How an Editor Can Shape and Sustain Story Tension
If a story that should be interesting is shaping up to be a bit boring, it is helpful to understand one of the key drivers behind an audience’s interest: Dramatic Questions.
A dramatic question is a question that implies an action and has something at stake.
What does this have to do with editing?
Usually it is the writer’s job to create these questions in a story, but sometimes an editor has to help them along. The editor is responsible for shaping the audience experience of dramatic questions — when they are raised and when they are resolved, how much emphasis is given to them.
Here are three tips for shaping and sustaining dramatic questions:
1. Make Sure You Know What Your Dramatic Questions Are
Talk to the writer and/or director and agree on the dramatic questions. Speak them out loud, even write them down and post them on your edit suite’s wall.
A dramatic question almost always starts with the word : ‘will.’ Will someone do something, say something or get something.
For example: “Does Joe like Liz” is not a dramatic question. “Will Joe hook up with Liz?” is a dramatic question because an action is implied (Joe hooking up with Liz, or not) and something is at stake: the relationship. If you know what your dramatic questions are then you can choose shots and shape sequences that follow the characters as they pursue their goals, and heighten our tension – our hope and fear – about what is at stake. If you don’t know what your dramatic questions are, it is easy to get distracted, and put in unnecessary stuff.
2. Don’t Answer Dramatic Questions Without Raising New Ones
(Unless it is the end of the story.) In order to keep us wondering what happens next we need to know what action is implied and what is at stake. If Joe hooks up with Liz and they live happily ever after it had better be the end of the movie. If Joe hooks up with Liz but is then offered a job overseas we have a new question: “Will Joe choose the job or the relationship?” Action implied? Choosing. Stakes? Career and relationship.
3. If Your Script Answers Questions Without Raising New Ones, Try Using Ellipsis.
If you have a scene in a bar where the question is “Will Joe hook up with Liz” and at the end of the scene they leave the bar in each other’s arms, we know the answer. That’s fine, unless the next scene is one of them in bed together, and there is no new question. Try cutting off the end of the bar scene so we don’t know the answer. That way, seeing them in bed is a revelation, not a repetition. You may even be able to insert other scenes in between, keep us wondering about Joe and Liz while you raise a new question in another part of the story. Then, when you answer your first question, you have a second one open and in play.
Excerpted from: Cutting Rhythms, Shaping the Film Edit by Karen Pearlman ©Elsevier 2009