Ep. 134: Crisis Questions for Your Scenes

What are crisis questions? Why do our stories and scenes need them? In this episode, I discuss the dilemmas your characters face on the way to scene and story resolutions in the context of the opening of Jerry Dawson’s science fiction story, Meteor. The editorial mission encourages you to collect crisis questions by reading and watching stories—and thinking about your own life. 

Ep. 134 Crisis Questions for your scenes Writership Podcast at Writership.com

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Wise Words on Crisis Questions

Characters make spontaneous decisions each time they open their mouths to say “this” not “that.” In each scene they make a decision to take one action rather than another. But Crisis with a capital C is the ultimate decision. The Chinese ideogram for Crisis is two terms: Danger/Opportunity—“danger” in that the wrong decision at this moment will lose forever what we want; “opportunity” in that the right choice will achieve our desire.
The dilemma confronts the protagonist who, when face-to-face with the most powerful and focused forces of antagonism in their life, must make a decision to take one action or another in a last effort to achieve their Object of Desire.
— Robert McKee

Crisis Questions

Today we’re looking at crisis questions. But before we talk about the topic in relation to the submission, I want to provide a clear explanation of what they are and how they work.

And before that, here’s a quick recap of the Five Commandments of Storytelling and how they are connected: The Five Commandments of Storytelling come from fundamental dramatic structure, described by Aristotle and refined by people like Gustav Freytag, Robert McKee, and Shawn Coyne. Shawn has also made the connection to the Kubler-Ross change curve, which describes the steps people move through when they experience grief related to change. So what does that mean? It means that stories are about change and the Five Commandments provide a structure that mimics the way people metabolize change. 

Most stories open with the protagonist minding their own business when an inciting incident comes along and upsets the status quo. The inciting incident creates a desire and goal to arise within the mind of the protagonist. As they pursue the goal, obstacles and tools arise, which we call progressive complications. An unexpected event, or the turning point progressive complication, happens, forcing the protagonist into a dilemma, which we call the crisis question. The protagonist decides between the two options and acts on that decision in the climax. Then consequences flow from there in the resolution.

So that’s how the Five Commandments of Storytelling work in your story. They also work in smaller units of story, including subplots, acts, sequences, and most important for our discussion today, scenes. 

Remember from the Progressive Complications episode that the Turning Point Complication forces the character into a dilemma? That dilemma, in the form of a question, is what we call the Crisis. The character has exhausted every reasonable option to achieve their goal—except the two presented by the dilemma. This is the character’s last attempt to achieve their goal or to deal with the impossibility of attaining it.

Two types of crisis questions

The dilemma your character encounters should come in one of two forms.

Best bad choice: This is just what it sounds like—a choice between two unpleasant (or much worse) options. Taken to the end of the line, we often think of Sophie’s Choice, a story in which a woman must decide which of her children will live. How could a person make that choice? That’s one of the reasons we go to story: We face difficult decisions in our lives, though thankfully it’s usually nowhere near that heartbreaking, and we want lessons for life about how to choose.

Irreconcilable goods choice: This can appear as two good options when the character can’t choose both, OR a choice that’s good for the character but bad for someone else. For example, in Pride and Prejudice, Darcy faces an irreconcilable goods crisis about whether to intervene on Lydia’s behalf after she runs away with Wickham. If he avoids the situation, his reputation and status remain intact, and that’s good for him, but bad for Elizabeth. If he saves Lydia from her mistake, he helps Elizabeth and the other Bennet girls, but it’s bad for his reputation.

Sometimes it comes down to a matter of perspective and whether you or the character focuses on the positive or negative. We could frame Darcy’s choice as being a Best Bad Choice, but that label won’t change the significance of the decision he faces: He can’t have it both ways, and it’s a difficult decision to make. 

Whether you characterize it as best bad choice or choice between irreconcilable goods, remember that a simple choice between good and evil isn’t a real dilemma.

Make it relevant

The dilemma must be relevant to the goal that arose from the inciting incident. It could be a choice between giving up the goal or going for it. It could be two different options related to pursuing it, but in some way, it should relate back to what they have been pursuing. 

Make it specific

We can learn a lot about a character from how they respond in these critical moments, and making the dilemma specific to the character makes for more compelling stories and scenes.

How can you make it specific? By showing what’s at stake for the character. For example, consider the dilemma of a whistleblower in a cigarette company during the 1970s or 1980s. They risked losing their jobs and future employment. If a character is single, independently wealthy, or has marketable skills that can be applied outside the industry, then the character wouldn’t might not agonize over the decision to speak up about the harmful effects of cigarette smoke. Give that character a family, mortgage, and no other skills, and it becomes a more difficult choice. 

Stakes are not only about what the actual risks are (objective content), but what it means for the character. For some people, their own death or the death of a loved one is the worst thing that could happen to them. For others, moral disgrace or failure might be the worst. This requires a little sleuthing to know what the character values above all else. Even if the reader doesn’t agree with the character, they know what it feels like to risk something important. If you understand and convey what’s on the line for them and what it means, you’ll write more powerful scenes that your readers can relate to.

You don’t have to put everything on the line for your character in every scene, but within the acts of your story, the stakes should grow from beginning to end. 

Dramatically obvious

As Robert McKee says, the dilemma should be “dramatically” obvious. This doesn’t mean the dilemma needs to be explicit, though sometimes it will be. It’s rare unless we’re given access to the character’s thoughts. The context or subtext should make it clear, however, that the character has to decide between two primary options, and that it’s not an easy decision. Sometimes another character will serve as a herald and say it out loud. In Master and Commander, the sailing master, John Allen (played by Robert Pugh), often fills this role of naming the options and showing us what it means. 

Scene to story

Your scenes don’t exist in a vacuum and should connect to the Global Story spine. The dilemma within a scene should affect the character’s scene goal, but it should also be related to the Global Story Objects of Desire, or their needs and wants. Whatever the character decides should bring them closer to or further from that story-level goal.


Our Submission

(Scene Analysis and Editorial Mission follow submission)

Scene Analysis


Story Event

1. What are the characters literally doing? 
Joey walks on the beach, looking at the stars in the sky, when a bright object falls and lands on the island.

2. What is the essence of what the characters are doing? 
My best guess: Joey wants to get to the bottom of what that bright light is.

3. What life value has changed for one or more characters in the scene?
Joey starts out having an ordinary day to a quite extraordinary day. But more importantly, knowing what we know from the synopsis, we can probably conclude that Joey and the other people living on the island go from safe to threatened, which represents movement from positive to negative. 

4. Which life value is most relevant to the global genre, the one that would go in a Story Grid spreadsheet? 

This always depends on what the overall genre is, but given the way the story begins, I think it’s a safe bet that this is an action story or thriller or horror. In any of those cases, the basic life value at stake is life and death, therefore I would add safe to threatened is the spreadsheet.

Five Commandments

1.     What is the inciting incident?
Joey sees a bright light in the sky that didn’t act like a shooting star. (Appears to be a coincidental Inciting Incident, as far as we can tell—nothing to suggest the aliens have arrived to liven up Joey’s day.)

2.    What are the progressive complications and turning point?

a.    Couldn’t be an airplane.

b.     It is growing bigger and brighter.

c.     Explosion knocks him off his feet .

d.    Turning point: Dad tells him to stay. 

3.    What is the crisis?

Implied IGC: Follow dad’s instructions or get a closer look at the explosion?

4.     What is the climax?
He runs toward the site of the explosion.

5.    What is the resolution?

We don’t get a resolution in this scene (we don’t find out what it is), but that’s because we have a nonlinear story—the prologue is 74 days after chapter 1, so Jerry is using the form of narrative drive that we call dramatic irony. More on that below.

To understand the missing resolution here, we need to understand the difference between scenes and chapters. Scenes are units of story—as McKee explains it “A scene is an action through conflict in more or less continuous time and space that turns the value-charged condition of a character’s life on at least one value with a degree of perceptible significance.” That’s a lot of words to say, in essence, a scene creates change through conflict and character action.  

Chapters are units of a book through which you control pacing and other elements of the reader’s experience. My hunch is that the author wants to keep us wondering about what Joey finds over the hill. And that brings me back to narrative drive.

Narrative drive is its own fairly big topic, but it relates to the information the reader and characters have relative to one another and the questions and emotions that pull the reader through the story. Anne Hawley and I talked about it in episode 108 in the context of the first scene of Mike Ward’s story Esperanza

  • Dramatic irony happens when the reader knows more than the character and is pulled through the story out of concern for the character (e.g., what happens to Joey?). 

  • Mystery happens when the character has more information than the reader, and the reader is pulled through the story by intrigue (e.g., what’s going to happen?). 

  • Suspense happens when the character and reader possess the same amount of information, and the reader is pulled through the story by intrigue and concern.

Of course, in any given story event, the reader will have their own range of emotions and circumstances that keep them reading or not. But we can use these forms of narrative drive with intention to create a particular experience.

Chapter 1

Story Event

1. What are the characters literally doing? 

Deciding what to do about an object that is heading in the direction of earth.

2. What is the essence of what the characters are doing? 
My best guess: the NASA team members want the president to agree to their plan

3. What life value has changed for one or more characters in the scene?
President and staff are in the dark to aware of the problem 

4. Which life value is most relevant to the global genre, the one that would go in a Story Grid spreadsheet? 

 Assuming this is an action, thriller, or horror story it should be a value related to the continuum of life and death. As written, it looks like unaware to aware that the problem exists, which would represent negative to positive movement.

Five Commandments

1.     What is the inciting incident?
President and staff informed of object heading in the direction of Earth (causal inciting incident, the purpose is to inform and get a decision)

2.    What are the progressive complications and turning point?

a.    The Earth is within its trajectory.

b.     If they wait until they are sure, it will be too late to do anything.

c.     Turning point: They have a plan to use rocket for another mission to slow down the object, allowing it to bypass the earth.

d.    Can’t knock it out of the way or blow it up.

3.    What is the crisis?

Implied BBC: Use the rocket or not? Either they forgo the opportunity to save the Earth or delay mission for military communications satellite?
*Is this really a choice? Close call. Some extra context to provide more meaning would make this more clear.  

4.     What is the climax?
We don’t find out in the submission what the president decides, though we know the NASA administrator recommends it. This could be implied agreement, but it’s not clear.

5.    What is the resolution?

We don’t get this in this scene, but that could be for pacing reasons. It’s highly likely that the resolution appears in the next page.

So what does this mean for these scenes? What would be the next steps for this submission?
My suggestions always depend on whether I’ve read the scene the way the writer intended. If I’ve read it wrong, you may want to consider if you’re intention is making it on to the page, but always remember that I’m reading a small portion of your story. No matter who is giving you feedback on your story, you want to consider it, but weigh it in light of what you know about your story. 

With that caveat, I would consider whether moving the climax and resolution within chapter 1 would make it stronger to resolve the scene problem. I would also consider making the specific stakes related to the crisis question clearer. 

Both scenes have most of the elements of a working scene with the exception of the resolution in the first, which may be intentional for the nonlinear story structure and the climax and resolution of the scene in chapter 1, which might be for pacing reasons or based on concerns of the submission length. As I said earlier, it’s quite possible that the next page includes these items.

If we had a climax and resolution in which the president agrees, we might say the life value shift goes from no plan to having a plan, which would be a positive shift. That’s a fairly minor adjustment.

The inciting incidents are clear, as is the goal that arises from them. The complications and crisis in both scenes are related to the scene goals and appear to be related to the story as a whole. So those are working. 

The crisis in both scenes is dramatically obvious. Notice that in the prologue it’s implied (Joey isn’t thinking about whether to listen to his dad or run) and in the chapter 1 scene, it’s more explicitly stated.

In terms of specificity of the stakes and what they mean, I think the prologue is clear enough if Joey’s dad is a typical dad, he’s going to be upset with his son for risking at least injury by approaching the site of the explosion. For example, is there a current political or military conflict that requires the communication satellites? Are the current ones malfunctioning? 

I think the chapter 1 scene could use more context so we understand what’s at stake with delaying the launch of the military satellites. On its face the choice seems clear. There is the issue of the budget, but we learn that if they don’t act right away and the object crashes into Earth, there won’t be a need for the satellites in the future. 

The scenes in general could use more context and setting, particularly chapter 1. We know they are in the situation room in the White House, but we don’t get a picture of the room or where people are in relation to each other that would give us a sense of the power struggle at work as well as the subtext. The key to finding a balance with setting is to understand that the reader will have an idea of what the average beach or the average high-level government office looks like, the objects that might be present, the way people dress in those situations, etc. You want to show them what’s unique about the place, objects, and people for your story. More specifically, you want to filter this information through the point of view character or narrator as the case may be and reveal what they notice.

Identifying the speakers more often with tags or descriptive beats and showing where they are in the hierarchy would also help clarify what’s happening beneath the surface. We don’t really have a status quo before the announcement, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing in the true opening scene of a story that is likely an action, thriller, or horror story. Still consider if a short runway before the announcement could help the reader become attached to one character before we dive into the conflict.

Overall, the action in the scenes is clear and the dilemmas facing the characters are as well. We can identify the story events, and see where the story is headed from here. So that’s great.

Editorial Mission—Gather Crisis Questions

As you read or watch stories, identify the dilemmas characters face after the turning point progressive complication. Can you identify whether they are best bad choices or irreconcilable goods choices? Are they relevant, specific, and dramatically obvious? Begin compiling a list of crisis questions from the stories and scenes you read and watch to use as you plan, draft, and revise scenes for your stories.

In the context of your own life, consider the dilemmas you’ve faced. Look at small and large dilemmas, as well as best bad choices and choices between irreconcilable goods. How did you feel when forced to decide? How do you decide? 

Keep a list of your personal crisis questions along with the circumstances that created them. Then, as a regular exercise, write about them. Your reactions and emotions can inform what your characters think, say, and do in analogous circumstances. Again, this is what’s really behind the advice to write what you know.

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