Every movie starts off with a compelling dilemma, which defines the initial Big Question. In the upcoming movie “Gravity,” the dilemma is about two astronauts who get stranded in space. Right away, you want to know what happens and how they’ll overcome those problems. Another upcoming movie, “Captain Phillips,” is about a captain whose ship gets taken over by Somali pirates, so right away you want to know how he’ll escape and survive. Notice that both of these movies offer an initial compelling dilemma.
The title of “Star Wars” alone promises conflict. Yet look at the titles of these other science fiction movies that Hollywood rushed out to take advantage of the popularity of “Star Wars”:
- “The Black Hole”
- “Message From Space”
All of these movies tried to capitalize on the science fiction craze, yet beyond the poor story telling, the titles alone don’t promise an interesting dilemma. “The Black Hole” was Disney’s attempt to make a “Star Wars” clone and it’s basically about a starship that discovers a black hole with a mad captain who intends to go into it. Then idea of going into a black hole doesn’t really create an interesting dilemma, and then the movie screws up even more by never showing the starship going into the black hole until the very end.
So when you create your own screenplay, pick a title that promises conflict and create an interesting dilemma in the first place. Once you create an interesting dilemma, you’ve laid a solid foundation for your story. Without an interesting dilemma, your story risks just wandering and being dull.
Don’t think you need massive dilemma’s like saving the world. A drama like “Frozen River” poses the interesting dilemma of a mother trying to make money by smuggling illegal immigrants across the Canadian border. Now the dilemma is whether she’ll get caught or not. When creating any dilemma, you have to pose a question and then show us the answer. In “Frozen River,” the dilemma is will she get caught and the answer is that she does.
In “Thelma and Louise,” the dilemma is whether the women will escape or not and then we see how they do it. In “The Black Hole,” the dilemma is whether the starship will go into the black hole. Then we never actually get to see what happens, which makes the movie so bad in addition to its dull story.
Create an interesting dilemma, show us the consequences, and create a title that implies that conflict. Surprisingly, one or more of those elements are always missing from bad movies so avoid that and you can go a long way towards making a good movie instead.