The dramatic question is probably the single most crucial element in an entertaining story. It lies at the heart of suspense.
The dramatic question centres around the protagonist’s central conflict. Here are a few examples of exciting questions:
Is Odysseus ever going to make it home from Troy?
Will Romeo and Juliet get together?
Is the old man, Santiago, ever going to catch another fish again?
Will Michael Corleone save his family?
Is Captain John Yossarian ever going to be able to go home from world war II?
The writer’s job is to pose the dramatic question, to make the reader want to answer “yes” to the problem, and then to create suspense by raising obstacles to the question.
One genuine way to build suspense is to have a false success, where the protagonist thinks they’ve answered the dramatic question, they’ve saved the world, they’ve solved the murder. Let your protagonist revel in their success for a while.
But, then, pull the rug out from under them. It always works…