Critical Concepts

Dramatic Question

A basic problem of any storyteller or playwright is holding the audience’s attention.  Suspense is one of the most familiar ways stories and plays can be designed to do this.  Suspense engages the audience’s interest in finding out whether things will turn out in some particular way or that.  If we look closely at the art of generating suspense, we notice that the author proceeds by raising (i.e., prompting the audience to raise) a specific question about how things will return out. Such a specific called-for curiosity is what is termed a dramatic question.  Usually this question will sooner or later be resolved by our discovering how in fact things do end up turning out.  And at this point it is possible for a new dramatic question to arise, which in turn engages our interest in the sequel.


Susan Glaspell’s play Trifles opens with 5 people entering the kitchen of an Iowa farmhouse on a winter morning.  Three are men:  the county prosecutor, the county sheriff, and the owner of a neighboring farm who the day before happened to visit the house and discovered his neighbor, John Wright, strangled in bed, and Wright’s wife Minnie in a strange mind-wandering condition, barely able to attend to his questions, and with no apparent idea of what has happened. The other two are women:  the wife of the sheriff and the wife of the neighbor. They have come along to gather some clothes for Minnie Wright, who is now in custody in the county jail on suspicion of murder.  The two lawmen have come to try to discover what might have been a motive for Mrs. Wright to have killed her husband.  Without a convincing motive, the prosecutor will be unable to prove an essential statutory element of the crime of murder (in either the first or second degree).  These facts — which the playwright brings out by having the prosecutor ask the neighbor to review the events of the day before — are thus main elements of exposition in the overall plot of the piece.  They establish the initial dramatic question which directs the audience’s attention to the events that immediately follow:  will such a motive be found?  It turns out that, while the men are off-stage searching for clues upstairs and outside, in the barn, the women, who have been puttering about the kitchen, curious about certain odd details of disarray and reminiscing about Minnie before and after her marriage, come upon a key clue that enables them to construct what has happened, and why Minnie strangled her husband, probably in a state of somnambulistic fury.  So the initial dramatic question is answered.  (I forebear here to say exactly how, since some of you will not have read the play, and will still have the pleasure of discovering this.)  But this gives rise to a new suspense interest on the part of the audience:  will the two women (one of whom is "married to the law") reveal what they have discovered to the men.  This specific curiosity constitutes a new dramatic question.  This new is resolved in the climax of the play, which takes place at the very end (or, to be precise, before the last two lines of dialogue, which constitute the denouement).

Note that it is possible to conceive the structure of suspense in Trifles in more than one way.  We can take the dramatic question raised at the outset to be "Will the prosecutor come away with the motive he needs to get a conviction?"  (Note that this question is more specific than the one taken as initial in the account we just gave:  "Will a motive for the murder be found?")  If this is how we describe our curiosity at the beginning of the play, then it is clear that this curiosity is not resolved until the end of the play, when the women decide whether to tell the men what they have discovered.  But we'd want to incorporate into our account of the way suspense works in the play some acknowledgment of the complexities by which this resolution is reached.  We'd want, that is, to point out how the play proceeds to parcel out resolution to the initial dramatic question so conceived into two phases:  in the first, the women discover the motive, thus detouring us into a subordinate dramatic question as to whether they then will inform the men of what they have learned, and making the resolution of the original dramatic question dependent on the resolution of this secondary one in turn.

Some cautions:
     What the concept is not to be confused with.
     How to use the concept tactfully instead of clumsily.

(1) A dramatic question is always a specific point of curiosity.  We should think of it as of the form "whether X will happen or not," instead of just "what’s going to happen?"  Indeed, we should think of it as even yet more specific in form:  "whether X will happen or not; and, if so, exactly how, or, if not, precisely how and why not?"

(2) Suspense is only one of the ways stories and plays can be designed to hold audience interest.  Some stories will more or less forego getting us to wonder about whether certain outcomes will be realized, and seek to interest us instead in finding out why something has happened, or some other aspect of the meaning of the events.  And even stories that heavily exploit suspense can offer to engage our interest in much more. 

A reader whose attention is restricted to suspense is not only incapable of deriving pleasure from works that are constructed on different principles (appealing to different agendas of curiosity) but is condemned to only a superficial appreciation of what is going on in many a work that is artfully constructed around suspense.  Indeed, thematically serious authors who rely on suspense almost always take care that it serve thematic ends, rather than relate only accidentally to the reason for being of the story. When we are in suspense, the facts that eventually resolve our suspense acquire a certain emphasis, and skillful authors make sure that emphasis occurs to no point.  Instead, they will arrange for that emphasis to fall upon facts whose concrete connotations (larger implications) somehow lead to thematically relevant issues.  Sophisticated readers therefore will be in the habit of not just enjoying the resolution of suspense, but of being curious about the larger ramifications of whatever cluster of facts that answers each dramatic question it has been hooked by.

They will also be open to works that make it plain that they are simply not organized around suspense.  Such readers will be on the lookout for other sorts of interest the work of this sort might be offering to gratify, and adjust their curiosities accordingly.

(3) While some stories will turn upon only a single dramatic question, others will be built upon a chain of dramatic questions, in which the resolution of one gives rise in turn to the emergence of another.  Suspense plots that strike us as unified and coherent will not just present us with a succession of dramatic questions.  Instead, the questions will be linked by a particular sort of logical dependence:  the resolution of one will be a condition for the next one’s being relevant to occur to us. 

Hence, if we undertake to organize our reflections on our experience of a story in light of the concept of dramatic question, we will end up frustrating rather than furthering our insight if we "look for the dramatic question."  To do this is to proceed from the false assumption that a unified work of art will be structured around a single point of suspense.  As soon as we come up with one, we’ll stop our examination, rather than ask ourselves what suspense uncertainty this may have been designed to give rise to, or what previous point of suspense was resolved in a specific way in order for this one to have arisen.  That is, we want to look for additional dramatic questions, and we want to get clear on the specific network of conditional relations that make them, together, amount to a coherent and unified sequence.

(4) The point just made is one reason why we want to remember that the term dramatic question is not the same thing with the term exposition (as the latter is used in discussions of dramatic and narrative works).  If these terms meant the same thing, then either there could be no such thing as a chain of successive dramatic questions or we'd have to stretch the term "exposition" to cover the unfolding of information throughout the plot until its final dramatic question gets posed -- and then we'd need to devise some new term to cover what the term "exposition" now points to.  

There is an additional reason why we want to keep the two terms distinct in our minds:  they are related to each other as means to end.  The point of exposition is to put the initial dramatic question on the table.  The term "exposition" thus reminds us that even if an author has decided on what is to be the initial dramatic question, the problem of exposition (literally, "putting out," "setting forth") still remains:  how will this be speedily and relatively unobtrusively accomplished?  How will the necessary background history and situational facts be worked in so that the audience's curiosity about whether X will now happen can be aroused?  Even if we want to plunge our audience immediately into the initial dramatic question, it can take some imagination and some revision to figure out how to do this.  


This means we want to keep distinct in our mind the concepts of dramatic situation and exposition.  The situation presented in the exposition may or may not corresponded to what we are here calling a dramatic situation -- or even to the particular dramatic situation with which we are first made familiar.  And exposition (as the term is used in discussion of works of literature) is not synonymous with dramatic question

(5) Stories that set out to raise dramatic questions generally arrange eventually to resolve them.  But not every story will do so.  In rare cases, authors will chose to frustrate the audience’s wish for resolution of the final dramatic question. 

When this happens, readers will ask themselves whether they have merely been made the victim of a clever gimmick, or whether there may be some justifying thematic point in withholding closure on this specific point of curiosity.

(6) At the same time, it is important to appreciate that not every question a story raises at the end, but refuses to provide an explicit answer to, is a dramatic question.  More often, an ending will be so constructed as to leave the reader with the urge to make sense of the answer the story gives to what it has made into the final dramatic question.  Glaspell’s Trifles, for instance, ends with the women coming to a (shared) decision about whether to tell the men what they have discovered.  We are left wondering how we are fully to appreciate the complex of motives that resulted in that decision.  In other words, the play is designed to get us to think over (and perhaps even "rethink") pretty much the entirety of what we have just witnessed, in order to discover what clues it might afford us to resolve this curiosity.  Note that this kind of question is not (like a dramatic question) oriented towards future events.  Rather it is oriented towards causes of events already transpired.  It will be resolved not by waiting to see what explicit events decide, but by actively tracing out what is implicit in what has occurred.

If we act on this prompting (as the audience Glaspell evidently is presupposing will be disposed to do), we will start to see some of the play’s details in a new (i.e., additional) light.  And when we have arrived at this new set of conclusions — about the precise complex of motives behind the women’s decisions — we will be on a footing to reach even closer to the thematic heart of the play, its ultimate reason-for-being.  We will start to glimpse, and feel the urge to get even clearer about, the more basic issues the play is designed to get its audience to think about.

In other stories the curiosity we are left with may have to do not with a character’s motive for having acted as he turned out to act, but with what we are to understand as the larger symbolic ramifications of some element in the story we have come to suspect is functioning symbolically.  Here again we have to do not with a dramatic question (a forward-looking, event-oriented curiosity), but with a special sort of reflective question, i.e., one that "bends back upon" some aspect of the action that we’ve just witnessed.

(7) The term dramatic question was originally invented to point to a certain feature found to be common in the plot construction of theatrical works, it is not restricted to plays.  But it is in principle just as applicable to narrative as to dramatic works.

(8) At this point it is perhaps useful to remind ourselves once again that the term "dramatic" as incorporated in the term dramatic question has nothing to do with "dramatic" in the sense of "sensational" or even "emphatic" or "obvious" — as when the newscasters breathlessly announce some "dramatic events" in Washington or wherever.  A dramatic question, whether in a play or story (or poem), can perfectly be quite unassuming or subtle.  It need only be interesting.  Specifically, it engages our interest in how a particular possible outcome will be fulfilled or not. 

(9) Finally, it is worth reminding ourselves that the concept of dramatic question is logically distinct from the concept of dramatic situation.  Since both notions point to important aspects of the way plot works in dramatic and narrative works, it is worth the effort to keep them distinct in our minds and usage.  The two are related, of course, and part of understanding each is being clear about exactly how this can be so.

The dramatic question that Trifles presents us with at the outset is "Will a motive be found for Minnie to have killed her husband?" (or, alternatively:  will the prosecutor end up with the evidence he needs to convict his suspect of John Wright's death?")  As the action unfolds, the first question (in formulation 1) is resolved (yes, it is discovered, by the women) or (in formulation 2) is intensified and made more specific.  The dramatic question now becomes:  will the women tell the men what they have discovered.  (This question is resolved at the climax of the play, which in this case comes just before the final two lines, with the women's mutual decision to keep their discovery to themselves.)  

 The dramatic situation has to do with the conflict of wills, desires, animate agents, or inanimate forces that the play seeks to engage our emersion in -- to solicit our identifications and sympathies, and  and arouse our antipathies, within..  Note that there are several conflicts of will (and/or will and impulse, will and institution) that are important in the larger situation the play brings to our attention.  

  1. There is the general conflict we come to know about between Minnie and John (his suppression of her need for companionship, through his own incommunicability, his frustration of any impulse on her part to visit the neighbors or even to participate in church affairs, his refusal to bring a telephone into the house), culminating in the specific conflict on the crucial evening:  the husband's flying into a rage at the singing of the canary that has always irritated him, his wringing its neck in front of his wife, her struggle (ultimately unsuccessful)  to get control of her feelings (by turning to her sewing), and finally her somnambulistic strangling of her husband asleep in is bed.
  2. There is the conflict that develops in the course of the play itself (i.e., presented before our eyes, in the present) between the two wives on the one hand and the men folk on the other.  The men repeatedly behave towards the women in a condescending way, belittling their concerns -- and women's work in general -- as "trifles" (in comparison with the important things of life, with which it is the business of men to be concerned).  The women register this attitude from the outset, and increasingly show signs of their resentment of it.  (Their resentment is of course one of the chief factors in motivating their decision, in the play's climax, to keep what they have learned from the men, not only to protect Minnie from what they consider a distorted system of justice but as a revenge against a general male address towards females to which they themselves, along with Minnie, have been subjected).
  3. There is the conflict that emerges from time to time between the two women themselves before they come to their tacit agreement to withhold knowledge of what they have found from the men.
  4. There is the conflict within each of the women, and particularly within Mrs. Peters, who is "married to the law" (the county sheriff), as to whether she will conspire with the other to "obstruct justice" (a felony in its own right) in order to prevent a grave injustice as she privately sees it.  We can think of such a conflict as a conflict of wills within the protagonist(s):  the will to do the right thing as one has been taught, and the will to do the right thing as one has come to see it.

None of these situations (these conflicts)  is identical with the dramatic question.  Equally obvious, though, is that each is importantly "involved with" (a far looser relationship than identity!) with the dramatic question.  Let's take formulation 1 of the initial dramatic question:  "Will a motive be found for Minnie to have killed her husband?"  

How about if we take formulation 2 of the initial dramatic question:  "Will the prosecutor end up with the evidence he needs to convict his suspect of John Wright's death?"  Or how about if we take the second dramatic question that emerges with the resolution of formulation 1 of the initial dramatic question?

The other 3 conflicts we noted above -- between the women and the men of the play, between the two women, within each of the women -- are not the same as any of the dramatic questions (in either formulation) we have been considering as structuring the audience's attention in the play.  

[Incidentally, not all of the conflicts we have summarized above constitute the play's dramatic situation, as that term is used in precise parlance.  For more on this, see  here.]

Part of what tempts us to confusion between dramatic question and dramatic situation is that both terms are associated with the term resolution (and its relatives resolve and resolving),  but that this latter term itself carries logically different meanings in the two contexts.  We can speak of dramatic questions as getting resolved (when they do).  And we can speak of conflicts in general (or "conflictive situations") and of dramatic situations (in particular) as getting resolved.  But the term "resolution" is actually carrying a different sense in these phrases.