If a story that should be interesting is shaping up to be a bit boring, it is helpful to understand one of the key drivers behind an audience’s interest: Dramatic Questions.
A dramatic question is a question that implies an action and has something at stake.
What does this have to do with editing?
Usually it is the writer’s job to create these questions in a story, but sometimes an editor has to help them along. The editor is responsible for shaping the audience experience of dramatic questions - when they are raised and when they are resolved, how much emphasis is given to them.
Here are three tips for shaping and sustaining dramatic questions:
1. Make Sure You Know What Your Dramatic Questions Are
Talk to the writer and/or director and agree on the dramatic questions. Speak them out loud, even write them down and post them on your edit suite’s wall.
A dramatic question almost always starts with the word : ‘will’. Will someone do something, say something or get something.
For example: “Is Alex working well” is not a dramatic question. “Will Alex meet their deadline?” is a dramatic question because an action is implied (Alex meeting their deadline, or not) and something is at stake: success. If you know what your dramatic questions are then you can choose shots and shape sequences that follow the characters as they pursue their goals, and heighten our tension – our hope and fear – about what is at stake. If you don’t know what your dramatic questions are, it is easy to get distracted, and put in unnecessary stuff.
2. Don’t Answer Dramatic Questions Without Raising New Ones
(Unless it is the end of the story.) In order to keep us wondering what happens next we need to know what action is implied and what is at stake. If Alex meets their deadline and they live happily ever after it had better be the end of the movie. If Alex meets their deadline but is then offered a job overseas we have a new question: “Will Alex choose the risky new job or or success in the one they have?” Action implied? Choosing. Stakes? Career and success.
3. If Your Script Answers Questions Without Raising New Ones, Try Using Ellipsis.
If you have a scene in an office where the question is “Will Alex meet their deadline” and at the end of the scene they do. That’s fine, unless the next scene is one of them popping champagne, and there is no new question. Try cutting off the end of the bar scene so we don’t know the answer. That way, seeing the champagne pop is a revelation. You may even be able to insert other scenes in between, keep us wondering about Alex while you raise a new question in another part of the story. Then, when you answer your first question, you have a second one open and in play.
See Chapter 8 of Cutting Rhythms, Shaping the Film Edit (Focal Press, 2009) for more ideas about shaping and sustaining story tension through the rhythm of events.