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January 28th, 2020
Stories hinge on questions. Many great stories only have one question at their heart, a question at the center upon which the whole story turns and seeks to explore that question. Everything leading up to that question in the story is –for the most part- just building context for that question to occur.
For those who’ve seen American History X, that central question is: “Has anything you’ve done made your life better?”
The main character is hit with the full force of this question as he realizes the answer is no. He spends the rest of the movie trying to explore how the answer to that question could become a yes.
In the action movie, The Matrix, our main character Neo is told that he’s not “the one” which seems to be the whole point, but he’s never all that concerned about this distinction and is always more interested in what’s possible. The question hides a little later in the story and it’s phrased more as a statement. When the remaining crew are about to pull the plug on a trapped and drugged Morpheus, Neo says “I think I can bring him back.”
Any phrase that begins with “I think” is really more of a question. It implies: I’m not sure, I need to find out. Which is exactly what a question does to us. It sends on a mission to find out. A quest.
We see this in great literature too. At the heart of the Odyssey, Odysseus goes to the underworld to speak with a famous prophet named Tiresias. The prophet fills Odysseus in on the fact that Poseidon is upset with him and he needs to make reparations, but in addition to that, Tiresias tells Odysseus that if he cannot get control over his wild impulses that have blossomed as a result of war, he will never get home. That’s the question: can Odysseus change from a warlike state back into person who can successfully reenter civil society? This is perhaps the central question at the heart of all post traumatic stress derived from battle, and the second half of the Odyssey is dedicated to the exploration of this question.
Even in a book like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, we have a question. The monster, who has been hiding out behind a random family’s house and listening and watching their life secretly finally sees his own reflection. He comes to a great realization which answers an important question that has been building in the monster’s mind. The question is similar to that of the Odyssey: Can the monster ever be a part of human society? Upon seeing his own reflection he decides the answer to that question is no, and the rest of the story is really the monster dealing with the answer to this question, and eventually he flees to the snowy world of the north pole where Frankenstein finally loses him.
We are confronted with many questions everyday. We entertain questions all the time, in books, as they arise in our mind, but unless a question has an impact on our behavior – unless we are driven to actually go find an answer, these questions that we encounter aren’t in their best form, or perhaps simply aren’t a good a fit. The best questions change our life, they represent the points when our story hinges and suddenly goes in a new direction.
It begs to wonder..
What are the questions that have caused your life to veer in new directions?
You’re still looking for that question.