Create Tension with Emotional Dilemmas

In every story, the hero should be caught in a dilemma. That dilemma forces the hero to either stay stuck in their dead end life or go through the process of changing to become a new and better person. That means every story is really a tug of war between two opposing ideas. Usually this tug of war is a battle between the easy way out and the hard way out.

In romances like “Sleepless in Seattle,” the easy way out for the hero is to go out with the wrong person. The hard way out is to take a chance, risk getting nothing, and striving for the perfect person with no guarantee of success.

In “Sleepless in Seattle,” the hero has just started dating a woman who likes him a lot. Unfortunately, the hero’s son does not like this woman and feels that she’s wrong for the hero.

The easy way out is for the hero to date a woman who already likes him. The hard way out is for the hero to fly across the country and meet a woman he doesn’t even know.

Everything works against the hero from achieving the hard way (which is why it’s so difficult). Everything seems much easier to choose the easy way, but heroes in every story must choose the hard way because it’s always more dramatically interesting.

What makes a great action story isn’t the action, but this dilemma the hero must overcome. In “Soul,” the hero yearns to become a professional jazz musician, but his mother pushes him to take a safe job as a music teacher in a public school. So the hero’s choice is to stay with the safe job or take a chance becoming a professional jazz musician.

For any story to be interesting, the hero must choose the hard way out, but what makes stories special is how pursuit of the hard way changes the hero from selfish to selfless.

In “Soul,” the hero selfishly wants to be a professional jazz musician. When he finally gets a chance, he realizes that his dream was great, but that it still didn’t fulfill him. That’s when he changes and cares for the friend he made in the afterlife (nicknamed 22).

Suddenly he risks losing her long sought after goal to save his friend, 22, from becoming a lost soul for eternity.

So the real story starts out as a tug of war dilemma, but the hero has to choose the hard way out. In pursuit of this hard way, the hero changes as a person and becomes less selfish and more selfless, which is the real goal of the hero all along.

In “Star Wars,” Luke started out just wanting an adventure for himself (selfish). Only later does he start becoming selfless by first rescuing Princess Leia and then risking his life to blow up the Death Star to save the rebel base (and Princess Leia).

In your own story, plot out the structure like this:

  • What’s the easy way out for the hero?
  • What’s the hard way out for the hero?
  • How does pursuing the hard way out change the hero from selfish to selfless?
  • Once the hero becomes selfless, how can they finally triumph in the end?

Always make your hero choose between the easy way out and the hard way out. That’s the essence of drama.

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