The Dramatic Question and How It Applies to Science Videography

In film making, the dramatic question is what drives the story.  Will the good guy win? Will the boy get the girl? How will the journey end? Once the dramatic question is answered, the movie is over.

In science videos, we often fail to identify, much less answer, the dramatic question.  We are even stumped at the whole idea of a dramatic question because we are so focused on the facts and on educating the viewer.  However, what captures the average viewer’s attention and keeps it is a story (and its underlying dramatic question).  Will the researchers figure out how to collect their samples from an active volcano?  Which scientific team will sequence the human genome first?  How will the scientists navigate a wild river and reach their remote field site with their delicate instruments intact? What motivates a scientist to endure heat, biting insects, and muck to study wetlands?  Why should I care about climate change?

Those are all obvious dramatic questions, but can often lead to artificial conflicts or exaggerated challenges designed to imbue an otherwise dull story with drama.  The viewer is not fooled by such blatant stratagems. So the videographer must take care in selecting and incorporating a dramatic question into a movie project.  It’s possible to be more clever about this and create a video with a dramatic question that directly relates to the science, rather than to peripheral issues.  Here is an example in which the dramatic question focuses on the science topic and is even used as the title of the video:

It’s possible to pose a dramatic question about nature, which is not answered or only partially answered because the research is not complete or it’s a difficult question to answer.  The videographer has the opportunity to use such an instance to teach something about how science works and about how answers change over time as more information is uncovered.  An effective dramatic question is perhaps asked by a non-scientist, stimulating the viewer’s curiosity, and then answered by an expert who proceeds to conduct an experiment designed to answer that specific question because no-one thought to ask the question before.  Here is an example of an excellent video in which the dramatic question is about a phenomenon observed by an average person: why do some millipedes glow in the dark?

You notice that both of these examples involve an amazing visual display.  What if your topic is not so visual or not so amazing to the non-scientist?  I think the answer is that you just need to work a bit harder to show how amazing your topic is and to frame it as a dramatic question.