At the heart of every story lies a dilemma. It is not a question of whether or not your protagonist has a dilemma, but rather, how effectively you’ve explored it.
By exploring your protagonist’s dilemma, you are led to the most dynamic version of your story. The protagonist’s dilemma is your story’s source, from which all tension and conflict arise. Exploring the dilemma helps distill your story to its clearest meaning. It sheds light on what does not belong. The dilemma reveals those random digressions that are not germane to the central conflict. It offers clues to what still needs to be written.
But here’s the thing: by definition, a dilemma cannot be figured out. In order to connect to it, you must become invested in your characters. Sometimes there can be a tendency to hold so tightly to your idea of your characters that you choke them into submission. You are left with two-dimensional versions of what they could have been.
This is why writers often feel constrained, particularly in a “Hollywood story structure workshop.” Writers often feel pushed to conform to a formula. Story structure is not a formula — it is an immutable paradigm for a spiritual transformation. Everything you imagine belongs in your story when you can distill your ideas to their nature. When you understand why your characters are doing what they are doing, your story will explode with new possibilities. It will lead inexorably to an ending that is a total surprise, and yet utterly inevitable.