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 compelling question in your script?
The compelling 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 a compelling 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 compelling question is an expression of theme in a very personal way which allows the audience to engage it in a WWYD (what would YOU do) way.
Whenever audiences can engage with the material in such a way that is both meta (the premise) and micro (the compelling 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 a compelling 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 compelling 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 compelling question is: Can men and women be friends without sex entering into it? Ever?
A SIMPLE PLAN: meta-theme: Greed destroys humanity. Compelling 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. Compelling 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. Compelling 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. Compelling 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? Compelling question: Could you kill a replicant that had human emotion – even if those emotions were programmed?
You can see that some compelling questions are more compelling than others. For example, the BLADE RUNNER compelling 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 compelling 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 there.