There’s an old saying about story telling where you put your hero in a tree and then throw rocks at him (or her). The basic idea behind this saying is that you need to put your hero in a horrible place and then make it worse.
When writing your screenplay, make sure your hero’s dilemma gets progressively worse. A single obstacle is hard to sustain for an entire movie, so that’s why you need a series of increasingly escalating obstacles that keep pushing your hero further and further into a corner until the only way out is to confront the villain and fight to the death either literally or figuratively.
In “American Hustle,” the hero is a con artist who gets caught by the FBI. That’s bad enough, but then the FBI wants to force him to help them catch four other criminals or else the hero and his girlfriend will go to prison. So the first obstacle is getting caught by the FBI. The second is being forced to go undercover and help the FBI catch four criminals. Now the pressure ratchets up when the FBI decides they want to pursue a corrupt politician who has ties to organized crime. This third obstacle makes the hero’s task even tougher.
A fourth obstacle is that the head of the organized crime syndicate is a ruthless killer who will kill the hero if he discovers that the hero is lying to him. A fifth obstacle is that the FBI has forced the hero to work with a fake sheik who doesn’t know Arabic, but the organized crime syndicate boss does know Arabic, so the hero has to keep the syndicate boss from discovering that the sheik is a fake because he can’t understand a single word of Arabic.
If that’s not bad enough, the hero’s girlfriend is flirting with the FBI agent while the hero’s own wife is flirting with a member of the organized crime syndicate and helps blow the hero’s cover by revealing to her boyfriend (the organized crime gun man) that the hero is working with the government. Notice how many problems “American Hustle” keeps piling on the hero? Each new obstacle makes us wonder how he’ll get away now, which holds our interest until the very end.
In your own screenplay, it’s easy to come up with a great idea for a story, but too often novices only come up with one great idea for a problem for their hero. What they need to do is keep creating more problems for the hero. Of course, before you do that, first decide how your hero will win in the end. If you keep piling on the problems for your hero, you may trap yourself in a corner and not know how to get your hero out, so that’s why you must know exactly how your hero will win out in the end before you start creating multiple obstacles.
The more obstacles you create (and know how to resolve in the end), the more you can craft your screenplay to toy with the audience and tease them with clues while hiding the hero’s final outcome until the very end. That creates an effective story that holds our attention to the very end as we wait for the final resolution for how the hero will overcome so many obstacles all at the same time.