Plot – Dramatic questions
Preface: So the reason for the “(( ))” in the copyright statement. Though I’m a big advocate of open educational resource sharing, I’m not ready to part with control over my novel. So in certain circumstances (such as the one below) I’m retaining rights.
One part of the course materials that students just never seemed to get was the concept of dramatic questions, which is perhaps my fault since its covered so quickly. I have an example from drafting the novel that will perhaps supplement the description in the courseware. A brief plot summary is needed to explain:
(( Protagonist Foster Conlin is a civil engineer brought in by court order to decide between two possible sites for a rebuilt dam on the Monongahela River. The Army Corps has chosen one site that will flood part of a river town, and some of the townspeople have sued to have the site selection independently assessed, ostensibly with the hope of getting the independent reviewer to order the dam rebuilt on the original site, which won’t flood the town. So one dramatic question is will Foster side with the Army Corps or the townspeople. While over time it becomes clear to Foster that the Corps’ site is the correct one, he falls in love with a woman, Annabel, whose house will be destroyed by the new dam, and so begins to subtly falsify his findings to save the house this new love lives in. ))
In the early drafts, Foster and Annabel come together too quickly, and so in this latest draft, I’ve been trying to draw out their courtship a little longer, and am adding scenes of them together. One scene I have planned has Annabel revealing to Foster that the leader of the citizen’s group doesn’t actually expect his review to find that the Corps chose the wrong site–that the lawsuit is really just a delaying tactic while they try to find other ways of stopping construction that will flood the town. This scene, in effect, answers the dramatic question of who will Foster side with, as it reveals that everyone involved actually expects the same result.
I was considering moving this scene up as one of the scenes extending the courtship, because it would help him to see she is taking him into her confidence and providing him information that will help him with the politics of the situation. Ultimately I’ve decided to hold onto this scene until deeper into the novel because it is too early to answer the dramatic question posed by the lawsuit. During the courtship phase of his relationship with Annabel, Foster has yet to begin falsifying data in his report. I realized he needs the double incentive of thinking he is siding with the townspeople (where his sympathies lie) and saving Annabel’s house to get him to begin falsifying data. Only after he’s begun doing this should I reveal that the townspeople aren’t expecting him to side with them. Once he’s made the decision to side with the townspeople by faking the report, then tension from the lawsuit drops (because he reveals who he will side with). Only after he’s started down this path should I reveal that one of his motivations was a misreading of the situation, which will raise a new dramatic question of whether he will continue down the path nonetheless.