We’ve all seen bad movies. Those movies simply show lots of action (“The 355”) or pretty set designs (“Don’t Worry, Darling”) but fail to tell a compelling story. A great story has nothing to do with special effects, A-list stars, or fight scenes. A compelling story has everything to do with forcing a hero into a dilemma.
In the movie “To Leslie,” the whole story is about a single mother who wins the lottery, and then proceeds to throw all that money away by becoming an alcoholic until she’s lost it all. Now her dilemma is whether to stay an alcoholic or get sober.
That’s it, but that’s all you need to tell a compelling story because watching a character struggle between two opposite extremes of a dilemma is fascinating.
On one hand, the hero wants to keep drinking and she’s constantly tempted to drink as a way to ease her pain. On the other hand, she wants to stop drinking so she can repair her relationship with her son, fall in love again, get off the street, and achieve her original dream of running her own diner one day.
So the easy solution is always to stay where she is. That means stealing money from her son and her son’s friends, getting kicked out of the houses of people trying to help her because they won’t tolerate her lying and stealing, and feeling like a loser because she’s homeless and living in the street.
However, the hero wants to change because she really loves her son and wants a real relationship with him again based on trust and respect. The hero also doesn’t want to feel like a loser, doesn’t want to keep living in the street, and doesn’t want to give up on her dream of running a diner of her own one day.
So that’s the dilemma. The hero is constantly tempted to stay drunk by looking for easy solutions such as getting men to buy her drinks and take care of her for sex in exchange for her having a place to live. However, the hero keeps pursuing her dream and that’s what keeps forcing her to change.
Think of every great movie and the dilemma is always the same. In “Titanic,” the dilemma the hero faces is to take the easy way out (and marry a man she doesn’t even like just for the money) or take the hard way and strive for a better life with no guarantee of success.
In “Hacksaw Ridge,” the dilemma is that a man doesn’t want to touch a weapon or hurt anyone, yet he’s in the army and sent to a deadly battlefield called Hacksaw Ridge because so many American and Japanese soldiers keep getting killed there.
Every great story is about a dilemma that the hero struggles with from start to finish. The path to change is the real story. Not special effects, fancy stunt work, or explosions. None of that matters if we don’t care about the hero and we don’t see the hero change in an emotionally meaningful way.
Watch a favorite movie and it’s never because you want to see the story again, but because you want to experience the emotional change in the hero. Once you know where your hero starts and where he or she ends up, you’ll know how to make that struggle to change as hard as possible.
The hero in “To Leslie” is a former lottery winner who used her money to buy alcohol and become an alcoholic who can’t even pay her own bills until she’s thrown out in the street. She meets a man who inherited a motel but took so much LSD that he runs around at night in his underwear, howling at the moon.
This lets the hero see herself in a mirror. Just like the guy who inherited a motel for free and took too much LSD until he nearly lost his mind, the hero won the lottery and drank too much alcohol until she nearly lost all her friends and family.
You can always plot your story by identifying the dilemma your hero faces and then focus on the struggle your hero must go through to change. That’s the real story in every movie, and that’s what you should be focused on when writing your own screenplay.