Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Storyteller’s Rulebook #44: Leave A Question Unanswered

A classic trick of filmmakers is to have every scene end with a question. “You’re losing in the polls, what do you intend to do about it?” Cut to: the candidate knocks on doors in a sketchy neighborhood. This is a great way to trim out unnecessary dialogue. You don’t need to show someone answering the question and then planning their next move onscreen, just let the cut answer the question. The same trick even works for cross-cutting between different characters. “What else could go wrong?” Cut to—The villain’s underground lair.

But sometimes you can leave a question unanswered—then let it hang over the whole movie. This question then becomes the theme. John August’s blog discussed a while back whether or not writers should think about theme. Many writers don’t like to do it—because they believe that it’s the same as imposing a moral. But a good theme isn’t a statement, it’s a question, one that the audience has to answer for themselves. The easiest way to plant this question in your audience’s head is to have a character ask it aloud and get no answer. The whole movie becomes the belated response.

Election came up in the comments earlier this week and it’s one of my favorite screenplays. At the beginning, Matthew Broderick asks his civics class: “What is the difference between morals and ethics?”, but just then the bell rings and the class runs away before they have to answer the question. Instead, each character is forced to confront this question in much more difficult ways.


At the beginning of Bullets Over Broadway, one character asks something like, “If you could only save one, which would you pull from a burning building: an actual human being or the last remaining copy of the works of Shakespeare?” In this case, the characters do get to discuss it onscreen, but the underlying question --“Is great art worth more than any one life?”-- lingers on and colors every character’s actions.

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