My wife and I watched the “Lost” finale on Monday afternoon.Â I’d been hearing a lot of annoyed rumblings about the end and I had to see for myself. I’m a fan of the series. I was a late-comer and didn’t start until after Season 3 but since then I’ve never been more than a month behind on the show. I wasn’t surprised by the finale. It was more or less what I expected it to be. I didn’t love it and I didn’t hate it. I wasn’t expecting it to answer all my questions, many of which I’d forgotten over the course of the series. In fact, I was really hoping that they would avoid answering all the questions. I was satisfied with the finale in that Â it did what it needed to do and answered the main dramatic question of the series. The main dramatic question drives the narrative’s action and is the only question that must be answered.
In the process of writing a story there is the formation of the main dramatic question. Whether we are talking about a movie, a television series, a book, or anything else you’re going to have that question and that is the question, arguably the only question, that must be answered.
The dramatic question that drives the Wachowskis’Â The Matrix is “Is Neo The One?” The story’s main action revolves around this question and it drives the characters. Â It is the question that must be answered, positively or negatively, by the end of the film.
Kathryn Bigelow’sÂ Blue Steel is driven by the question “Will Officer Turner catch the killer?” That question drives her to join Detective Mann in the investigation. It leads to her pursuit of the suspicious Eugene Hunt. It pulls us through the story until the answer in the climax.
In Rob Reiner’sÂ When Harry Met Sally the question is “Will Harry and Sally get together?” The characters drop in and out of each other’s lives until becoming friends and growing closer until breaking apart and ultimately reuniting to finally be together.
These are questions for the specific movies but they are also the basic questions for the genres for each of these movies. For an action hero’s journey film, “Is Neo The One?” is just asking “Will the hero become the hero?” For a thriller “Will Officer Turner catch the killer?” is just “Will the protagonist discover the antagonist and stop them?” For a romantic comedy “Will Harry and Sally get together?” is just “Will the protagonists get together?”
These are the basic questions that must be answered in the narrative. You don’t write a romantic comedy and leave us hanging as to whether or not our protagonists come together. By the end of the film we either need to know they’re together or not.
There is a desire to have answers to all the questions of a narrative. I don’t think that’s a good idea. It strikes me as one of those things people think they want until they get it. I like to advocate leaving things open for interpretation. Beyond just the general idea that every narrative is open to interpretation, I mean, specifically leaving questions unanswered. I advocate it not for the purposes of getting people talking or being trendily mysterious. I advocate it for two basic reasons:
- The other questions usually aren’tÂ important to the story and answering is a waste of time.
- The answer to the question is boring and/or just stupid.
These are sort of the same reason. It all comes down to that there are some questions that just don’t need answering, because that’s not what the story is about.
You can raise all sorts of other questions in the story and leave them out there for interpretation. Let’s takeÂ Blue Steel as an example. The main dramatic questions regards whether or not Officer Turner will catch the killer, Eugene Hunt. Why does Hunt steal Turner’s gun? Why does he become obsessed with her? Why does he decide to kill? Who is he talking to during his more psychotic episodes? Ultimately, none of these questions are important. They would not add to the story but would be dull exposition that would only slow down the narrative.
An example of when the explanation added to the narrative would be Demme’s Silence of the Lambs. Why Buffalo Bill kills adds tension to scenes and the film. It gives us our way to find him. Eugene Hunt already wants to be found. He’s not hiding from Officer Turner like Buffalo Bill hides from Agent Starling. His reasons for killing would be expository filler. Buffalo Bill’s reasons for killing are key to answering the main dramatic question of the film of whether or not Agent Starling will catch him.
“Lost” succeeded by answering its main dramatic question “Will the passengers of Oceanic Flight 815 get off the island?” The continuing narrative of the series raised many other questions and they addressed a lot of those but they also left a lot unanswered. Most just weren’t that important. The ones that played directly into the main question were answered. While I didn’t love the conclusion to the series, it did its job and clearly answered its main dramatic question.