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Driving Question
Trinity: It's the question that drives us mad. It's the question that brought you here. You know the question, just as I did.
Neo: "What is the Matrix?"

When a core element of the plot is a mystery. The most common variation would be a detective murder mystery (where the question is most often "Whodunnit?"), but also very popular in Noughties Drama Series, Jigsaw Puzzle Plots and Survival Horror. In many cases the question is equivalent to, "What the hell is going on and why?" which taken far enough makes for an Ontological Mystery.

See The Unreveal and The Reveal. Fan-Disliked Explanation is what happens when the answers aren't all they are cracked up to be. Failure Is the Only Option to answering the question in a TV series where the question is central to the show. Too many can lead to a Kudzu Plot. The Chris Carter Effect is what happens when fans give up on the writers' ability to answer these questions.

See also Central Theme, Detective Drama, Mystery Fiction, and Mystery Literature.

Examples:

    open/close all folders 

     Anime and Manga  
  • 20th Century Boys: Who is Friend?
  • Ergo Proxy: What are the Proxies?
  • Monster: what does Johan want?
  • Spiral: What are the Blade Children?
  • Mahou Sensei Negima!: Where is Nagi Springfield, and why has he been MIA for the past decade?
  • Ghost in the Shell: Who is the Puppet Master, and what does he/she/it want?
  • Paranoia Agent: Who is Shonen Bat/Li'l Slugger?
  • Code Geass: In the first season, who killed Lelouch's mother and why? In R2, it's what exactly is C.C.'s wish and, ultimately, where does Geass itself come from?
  • Digimon Tamers: What is Culumon's purpose?
    • Digimon Savers: What hapenned to Daimon Suguru in the expedition 10 years ago?
  • CLANNAD: What is this girl we keep on seeing, and what is her purpose? What are these Light Orbs we also see? And how are they connected?
  • Higurashi no Naku Koro ni: Why is Hinamizawa stuck in a "Groundhog Day" Loop? Why do the main characters keep on going batshit crazy and murderous? Who is behind the town's annual deaths?
  • Umineko no Naku Koro ni: For Ep 1-4 the question is about who the killer is. Is it one of the family members or servants, is it a 19th person or is it the Golden Witch Beatrice? For Ep 5-8 the question changes into Who is Beatrice?
  • Naruto: Who the hell is Tobi?. Alternativly, How can True Peace be reached?
  • One Piece: What is "One Piece"? Is it treasure? Or is it something Gold Roger personally treasured?
    • For Robin it is, "What happened during the void century?" and for Ace, "Did I deserve to be born?"
  • Arisa: Who is the King?
  • Popotan: Who are we looking for, and what does this person want with us?
  • A Certain Magical Index: What exactly is the Imagine Breaker?
  • Armored Trooper VOTOMS: For what purpose does the Secret Society need the Prototype? In the second half, it's who is manipulating Chirico and why?
  • The Haruhi Suzumiya series: What is Haruhi Suzumiya? Where do her powers come from? What exactly happened during the mysterious event three years ago that drew most of the SOS Brigade members to her?
  • The Big O: What happened 40 years ago that caused everyone to lose their memory?
  • Queen's Blade: Who is really the Swamp Witch?
  • Though it's fairly common knowledge nowadays, the power behind Dio's Stand in Part 3 of Jojos Bizarre Adventure was a major mystery at the time that wasn't revealed until partway through the final battle and required a Heroic Sacrifice to discover.
  • Yu-Gi-Oh!: What is the Pharaoh's true name?
    • Also, "What is something you can show, but you can't see?" This one pops up in many different situations, and has a different answer each time.
  • Attack on Titan: Exactly who/what are the Titans, where do they come from, and how do we stop them?

     Fan Fiction  

     Film  
  • Citizen Kane: What does "Rosebud" mean?
  • Green Zone: Who is "Magellan"?
  • The three The Matrix films all have one each:
    • The Matrix (for the first act, at least): What is the Matrix?
    • The Matrix Reloaded: Will Neo's dream of Trinity dying come true, and how?
    • The Matrix Revolutions: Is there a way to break the Architect's cycle of genocide and reload the Matrix?
      • Alternatively: have Neo and the rebels truly left the Matrix, or just entered another Matrix?
  • The Vanishing: What happened to the missing woman?
  • The Usual Suspects: Who or what is Keyser Soze?
  • Shutter Island: What happened to the escaped patient, and what is really going on at the titular treatment facility?
  • Exam: There is one question before you, and only one answer required.
  • The movie version of I Robot features this with Dr. Alfred Lanning's hologram answering the current driving question with the Arc Words: "That, detective, is the right question.".
  • Dude Wheres My Car
  • The Objective: Where are people disappearing to and why?
  • The Forgotten: Does Telly's child exist?
  • The Scribbler: Is Suki, who suffers from Split Personality disorder, killing patients at her high-rise halfway house and making them look like suicides? Or is it — as she insists, one of her personalities, the titular Scribbler?

     Literature  
  • Each Harry Potter book has its own.note 
    • Philosopher's Stone: What is Snape after?
    • Chamber of Secrets: Who opened the Chamber?
    • Prisoner of Azkaban: What did Black do, precisely?
    • Goblet of Fire: Who put Harry's name in the Goblet of Fire?
    • Order of the Phoenix: What is the weapon?
    • Half Blood Prince: What is Malfoy planning?
    • Deathly Hallows: Where are the Horcruxes?
  • The Dark Tower. What's in the final room of The Dark Tower?
    • There also used to be "Why is the Dark Tower and the rest of reality decaying?" but we eventually learn that it's all the intentional fault of the Crimson King.
  • Atlas Shrugged: Who is John Galt?
  • The 1st of the Otherland books uses several of these at once. What is happening with Rene's brother? Why is Paul switching dimensions? What is the purpose of this Grail organization, and who is their leader? What Mr. Sellars is up to, and many others. Because this book is widely considered to be an oversized prologue to the later ones, the answers are pretty well known.
  • The Chronicles of Amber (Series One): Who is Really Behind It All (where what "It All" is varies over the course of the series; a few are "Corwin winding up in the hospital", "what happened to Oberon", "the death of [insert name here]" (multiple times), "the attacks on Amber"). Some of these actually get answered, others turn out to be red herrings, irrelevant, or to have had multiple causes.
  • Under the Dome by Stephen King: where did the dome come from, and why is it there?
  • Stephen Fry's The Hippopotamus: What does Jane want Ted to look for?
  • Parzival: What is the Question? note 
  • Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea starts with, "What is sinking ships?" and gets narrowed down to, "Where did Nemo come from and why is he attacking ships?"
  • The Mysterious Island: Who or what keeps helping the survivors?
  • A Void: Is Anton missing or did he kill himself?
  • Futuretrack Five: The question starts out as "who is Scott-Astbury?" Since apparently he's some kind of Manipulative Bastard Chessmaster and the only person on record of that name is a publicly-known utter tit. It then becomes "What did Scott-Astbury do?"
  • The second half (Power of Three and Omen of the Stars) of Warrior Cats has many questions. "Where did the three come from?" "What is their purpose?" "Who is the fourth?"
  • A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin:
    • In the first book: "Who killed Jon Arryn and why?"
    • Who is the Prince that was Promised?
    • Where do whores go?
    • Will the series be completed before Author Existence Failure strikes?
  • The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde: Who is Edward Hyde, how is he evading police detection, and why is a respectable citizen like Doctor Jekyll covering up for him?
  • The main Driving Question of the Mediochre Q Seth Series seems to be "Who are The Organisation Which I Represent?" or, more specifically, "What does The Organisation Which I Represent want?"
  • In Rachel Griffin: Where did the winged statue in the forest come from and what does it mean? Who—or what—is the Raven?
  • The Isaac Asimov story "The Last Question": Can entropy be reversed?
  • In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory one reason the Golden Ticket contest is such Serious Business is because the finders will learn the answer to the question "How does Mr. Willy Wonka, who has been a recluse for ten years, manage to keep his factory producing the best candies in the world when no workforce is ever seen entering or exiting it?"

     Live-Action TV  
  • Dexter:
    • Season 1. Who is the Ice Truck Killer?
    • Season 3. What's the deal with Miguel/Who is the 'Skinner'?
  • LOST thrives on this. The Myth Arc is about the protagonists getting dropped in the middle of these strange, inexplicable and in some cases scientifically impossible occurrences and trying to puzzle out the answers to these questions. And there are many questions: "Where are we?" "What is the monster?" "How are people being healed?" "Will we ever escape the Island?" "What is the Island?" "Who are The Others?" "What's in the hatch?" "Should they keep pushing the button?" "What crashed the plane?" "What are the Whispers?" And due to the focused viewpoint, a lot of them don't get explicit answers. Season 6, however, cuts to the heart of it and makes it clear that the show's Driving Question is actually "Why are these people on the Island?" The answer has many facets that touch on both the A-story of the show and the thematic drive of the show.
  • Gotham: Who killed the Waynes and why?
  • Twin Peaks: Who killed Laura Palmer?
  • Veronica Mars:
    • Season 1: "Who killed Lily Kane?" and "Who drugged/raped Veronica?"
    • Season 2: "Who blew up the bus?"
    • Season 3: Both "Who is the serial rapist?" and "Who killed Dean O'Dell?"
  • In the first season of The Sarah Connor Chronicles, the Driving Question was how to find and destroy the Turk. By the second season, the question instead came in the form of a Room Full of Crazy drawn by a dying resistance soldier, and the cast's attempts to figure out the meaning of all the names and places written there.
    • And the overarching Terminator question: How can SkyNet be stopped?
  • The Prisoner: Who is Number One? Who runs The Village? Why did Number Six resign? (This is an interesting example, because whoever runs the village knows who Number One is and wants to know why Number Six resigned, Number Six knows why he resigned, but doesn't know the answers to the first two questions, and the audience knows pretty much bupkis ... and it's never explicitly cleared up either.)
  • Burn Notice: "Why was I burned?"
  • 'Series/'White Collar'': What happened to Kate?
  • Monk: Who killed Trudy?
  • Ashes to Ashes: What happened to Sam Tyler? (Whilst this was only an actual Driving Question in the third and final series, it had been brought up very briefly in the first episode of the first series.)
  • The X-Files:
    • What happened to Mulder's sister?
    • What is the truth about the aliens and the government's conspiracy?
  • FlashForward: Who caused the blackout and why? And later, when will the second blackout take place?
  • Doctor Who
  • Fringe: The first season was driven by the question, "What is the Pattern, and what does it mean?"
  • Babylon 5:
    • Season One: What do you want? (Also: What happened to Sinclair at the Battle of the Line?)
    • Season Two: Who are you?
    • Season Three: Why are you here?
    • Season Four: Do you have anything worth living for?
    • Season Five: Where are you going?
    • According to the Word of God, the spinoff Crusade has this as the real driving question: Who do you serve, and who do you trust?
  • Rather a driving sentence than a question in Homeland - "An American prisoner of war has been turned." The question is, is it true?
  • Castle: Who ordered the hit on Beckett's mother, and why?
  • Reimagined Hawaii Five-0, second season: Who or what is Shelburne?
  • Bron|Broen: Who is the serial killer? How does he manage what he does? What's the full meaning of his motive(s)?
  • How I Met Your Mother: Who is the mother, and how did Ted meet her?
  • The Mentalist: Will Jane ever catch Red John? Patrick Jane does find out who Red John is and kills him.
  • Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has three:
    • Who is behind and what is the true purpose of Project Centipede?
    • What really happened after Coulson's "death" at Loki's hands in The Avengers?
    • What is the truth of Skye's mysterious past, and how is S.H.I.E.L.D. connected?
    • The Coulson question has been addressed, but has led to another question — what's the deal with the alien corpse in the Guest House facility, and why is it being kept such a secret that you have to be on Nick Fury's clearance level to know about it?

     Tabletop Games  
  • Apocalypse World: "What caused the Apocalypse, and how can we fix it?" is recommended, though the answer of course is up to the MC and the players.

     Video Games  
  • Planescape: Torment. You wake up without knowledge of who you are, what you're doing here, and why you can't remember anything. The first order of business is to fix that, and it takes most of the game.
    • The Arc Words "What can change the nature of a man?" would also qualify. Also a double subversion. Ravel tells you the answer doesn't matter, and it's your choice. At the very end, you find out it's Belief.
    • Torment: Tides of Numenera: What does one life matter?
  • Baldur's Gate: Who is the "armoured figure"? Why is he trying to kill the Player Character? What do all these dreams and portents mean? And what is the Iron Throne trying to do and what does that have to do with any of the other questions?
    • In the sequel it's "Who is Jon Irenicus and what does he want from you?"
  • Neverwinter Nights mod The Bastard Of Kosigan: Who is killing off the Kosigan family? And what can you do about it?
  • Knights of the Old Republic: What and where is the Star Forge?
  • Jade Empire: Did Death's Hand have the Emperor's backing or has he taken over? Who is the scaly blue lady that keeps appearing to me in visions? How can you rescue Master Li?
  • Dragon Age: Origins: Where is the Archdemon and how do we kill it?
    • Awakening: Why are Darkspawn still attacking even after the Blight ended - and how are they suddenly talking?
    • Witch Hunt: What happened to Morrigan?
    • Dragon Age II: How did Hawke become the Champion and what does it have to do with the downfall of the Chantry?
    • Legacy: Who or what is Corypheus and what is its connection to the Hawke family?
    • Mark of the Assassin: What did Hawke do to sour Kirkwall's relations with Orlais?
    • Dragon Age: Inquisition: Who is responsible for the chaos in Thedas and the tear in the Veil?
  • Silent Hill: Several of the games run on one over-riding question.
  • Team Fortress 2: What are the sordid secrets of the Mann Family and their inheritors? Who is the Unseen Man in the photograph? Why is the Administrator involved? What are Dell Conagher's motives? What, or who, is The Pyro?
  • Metal Gear has several, the most prominent being "Who are the Patriots?" and perhaps "Who is Ocelot really working for?"
  • Baroque: "Who is the protagonist, and what was his sin?"
  • Chrono Cross: Specific to players who already played the first game - "What's going on and how does it relate to Chrono Trigger?"
  • Final Fantasy X: "What happened to Zanarkand?"
  • Armored Core:
    • For Answer: What do we do about the environmental destruction of Earth, and how do we save humanity (Or do we)?
    • Armored Core 3: What's going on in Layered? Is the Controller really malfunctioning?
    • Armored Core Silent Line: What's beyond the Silent Line?
  • S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl: Who or what is The Strelok? And why should you kill him?
  • F.E.A.R.: Who or what is Alma, and why is Paxton Fettel so obsessed with her?
  • Dead Space: What happened to the crew members?
  • The Half-Life franchise: What is the G-Man trying to achieve? And what does he want from Gordon?
    • Half-Life 2: Episode One: What did Alyx steal from the Combine?
    • Half-Life 2: Episode Two, second half: What does the G-Man's message to Eli mean?
  • Batman: Arkham City: For the first part of the game, what is Protocol 10?
  • Psychonauts (only the Milkman Conspiracy level): Who is the Milkman?
  • Dark Souls: How can I save the flames that sustain life as we know it? Another question presents itself later: Is saving the flames truly the right thing to do?
  • Shin Megami Tensei loves these.
  • Ghost Trick: Sissel has one driving question throughout the story. "Who am I?"
  • Myst: What happened here and who should I trust?
  • Both of the games in the Zero Escape series, Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors and Virtue's Last Reward: Who is Zero and why did he/she set up the Nonary Game? (Note that each game has a different Zero and a different Nonary Game.)
  • Bioshock: How did Rapture fall apart, and what is the hero's connection to it?
  • Always Sometimes Monsters: What are you willing to do in order to set your life right?

     Webcomics  
  • Gunnerkrigg Court: What exactly is the Court? (Which in turn is connected to several sub-questions: What was Surma's and Anthony's history with the Court? Who is that ghost in the gorge, and why is she trapped there? What the hell is Zimmy's deal?)
  • Sluggy Freelance: What is Oasis? It doesn't drive the whole comic, but it does several stories in it, and remained unresolved for a long, long time. There are also other questions that drove single storylines but have been resolved, eg. "Where is Teknokon One?" and "What are the ghouls?" (There are also other questions, such as "What is Bun-bun's past?" that are just as mysterious but don't actually drive the story.)
  • Stand Still, Stay Silent has quite a lot of those, although most seem connected:
  • El Goonish Shive: Why are the French Immortals amnesic? Who summoned the flame summon and why? The last question drives the New And Old Flames storylines. Other big questions exist but have been resolved, their solutions are not being actively pursued in universe or are not pondered by the characters themselves.
  • In Inverloch, the plot starts with the simple question "What happened to the elven boy who disappeared 12 years ago?". But even before Archeron can start his journey to find out, the even bigger question is "Why does everyone in his village seem to know exactly what happened, but nobody is willing to tell him before he find out himself?".
  • In morphE the seedlings have two gigantic ones that fuel their efforts. "Why does Amical want to train new mages?" and "What happened that caused everyone to wake up in crates with no memory of how they got there?". As they are captives in Amical's manor, the first question is the one which drives them through their mage training. The second question is what will drive them beyond there.
  • Homestuck progressed pretty quickly to "What the hell is going on?" and while there are elements of that persisting throughout, more recent driving questions are "who/what are the trolls", "who/what is Doc Scratch", "who/what is Lord English", and "can Lord English be defeated." There's also the lesser questions of "can Jack Noir/the Condesce be defeated", though at least we know who/what they (the Condesce is Betty Crocker, who is actually Alternia-Meenah).
  • Lackadaisy: Who killed Atlas May?

     Western Animation  
  • The Zeta Project: What makes Zeta more than a machine? Ro has her own driving question: "Where is my brother?" which actually gets resolved halfway through season two.
  • The Legend of Korra:
    • Who is Amon?
    • For Book Two: Why are the spirits angry?


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