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 may obfuscate its meaning. The dilemma offers clues to what still needs rewriting, and leads us to the most effective order of events.
By definition, we cannot figure out a dilemma. In order to connect to it, we must become invested in our characters.
Sometimes we can hold so tightly to our idea of our characters that we choke them into submission. We 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. 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 writers understanding of his story. When we approach our story as if our protagonist is struggling with a problem, we try to “fix” it. This 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. 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.
Typically, we tend to see our situations as problems. We may believe that if only we got the promotion, our life would be better. 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 it. It is not that our desire is bad or wrong, but rather 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 find validation. Until the validation comes from within, however, my search for approval will never end.
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, unresolved situations draw us in: 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 feel disappointed. 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. 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 we explore every theme. 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. This desire manifests itself in very different ways, but it’s there. This is because our characters are all a function of the story, thus they’ll constellate around the dilemma.
For example, each character in The Godfather struggles with loyalty. It’s not just Michael Corleone who feels torn between his love for Kay and his loyalty to his mafia family. His father, Vito, struggles with his loyalty to his past values, 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. Each character constellates around this struggle for loyalty. In the climax, 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.