Posing Questions, Not Giving Answers

What’s more appealing? Seeing someone attractive who you have never seen before? Or seeing someone attractive who you’ve known for years and know all of that person’s flaws, faults, and annoying habits? That’s the difference between posing questions and not giving answers.

The key to telling a good story is maintaining the audience’s interest, and you can do that by continually posing questions that the audience wants answered. Each time you pose a new question, the audience wants to wait until they get that answer. This creates suspense and tension, which helps pull the audience into your story.

A perfect example of this is the original “Star Wars” trilogy that offered lots of questions. What kind of world is Luke in? Who is Darth Vader and what does he want? What is the Rebel Alliance? What happened to Luke’s father?

The original trilogy kept posing questions and answering some of them, while introducing new characters and planets to keep us intrigued.

Now study the latest “Star Wars” prequels. Instead of posing questions to pique our interest, these movies simply provide us more and more answers about the Clone Wars, who Boba Fett is, where Darth Vader came from, etc. Each time we get another answer without a new question, our interest dies just a little bit more.

In the original “Star Wars,” we had no idea how it was going to end. In the prequel trilogy, we know exactly how it’s going to end so there’s no tension, suspense, or interest.

In your own story, keep posing questions to your audience. In “The Terminator,” we definitely want to know what this Terminator is, where it came from, and what it wants. In “Thelma and Louise,” we learn that Louise was raped in Texas, but we don’t know all the details so our imagination fills in the gap for us, making Louise still interesting even though we know more about her, yet at the same time, we don’t.

If you watch a movie like “The Soloist,” you can see how a good idea fell flat in execution. “The Soloist” is a true story about a reporter who discovers a homeless man who’s a musical prodigy. Rather than hint about his childhood, the movie uses a flashback that gives us all the answers but poses no new questions. By the time we’re done with the flashback, we don’t really care that much about the homeless guy any more, much like finally getting to know a super model and find out she has bad breath.

Imagine if in “Thelma and Louise” we had a flashback of Louise being raped. That would provide us with answers, and dull our interest and interpretation of what happened to Louise, thus making her a less interesting character.

One technique is to keep posing questions and keep drawing your audience along until you answer those questions at the end. This is why sequels to hit movies often fall flat because by the end of the original movie, all the questions are answered. Then the sequel has to grab our attention with new questions, which it rarely does, making for a flat, dull movie.

Pose questions and answer them only at the end. You’ll keep your audience’s interest up a lot longer that way.

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