So you’re writing a play, novel, or screenplay (or anything with a narrative including nature documentaries … perhaps even academic essays) and you want to include a great central question.
This article will explain what a central question is, and how to craft a gripping one!
Establish your Super Objective
First of all you need your super objective. This is the central quest of the protagonist, that arises out of the inciting incident. This objective will be finally resolved in your last big climax, or crisis. But how does this relate to the central question?
The Super Objective Implies the Central Question
For instance, in Harry Potter, the reader wants to know whether Harry will defeat Voldemort or vice versa. Voldemort’s objective is to kill Harry. Harry’s objective is really just to survive, but because Voldemort is so bent on his destruction, and because no one else can stop Voldemort, Harry has to battle and defeat him in order to survive.
So Harry’s central objective becomes ‘survive by defeating Voldemort’ and the central question of the story is ‘Will Harry survive?’ In Death of a Salesman Willy Loman wants to kill himself to get insurance money for his family, because he thinks the most important thing he can do for his family is provide for them, and he feels he has failed to do this through his work.
This is a comment on how the American Dream reduces the sacred human experience to economic terms. The central question of the piece is ‘Will Willy Loman kill himself?’ While writing this it’s occurred to me that the central question might always be ‘Will the protagonist achieve their central objective’ – and yet somehow it doesn’t feel quite that simple.
Answering the Question: what they want but not in the way they expect
So you’ve got your audience hooked, hanging around to find out the answer to the central question. What’s the best way to answer the big Q?
You have to give them what they want but not in the way they expect. For instance, in Lord of the Rings when Frodo is standing at Mount Doom, about to throw the ring into the lava. Gollum tackles him, and takes the ring. We don’t see this coming. Gollum then stumbles into the lava in his ecstasy.
So you’ve given the audience the answer to the question they want: the ring is destroyed! And yet it’s not boring because you’ve done it in a way they didn’t see coming.
In Death of a Salesman Willy’s wife finds some apparatus Willy has been planning to kill himself with. This is foreshadowing, or the introduction of something in the plot that references or implies a later event.
Foreshadowing is used as a defence against what is called ‘deus ex machina’ or wrapping a plot up with an unexpected element that conveniently appears at the end simply to help wrap things up.
You can help to establish or reinforce a central question by introducing foreshadowing that gestures to the ending you want to tease.
Many story mavens will discuss an ‘obligatory scene’. This is the scene you’ve promised your audience. It’s the one they are hanging around to see. And if you don’t deliver it they are not going to be happy!
For instance, if there was no scene in which the ring in LOTR was either finally destroyed or reunited with Sauron, then the reader is going to feel cheated. Make sure the obligatory scene that your central question implies is delivered!
Tie it to Theme
If you make your central question the ultimate comment you are making on the theme you are exploring, then you’ll probably be doing very nicely indeed.
For instance, when Willy kills himself at the end of Death of a Salesman, the comment Arthur Miller is making is that when you reduce the human experience to the economic terms implied in the Great American Dream (i.e. the meaning of life is to get a big white picket fence house and provide for your 2.5 kids) then you create a tragic environment in which people who do not live up to this economic mark do not have respect for the intrinsic value of human life itself.
Gollum falling into the lava arguably is suggesting that greed, or desire, or the will to power can become some overwhelming that power becomes all consuming, and ultimately more valuable than life itself – which is a reality that you can see lived out by people like Hitler.
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