Active Questions are perhaps one of the most important aspects of your script and yet they are the often something that screenwriters leave up to chance. However, by strategically planning and mapping these questions and answers out before you write your script, you can get a much clearer idea of what it is that you are trying to work towards in your script.
So what is an active question? An active question is any question posed by the story that the audience seeks an answer to. A person is murdered and we don't know who did it. The active question is, 'who killed them?'. Another question might be, 'why did they kill that person?'. A heist movie might have a question built around the team's capabilities; 'will they be able to succeed in robbing the bank?'.
For many writers, one active question, to be resolved through the entire story, is enough. However, each act can have its own active question. In the same way that understanding these questions can help guide your writing, they can also help guide the structure of your story as well. I wrote a post about this before so be sure to read that!
Seriously, understanding your active questions can be one of the best ways of overcoming writer's block. Rather than writing to achieve an overarching resolution or to build up some key element that will flow throughout the rest of the story, think smaller and just write what you need to answer the active question of that act.
Okay, let's look at The Truman Show as a case study on how active questions can be used to help you structure your story.
The Truman Show is about Jim Carrey's Truman Burbank, who learns that his whole life has been one giant reality television show for the world's amusement. He tries to orchestrate an escape from this show and take back control of his life.
The film has three key active questions regarding Truman's predicament.
1. How will he realise the reality of his situation?
2. How will he use this new knowledge?
3. Will he escape?
Okay, let's unpack these questions. The first question for the audience is 'how will he realise the reality of his situation?'. A lot of people might think the question should be 'will he realise the reality of it?', but this is not true. Remember, we the audience already know he's going to figure it out. It's in the trailer, the marketing material, and we already know subconsciously that he's going to figure it out. Otherwise, this would be a very boring an uneventful movie. So instead, the drama comes from the suspense of not knowing what will be that moment when he learns.
The answer to this question segues into the second active questions:
The second question, 'how will he use this new knowledge?' is an important one. Watching Jim Carrey do his thing in this giant set piece is exactly why we have come to watch this movie. We want to see him be funny and do crazy things. We want to see him irritate Laura Linney and Ed Harris and so on.
The answer to this question is, 'he will try to escape'. This leads us into act 3...
Where we watch Truman try to escape against all odds. The third question, 'will he escape' is resolved in the end when he signs off to his beloved audience and steps through the door.
Notice how each active question sets up the next. Notice how the resolution of each signals the end of an act. By breaking down your active questions and answers in this way, you can structure your story in a very clear manner, understand the functionality of each act in your story and write with greater purpose (to resolve the active questions).
At the end of the day, the active questions are there to keep the audience engaged. It is not enough to just have one question because the audience will play out every conceivable scenario in their minds to resolve that question, especially if they find themselves getting bored. In the same way, a magician doesn't just perform one trick at a show, so too should a screenwriter never hang their entire dramatic structure on answering one question.
Remember, even a 'whodunnit' murder mystery has more than one question (how did they die, who killed them and why?). But a great 'whodunnit' will always have a third act twist. They'll give you the solution to the murder at the end of act 2 or beginning of act 3 and then give you one more question to keep you on tenterhooks until the end.
To recap: Make sure your story has more than one active question driving the story forward and make sure that the questions are in sync with what the audience is looking for (remember, the audience knows that Truman is going to figure it out - it's a question of how not if). Then, have each question lead into the next so that there is a fluid drive forward. Finally, keep in mind that you can still have other questions in the story. Remember, we haven't even scratched the surface of Truman's relationship arc in the film (will they get together?) and so on. Happy writing!