The Dramatic Question and Suspense in Fiction

The dramatic question is probably the single most important element in an entertaining story. Even if you are a terrible writer, if you can use the dramatic question effectively, people will read your work.

The dramatic question lies at the heart of suspense, and, as my father-in-law told me recently, the rewards for writers who do suspense well are disproportionate to all other writing skills.

The dramatic question is why Twilight is selling millions of copies and the average literary fiction novel is lucky to sell a few thousand.

 Dramatic Question Suspense

The dramatic question centers around the protagonists central conflict. Here are a few examples of dramatic questions:

  • Is Odysseus going to make it home from Troy?
  • Will Romeo and Juliet ever be together?
  • Is the old man, Santiago, ever going to catch a fish again?
  • Will Michael Corleone save his family?
  • Is Captain John Yossarian ever going to be able to go home from WWII?

How to Create Suspense

The writer’s job is to pose the dramatic question, to make the reader want to answer “yes” to the question, and then to create suspense by posing obstacles to the question.

For example, “Is Odysseus going to make it home from Troy?”

  1. No, because there’s a cyclops in the way.
  2. Odysseus and his men escaped the cyclops but now the cannibals are after them.
  3. They avoided the cannibals but the Sirens are calling to them.

And so on.

Even if the the audience knows the outcome of the dramatic question is certain, even if they know the boy is definitely going to get the girl, or the famous detective who always catches the killer is going to catch this one too, or the good guys are going to defeat the bad guys, they will still read on just to know for sure, and enjoying every minute of it.

PRACTICE

Today, analyze one of your favorite novels or films.

  1. What is the dramatic question?
  2. What are three obstacles in the story that create suspense?

Post your example in the comments section to help the rest of us.

Have fun!

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

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  • http://bikerider.Writing.Com/ Angelo Dalpiaz

    I recently read, Sacrilege, by S.J.Parris. It is filled with examples of what todays post is all about.

    The protagonist is a detective in 1500’s England. He is sent to Canterbury to solve a murder and exonerate his life’s love. But the author has placed many obsticles in his way.

    First, there is a canon of the local cathedral who is plotting the overthrow of the Queen. Second, the protagonist is framed for murder. Third, there is a time limit for the protagonist to solve the crime, expose the canon, and prove his innocense. And during all of this, the author has created a populace that is outwardly suspicious of outsiders, like our protagonist.

    As each obstacle is cleared, the author places another one in his way. And each obstacle, while a plot all by itself, has its resolution jeopardized by the attitude of a populace who wants to see a hanging. It fits perfectly with what Joe is telling us in today’s prompt.

    And by the way, I recommend the book to anyone who enjoys historical fiction.

    • Marianne Vest

      It sounds good Angelo. I enjoy historical fiction.

      • http://dawnstarpony.wordpress.com/ Dawnheart

        i learned that i liked historical fiction, too! (if witch of blackbird pond and johnny tremain and across 5 aprils count.) i blogged about it, “self discovery” under literature

  • http://twitter.com/pootlesuzie Suzie Gallagher

    For a very specific reason I am reading Pollyanna by Eleanor H Porter. The specific reason is: I want to and am old enough to admit to liking 19th and early 20th century fiction aimed at young girls without blushing.

    Protagonist: Pollyanna, optimistic orphan
    Antagonist: Aunt Polly: strict, dour relatively young aunt, unmarried.

    the glad game, the man and aunt Polly all are potential obstacles to a peaceful life.

    There could be more and if I tried to I would think of them but then that would spoil the ending for me!!! (again) am only up to where she begins to meet The Man.

    There are nuances that I read now as a Christian I have not seen before so have downloaded a truck load of this kind of fiction (more examples please) for my vacation to the States next week.

    • Marianne Vest

      My mother, who often called me Eeyore, wanted to nickname me Polly (my middle name was Anne). Does that make sense? I think she was trying to cure my innate melancholia with a “happy” name. Bless her soul. Well that’s a very egocentric comment but I’m going to leave it.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Good for you. It’s your life, you can read what you want. :)

      Oh and have a fun vacation. Where are you going to be?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=527087281 Seth Barnes

    I had the dramatic question in my mind, “Who is his father-in-law?” Then I had a Darth Vader moment, “Luke, I AM your father-in-law.” Yes, I’m still getting used to that term.

    Loved the picture and of course, the theme.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Ha!

  • Marianne Vest

    The Marriage Plot – dramatic question.

    I recently read “The Marriage Plot” by Jeffery Eugnides. I would say the dramatic question was either who would the protagonist Madeline fall in love with (she has two suitors), or how would the marriage between Madeline and Leonard with it’s inherent problems endure.
    There are two men Leonard, a brilliant and extremely handsome, but bi-polar man who was not loved as a child; and Mitchell who is not as brilliant or handsome, but not suffering from a mental disorder. Both of these men are in love with Madeline who is the attractive and intelligent daughter of a wealthy New England family.
    The obstacles are Leonard’s disorder which is treated but the treatment results in his not being able to do his work (he has been hired as a biologist because of his brilliance, but when the takes Lithium to treat the bi-polar disorder he cannot think clearly nor do an adequate job at the laboratory where he got a job), so he stops taking the Lithium and has a psychotic break. Another obstacle is that all of these people graduated from a prestigious university, Brown, in the eighties when it was almost impossible for them to find a job. When the novel begins, they have each put all of their energy into getting a good education and now then don’t have work (except Leonard and he is going to lose his). Mitchell leaves after graduation to travel in Europe and India and has a spiritual quest that is fraught with obstacles to many to mention here. He works with Mother Theresa at one point.
    The novel is character driven but the obstacles are clear to the reader, but not quite clear to the characters as they encounter them.
    It’s well worth reading IMO. His use of language is wonderful.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      I’ve heard such good things about The Marriage Plot (and Eugenides in general), but haven’t read it yet.

      Good analysis. I’ve always liked how the tile is something of a pun on plot, and I wonder if there’s a philisophical question behind the dramatic question, Is marriage possible at all?

      • Marianne Vest

        There is a lot of discussion of semiotics and the idea that we define marriage and love based on what we have read or heard about it (that is something that Leonard and Madeline study in college) but it also includes the idea that we have to learn to love both by receiving it and by giving it and that love changes and sometimes not for the better. That was my take but the book is worthwhile reading for any writer just because the language is stellar. He has written three books and they are all very different and all excellent IMO. He is not paying for this ad ; ) – MV

        • Andrea

          Interestingly enough, I got the recommendation to read this book as a virtual wedding gift from a friend… not sure what she really meant by it :))) but judging from the aforementioned comments, and her knowing my taste, i think she might have hit the bull’s eye :)))

        • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

          :)

          I’ll notify him that he should be paying for this ad ;)

  • http://www.pjreece.ca/blog/wordpress PJreece

    The novel I most recently finished — “I Swallowed a Saint” — asks the question: “Will old Conrad die before he is able to make amends to his wife for having failed her in so many ways? Problem is…she’s got a terminal prognosis. Problem #2… Conrad plots a heist (with his son) to finance all these many amends he has in mind. Problem #3…Conrad reckons killing himself would make her most happy of all. Problem #4… the wife seems to be outliving her death sentence while he is ever more committed to burying her in style. Problem #4a…he wants (needs) her dead. Problem #5…etc. Yes, it’s a comedy. My agent is shopping it in NYC. The publishing world… that’s another problem.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      It sounds AWESOME. Good luck, PJ. Let me know how the shopping goes.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      It sounds AWESOME. Good luck, PJ. Let me know how the shopping goes.

  • http://www.youngaspiringwriter.blogspot.com/ Chihuahua Zero

    The red teddy in the picture reminds me of that one The Sims 3 murder mod, called Dexter the bear.

    My dramatic question for my book is “Can Bryan change Finn in one semester?”

  • Yvette Carol

    The book is called ‘The Lost Island’ and it’s by this up & coming exciting new talent called Yvette Carol. It’s the first book in the series called The Grandfather Diaries. The dramatic question, will Aden discover the secret of his own identity, and once he does will he rise to the occasion? It took me a long long time (about 5 years) to stop giving all the answers away too soon. I finally was able to mete out the clues and signals right throughout the whole book so that the full answer does not come until the end. God it was harrowing though. But it’s there now. The three main obstacles are that those around him have a vested interest in his ignorance; the fact that no one knows who he is accounts for why he is still alive. The local gang of bullies rough Aden over and for a long time he lies in a coma. The antagonist has sent two super soldiers to track him down and kill him, which they come perilously close to doing. Yet he survives and in the end makes it to the legendary Lost Island where he can begin his training in earnest….
    PJ…good luck with selling your book. Sounds delightfully complex.
    Marianne and Angelo, those books sound intriguing.
    Suzie, don’t be shy about it! Fiction for young people makes up the bulk of my reading material. Any time I deviate to adult fiction I crave getting back to my own genre. That material is just a big yawn-fest for me! I start to get claustrophobic in there with all that supposed ‘literary’ness!! :-)

    • Marianne Vest

      That sounds good. How did you figure all that out?

      • Yvette Carol

        :-) I know the author!! Ha ha

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Very talented :)

  • Carey Rowland

    William Shakespeare mined the depths of human ineptitude when he sacrificed two young innocents on a tragic theatrical altar; thus did he sound a classic warning knell about the deadly perils of human enmity.
    In the play, Romeo and Juliet, star-crossed lovers born of two feuding families, are bound to fall as victims of their elders’ depraved web of vengeful hate.
    But the goodly Friar Lawrence, man of the cloth, devises a plan–a deceptive plan (and therein lies the fault)–to outwit the depraved manipulations of Capulets feuding against Montagues.
    But, woe upon homo sapiens woe, human depravity doth in the end win, and defeat our better angels. Yet there is a lesson in the sad telling of the tale.
    The lesson of Romeo and Juliet’s predicament is weighed more heavily upon us by the suspense with which Shakespeare builds an eventfully tragic climax.
    Will the Friar’s contrived plan produce an escape for the young lovers from this damnable rivalry into which they were born? That’s the dramatic question. Suspense builds as Friar Lawrence dispatches a messenger with a letter to explain that Juliet is not really dead. She is only in a temporary death-like state brought on by a potion.
    But the best laid schemes of mice and men leave us nought but grief and woe, as Robert Burns once poesed, and Steinbeck later seconded the doleful observance.
    But a weak link in the Friar’s strategem–a letter undelivered–brought about, instead of the intended consequences of the lovers’ escape, unintended tragedy.
    Thus did cousin Will opt out of the Hollywood ending where they might have lived happily ever after. Instead, he penned, and lamentably ended, a play which hath provoked thoughtful ponderance of our fallen human condition for lo, these many centuries. A classic tale, but sadly, ’tis true; it doth ring true among the annals of human experience.

  • http://beckfarfromhome.blogspot.com/ Beck Gambill

    In one of my favorite novels, Jane Eyre, the dramatic question is; “will Jane ever find a place to belong and be loved?” Starting out an orphan, unloved by her aunt and sent to the even more unloving Lowood school, seems an unpromising beginning. Then, as it seems love is in her grasp through a relationship with her employer Mr. Rochester, her prospects are dashed by his previous marriage to the still very alive Bertha Rochester. After running away, and being offered a very practical but loveless marriage to her cousin St. John, it appears she will end her life a solitary school mistress.

    Toward the end of the book Jane has become a friend to the reader and it’s impossible to think that after all of her toil and determination she won’t find a home and love. Just when you think her prize is in her grasp it slips away though the tastes of joy she experiences throughout the story are enough to keep interest alive. I find the dramatic question “do I belong” or “where is home” to be one of the most compelling questions for a story.

    • Marianne Vest

      That is such a beautiful story. I agree that finding a home where she is loved is the main question. It’s amazing that she wrote that in those times with just a quill pen.

      • http://beckfarfromhome.blogspot.com/ Beck Gambill

        If I could evoke just a fraction of the emotion she does in that book I would be satisfied! She was truly amazing! Maybe the story is powerful for me because I ask myself the same question Jane is asking.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Great analysis, Beck. I agree. I like stories where the question is about belonging.

  • http://dawnstarpony.wordpress.com/ Dawnheart

    Pride and prejudice: will darcy stop annoying elizabeth? will elizabeth ever get married?
    witch of blackbird pond: will kit fit into the society? will kit marry ((that one boy that judith likes, i forgot his name))
    this is the one reason y i think my books sucks. it doesn’t have a good questions.
    or rather, my book has no focus because i dont kNOW the question.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Good job, Dawn. And don’t worry, you’ll find that dramatic question. It’s in your story somewhere. Just keep looking.

  • http://dawnstarpony.wordpress.com/ Dawnheart

    i’m probably breaking a commenting rule but someone should blog about nanowrimo :) (unless you have already and i am hopelessly clueless)

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Hi Dawn :)

      No commenting rule broken here. Yes, we might talk about that as november gets closer. I didn’t talk about it in 2011, but I probably will in 2012.

      Thanks for reading!

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  • Ralph

    I just finished reading “Killing Floor”, Lee Child’s first Reacher novel. The dramatic question(s) are: Will the protagonist figure out what is going on in the little town in Georgia before it’s too late? Who is going to die before the protagonist can identify and neutralize (aka, terminate) the bad guys before they neutralize him? (This novel was published in 1997 and there have been many Reacher novels since, so you know the protagonist triumphs. Still, it’s a great read.)

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  • Matt

    I discovered this post at the perfect time. I am an aspiring writer about to begin writing my first horror/suspense novella. Thank you.