At the center of every good movie there is a single driving force around which all other elements gather. It has the rage of a hurricane, the focus of a cougar, the horsepower of a Lamborghini. It’s not the movie’s star. It’s not a special effect. It’s not the most awe-inspiring action sequence or the most tear-jerking dialogue. It is deceptively simple, so sly and stealthy you don’t even know it’s there.
It’s a question.
Sure, a good story raises lots of intriguing questions, but there is one question at the white hot center of all the others.This is the “Major Dramatic Question,” or MDQ for short. Every good story has its unique MDQ. Think of it as the story’s nucleus. It’s a centrifugal force that propels the story along its path of action, accelerating it steadily and breathlessly toward a climactic conclusion. And once the MDQ is answered… the story is over.
You want one of these for your story, don’t you? Let me show you how to find it. The MDQ is comprised of three primary parts.
Most stories revolve around a single character, known as the protagonist. Really, protagonist is just a hifalutin’ term for the main character. Your protagonist is the primary player, the one whose story it is, whose desires, actions, and predicaments drive the plot. He or she is at the center of the events, the most important person. In Gone with the Wind, it’s Scarlett O’Hara. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s Indiana Jones. In Silence of the Lambs, it’s Clarice Starling. You get the idea.
Why do movies have a protagonist? Because it helps the audience to have a single character whom they can follow and identify with. To share his burdens. To invest in her dreams. We struggle along with Scarlett. We cheer on Indy. We fear for Clarice. It’s easier for us to feel something if we’re experiencing it alongside a single character, rather than several. Occasionally a film has more than one protagonist, but most movies have just a single protagonist, and until you’re experienced with screenwriting it’s best to stick with one.
It’s important that you know your protagonist. His deepest thoughts, her rawest feelings. But the visual nature of movies means that the screenwriter’s job is to take all those thoughts and feelings and externalize them into forms that can be seen and heard. Your protagonist’s thoughts and feelings must be represented as action. And that action needs direction.
A clear goal keeps the protagonist—and the story itself—on a directed path. The audience needs to have a sense of what the protagonist is after and to be able to follow how well he or she is progressing in pursuit of the goal. Even a sprawling epic like Gone With the Wind always stays connected to Scarlett’s one goal of winning Ashley.
The goal should also be tangible, meaning something external and specific. It would be too abstract if Indiana Jones were seeking “to maintain the balance between good and evil.” That would be hard to dramatize, hard to capture on film. It would be too broad if Indy’s goal were simply “to have a good bout of adventure,” or even “to defeat the Nazis.” These goals aren’t achievable in specific ways. “To obtain the Ark of the Covenant” works much better because it’s something we can easily see Indy acting toward in external, specific, concrete ways. We can watch the struggle, and Indy’s success or failure will be unmistakable. He will either get the Ark or he won’t. That’s a key point. The MDQ should be a question that can be answered with a firm “yes” or “no.
Although the goal itself should be simple, there may be a world of complexity beneath it. In fact, often there is a deeper desire underlying the goal. Something more abstract and internal. In Silence of the Lambs, for example, Clarice’s deeper desire is to silence the lambs whose screams haunt her from the night she witnessed their slaughter on her uncle’s farm. This is why she is training to be an FBI agent and it’s why she wants to catch Buffalo Bill before he takes another victim. The internal desire is often the emotional root of the external goal, signaling what is really at stake for the protagonist. Clarice wouldn’t be able to spend the entire movie trying to silence the screams in her mind—no way to show that—but her deeper desire adds depth to her surface goal of catching Buffalo Bill.
Simple, and yet complex.
The MDQ is the thing that keeps us watching, wondering how things will turn out. By the end of the movie, there will be—there must be—an answer to the MDQ. A “yes” or a “no.” Indy and Clarice both manage to achieve their goals. Scarlett fails, realizing she will never possess Ashley and that he wasn’t the right mate for her anyway. Sometimes, protagonists realize that the goal wasn’t really what they needed after all
The protagonist acts to achieve the goal. But he or she should come up against obstacles, opposing forces that block the fulfillment of that goal. When obstacles get in your protagonist’s way, there is conflict. Conflict is an essential part of the MDQ equation because it’s what makes a story dramatic. Most of us don’t want to watch a movie about someone sleeping. Or even achieving the goal without breaking a sweat. If it were easy for Scarlett to win Ashley, or for Indy to obtain the Ark, or for Clarice to catch Buffalo Bill, these movies would be absurdly short and painfully dull Just as a protagonist pursues a primary goal through the story, he or she usually acts against a primary obstacle. The primary obstacle often comes in the form of a person, an antagonist. Most people think of an antagonist as the bad guy, and often it is. Darth Vader is a classic antagonist whom we love to hate. But the antagonist can also be a perfectly decent person who happens to be at cross purposes with the protagonist, such as Carl Hanratty in Catch Me If You Can. So whether he wears a black cape or a cozy felt hat, the character who most stands in the protagonist’s way is the antagonist. The primary obstacle doesn’t need to be a single person, or even a person at all. It can take many forms—a beast (Jaws), nature (The Perfect Storm), machinery (2001), an empire (Star Wars), or even a whole world (The Matrix). All of these are the primary obstacles that block protagonists from achieving their goals
Although there is only one goal, there may be a multitude of obstacles. In fact, the more obstacles, the better. Many of these obstacles will come from an antagonist but some may come from elsewhere. Not only does Scarlett need to contend with the fact that Ashley is happily married to Melanie, but she’s got the Civil War, a dying way of life, a plantation, starvation, and three husbands to deal with. In the context of the story, these are all obstacles to Scarlett’s primary goal of winning Ashley.
Conflict comes in two forms—external and internal. External conflicts come from obstacles exterior to the protagonist. Internal conflicts refer to struggles within the protagonist’s own mind. Movies need external conflicts because they are easier to portray on screen, but the richest characters have both external and internal conflicts. In addition to Clarice’s external obstacles to catching Buffalo Bill—discovering his identity, soliciting information from Hannibal Lecter, deciphering clues, tracking him down—Clarice must overcome her fears of the dark side of human nature, as well as her insecurities about being a woman in a man’s job and of being a “country rube.” These internal conflicts give the story more psychological depth.
Conflict is the most indispensable element of a good story. It’s what happens when the unstoppable force meets the immovable object.A crashing together of contrary intentions that rivets us and keeps our eyes locked on the screen. Remember this: movies are not about casual events in a life. They are about the most crucial, challenging, earth-shaking events.
This article is excerpted from Chapter 2 of Gotham’s book on screenwriting Writing Movies.