of each scene is “what’s the question?” If the next scene does not address this or some other pressing question generated in a previous scene, it must at least seek to answer the question, thereby keeping the promise of an answer alive in the minds of the audience.

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