At the heart of every story lies a dilemma. It is not a question
of whether or not our protagonist has a dilemma, but rather, how
effectively it has been explored. By exploring our protagonist’s
dilemma, we are led to the most dynamic version of our story. The
dilemma is our story’s source, from which all tension and
conflict arise. Exploring the dilemma helps distill our story to
its clearest meaning. It sheds light on what does not belong,
those random digressions that are not germane to the central
conflict and that may obfuscate its meaning. It offers clues to
what still needs to be rewritten and leads us to the most
effective order of events.

By definition, a dilemma cannot be figured out. In order to
connect to it, we must become invested in our characters.
Sometimes there can be a tendency to hold so tightly to our idea
of our characters that we choke them into submission and are left
with two-dimensional versions of what they could have been. By
inquiring into the dilemma, we are free to explore our characters
in surprising ways, and our screenplay can move inexorably to a
climax that reveals a transformation.

STORY MAXIM #1: The purpose of story is to reveal a
transformation.

An understanding of transformation is crucial to having anything
more than an intellectual relationship to our story’s dilemma.
When we think of the word transformation, it may conjure images
of some grand occurrence, a vision of enlightenment, but
transformation is simply a shift in perception. It is the moment
that we see something in a new way. Yet, when we have seen
something a particular way our entire life, and then, in an
instant, we see it differently, it is both miraculous and as
common as dirt. When a transformation occurs, the tension
vanishes, the fight disappears, and we are left with a new
understanding.

WHAT IS A DILEMMA?

A dilemma is a problem that cannot be solved without creating
another problem. Many writing books talk about the dramatic
problem, the thing that the protagonist is attempting to solve or
overcome throughout the story. However, after years of working
with screenwriters and novelists, I have discovered that the
notion of a dramatic problem actually limits the writer’s
understanding of his story. When we approach our story as if our
protagonist is struggling with a problem, we tend to try to
figure out a way to fix it, which can short-circuit our work,
because underlying our protagonist’s apparent problem is a
dilemma. By inquiring into the dilemma, we begin to understand
the nature of our theme, and consequently, we see our story from
a wider perspective.

STORY MAXIM #2: Problems are solved, while dilemmas are resolved
through a shift in perception.

It is unlikely that most screenwriters are even conscious of
their story’s dilemma. In fact, I have talked to successful
writers who only seem to have a vague sense of it. They are aware
of the mechanics – that each scene must contain tension, and that
this tension should build through the story to its eventual
climax. This alone is not always enough to create a thoroughly
satisfying story. By exploring the nature of the dilemma, we are
led to more dynamic situations for our characters.

PLOT VERSUS THEME

Plot can be defined as the series of obstacles our protagonist
encounters and overcomes throughout the story. When we explore
these problems as a whole, we begin to notice underlying patterns
that reveal the dilemma, which relates directly to our theme.
Typically, we tend to see our situations as problems. We may
believe that if only we got the promotion, our life would be
better, or that if we lost weight, or quit smoking, or got a
girlfriend, or moved out of our parents’ basement, then
everything would be just fine.

Beneath these apparent problems is a deeper reason for why
we have not accomplished our goal. The fact is that the meaning
we attach to our goal actually prevents us from achieving our
goal. It is not that our desire is bad or wrong; it is that until
we reframe our reason for wanting something, we are forever in
bondage to the object of our desire. If I believe that when I
find true love I will be complete, I may set out on a quest to
find a mate only to discover that no one makes me feel complete.
I end the relationships, only to repeat the pattern again. It is
only after I reframe my relationship to completeness and
recognize that the experience must come from within that it
becomes possible to find a lasting relationship. Or I might think
that when I get a promotion, I will be validated, but until the
validation comes from within, my desire to be approved of is
never satisfied.

In other words, it is literally impossible for me to
experience validation through my goal of rising through the
ranks. It is only by resolving my dilemma through reframing my
relationship to validation that it becomes possible to get the
promotion, if the promotion belongs in my life. Sometimes, at the
end of the story, the protagonist discovers that the thing he
wanted no longer matters to him and that the journey was
necessary simply for him to reframe his values.

WHERE DID OUR STORY COME FROM?

Perhaps our story began as a premise, a character, or even a
single image, but beneath these impulses was a subconscious quest
for resolution. The creative impulse seeks to make order from
chaos, to contextualize a series of events with the intention of
making new meaning from them. As storytellers, we’re drawn to
unresolved situations: Will Jimmy Stewart leave Bedford Falls?
Will Dorothy’s dreams come true somewhere over the rainbow? Will
Harry Potter triumph over Lord Voldemort?
These questions appear to present a problem, but they
actually provide a context through which we can explore the
resolution to a dilemma. If Jimmy Stewart did leave Bedford Falls
at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life we would be disappointed
because he would not have resolved his dilemma and learned that
his life was already wonderful. Similarly, if Dorothy’s dreams
did come true somewhere over the rainbow, we would miss the
point, and if Harry Potter simply destroyed Lord Voldemort, and
that was the end of it, there would be no context for the theme,
which is that good and evil must coexist.

STORY MAXIM #3: The desire to write is connected to the desire to
resolve something we seek to understand.

By exploring the dilemma in our screenplay, we often see where it
exists in our life. By exploring its resolution in our life, we
often find its resolution in our screenplay.

EXAMPLES OF DILEMMAS

A dilemma is not a theme, yet, it is the vehicle through which
every theme is explored. It provides the ongoing conflict that
leads to the protagonist’s surrender of his false belief and,
finally, his shift in perception, where the dilemma is resolved.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of examples.
• I want love and acceptance, but I don’t want to reveal
myself. (Roxanne, Catch Me if You Can, Lars and the Real
Girl, City Lights, Burn After Reading, The Breakfast Club,
Tootsie)
• I want to succeed, but not at the expense of losing my
integrity. (The Social Network, The Candidate, Wall Street,
Working Girl, Network, Say Anything, The Ides of March,
Jerry Maguire, Man on the Moon, Amadeus)
• I want to move on, but I cannot say goodbye. (Ordinary
People, The Lovely Bones, The Sixth Sense)
• I want to know what happens when I die, so that I will know
how to live. (Harold and Maude)

Notice that dilemmas are visceral. They engage the
imagination and create an emotional response. Notice, also, that
every single character in the story wants the same thing, though
this desire manifests itself in very different ways. This is
because our characters are all a function of the story, thus they
all constellate around the dilemma. For example, each character
in The Godfather struggles with loyalty. It’s not just Michael
Corleone who is torn between his love for Kay and his loyalty to
his mafia family. His father, Vito, struggles with his loyalty to
the values of his past, and the new wave of drugs that threaten
to disrupt his family business. Kay is loyal to Michael, even as
she watches their love dissolve. Hot-tempered Sonny is loyal to
“Pop,” even as he is passed over as head of the family for the
more stable Michael. Each character constellates around this
struggle for loyalty, leading to a climax where the theme becomes
clear: Our desire to be loyal at the expense of our core values
leads to the betrayal of self and others.

DILEMMA TRANSCENDS GENRE

Dilemma is not a function of genre. Although there are basic
rules to genre – in a romantic comedy, the couple will probably
end up together, and in a thriller the hero will discover that
he’s incapable of overpowering the villain through force and must
change in order to succeed – there is no formula that we can
apply in exploring the dilemma at the heart of our story. Each
dilemma has infinite manifestations, and yet, when distilled to
its nature, it is universal.