The Story Question — how curiosity saves the tale

Story questions in Marathon Man
An intriguing story question in Marathon Man: “Is it safe?“

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but a good story question has also saved the life of countless of tales.

In Writing Screenplays that Sell, Michael Hauge points out that when a character or event is not fully explained, the reader or audience ploughs on in search for an answer.

Murder mysteries rely on our insatiable curiosity to discover the identity of the killer. Our curiosity increases with each red herring.

A film like Who Framed Roger Rabbit poses its title as a question whose answer drives the entire plot.

Less obvious are examples involving curious objects and actions such as the recurring motif of a peculiar mountain in Close Encounters of the Third Kind or the reason behind Gatsby’s parties in The Great Gatsby.

“An intriguing story question generates curiosity in the reader or audience. It keeps us interested in the story.“

The longer the writer withholds the answer to a question the more satisfying the revelation.

In Citizen Cane, discovering the meaning of “Rosebud” whispered by the dying Charles Foster Kane to a reporter, drives the entire story.

In Silverado, the Kevin Kline character, Paten, is often asked, “Where’s the dog?” Our curiosity is piqued. Why do the characters keep asking about the whereabouts of this animal? It‘s only towards the end of the film that we learn that Paten was once captured during a robbery because he tried to rescue a dog. This does not only satisfy the audience’s curiosity over the unanswered question, it increases our sympathy for Paten, too.

One of the most riveting scenes in all of cinema occurs in the film, Marathon Man. The old, drill-wielding Nazi, played by Sir Laurence Olivier, keeps asking a terrified Dustin Hofmann, “Is it safe?” “Is what safe?“ the panicked victim asks, over and over again.

It’s true that the technique of asking questions throughout the tale is not enough to carry the entire weight of the narrative alone. However, used with other structural devices such as turning points, pinches, and the mid-point, such questions propel the tale towards its climax and resolution in a compelling way.


Prevent your tale from flagging, by posing a story question at strategic points in your tale.

One thought on “The Story Question — how curiosity saves the tale

  1. Gerhard Pistorius

    For any film the title is uselessly what sparks the story question. Home Alone – What would happen if you left a little boy home alone to defend himself from criminals. Mrs. Doubtfire : What would happen when a divorced man adopts the identity of an elderly woman and tricks his ex wife into hiring her as a nanny for there children? Jurrarric Park: What would happen if we were able to bring back dinosaurs and open a prehistoric theme park?. Story questions start with “what if… or could you imagine? However the most successful film story questions stand on the shoulders that is the opening image. One of the most effective opening images is that of American Beauty. The opening image needs to serve the story question. In American Beauty the opening image of the protagonist’s daughter declaring that she wishes someone would put her father out of his misery implies that Lester is truly hated by others. The very next scene we meet Lester for the first time in where he declares that in less then a year he will be dead. Immediately we are intrigued : The story is very down beat however we are curious as to know how Lester will meet his maker be it murder by his wife, daughter or her lover or even suicide. Yet another great opening image is that of Saving Private Ryan. A much older private Ryan visits the grave of the men who sacrificed there lives to save him. It links the title to the story question : What would happen if an entire military division risked there lives to save a single soldier ?

    In short : To make sure that your story question is answered begin with a powerful/meaningful opening image.

    In short


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