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.
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?”
- No, because there’s a cyclops in the way.
- Odysseus and his men escaped the cyclops but now the cannibals are after them.
- 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.
Today, analyze one of your favorite novels or films.
- What is the dramatic question?
- What are three obstacles in the story that create suspense?
Post your example in the comments section to help the rest of us.