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The Compelling Question

By Julie Gray

You've slaved away for months. Your script's structure is great, the character arcs are satisfying, the premise is original, the dialogue is snappy and organic and your story has a theme. Or so you think. 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," "an eye for an eye," "time heals," or "family ties endure." These are not themes. These are truisms and cliches.

Imagine Google Earth. The first thing you see is the globe. That's the equivalent of saying the theme of your script is "time heals all." 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. That's where you'll find an expression of your theme as a compelling question.

So one might go from - on a global/meta-level - "time heals all," to something very focused and compelling like, "If your brother slept with your wife, could you forgive him?" In other words, the compelling question is an expression of theme that allows the audience to engage it in a WWYD way - What Would You Do?

Let's look at a few examples:

WHEN HARRY MET SALLY: The meta-theme is friendship can lead to love. Compelling question: Can men and women be friends without sex entering into it?

A SIMPLE PLAN: The meta-theme is 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: The meta-theme is 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: The meta-theme is 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 fate of helpless poverty?

REVOLUTIONARY ROAD: The meta-theme is 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: The meta-theme is what makes us human? Compelling question: Could you kill a replicant that had human emotion - even if those emotions were programmed?

Take a look at your script. Can you articulate your theme? Don't beat yourself up if you start with something a bit 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?

Heads up tip: If your compelling question is too specific (would you marry Bob even if you knew he slept with Stephanie, like three years ago at that party behind your back?), try again and articulate it in a slightly zoomed out, more universal way: Could you maintain a friendship with a friend who betrayed you with your boyfriend?

Because movies are a vicarious and cathartic experience for viewers, posing a compelling question is a great way to hook them in and keep those behinds in seats. When audiences engage with the material in the meta (the premise) and micro (the compelling question) then the experience of viewing your movie is both universal and personal.

Meet the Author: Julie Gray

Julie authors the award-winning screenwriting blog, Just Effing Entertain Me and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post. Julie consults privately with a wide variety of writers and teaches classes at Warner Bros., The Great American PitchFest, The Creative Screenwriting Expo and has taught at San Francisco University in Quito, Ecuador, Columbia College in Chicago, West England University in Bristol and The Oxford Union at Oxford University. Julie lives in Los Angeles, California; her book Just Entertain Me: How to Be the Writer Everyone Wants to Read is slated for release by Michael Wiese Publishing in January, 2012.