The above picture is really from Disney’s latest live-action remake of “Pinocchio”. Put simply, it’s a perfectly example of what not to do when writing a screenplay.
While on his way to school, Pinocchio actually stops and studies a pile of horse droppings on the street. This isn’t just a moment that’s easy to miss. It’s drawn out to make sure you can’t not notice Pinocchio staring at horse manure.
The big question is why?
Here’s what every story must do. Put the hero in a dilemma. Then every scene, every character, every action tears the hero further apart based on this dilemma.
In “Die Hard,” the dilemma is that John McClane wants to get back with his wife, but terrorists have her hostage. If he takes out too many terrorists, he risks having them find out they have his wife hostage.
The solution to every dilemma is that one option (the most appealing one) is to do nothing. The other option (the hardest one) is to take action, and that’s the option the forces the hero to constantly question his or her choice.
Throughout “Die Hard,” John McClane is actually trying not to do anything. First, he tries to contact the police. Then he hopes the police and their SWAT team will take care of the terrorists so he doesn’t have to. Only when he realizes the police are incompetent does he finally take charge.
In “Legally Blonde,” Elle has the dilemma of being a dutiful girlfriend and possibly a wife of a man, or standing up on her own two feet and showing she’s strong enough without a man. Naturally, Elle (like most heroes) tries the easy approach first. Only when that fails is she forced to take the harder route instead, yet she’s constantly hoping for that easy route by trying to win her ex-boyfriend back.
If every story is really about the hero facing a dilemma, re-examine that horse manure studying scene in “Pinocchio” and ask yourself if this scene has anything to do with Pinocchio’s dilemma of trying to become a really boy.
By keeping your story’s main dilemma in mind at all times, you can use this dilemma to make sure you filter out anything that doesn’t support your story (force the hero to constantly re-evaluate his or her choices regarding the dilemma).
Using this simple tool would easily have filtered out the horse manure studying scene in “Pinocchio,” which shows that even seasoned Hollywood veterans still don’t have a clue what makes a good story.
Don’t make the same mistakes. Define a dilemma for your hero and make sure every scene forces the hero to keep questioning this dilemma. That dilemma keeps your story focused and that helps create a good story.