Put Your Hero in a Dilemma

The quickest way to create tension and suspense is to put your hero in a dilemma between two choices where each choice has advantages and consequences. Now the story is about which choice the hero will make.

Forcing the hero to choose also defines how the hero changes. In one option, the hero can simply remain the same. In the other, the hero must take a risk and change. Now the suspense lies in seeing which choice the hero will take.

In “Titanic,” the dilemma is that Rose (the hero) can choose to have an easy life by marrying a rich man she doesn’t love and who treats her poorly, or she can risk being poor but free. If she refuses to change, she can marry a man she doesn’t love and live a loveless existence in exchange for financial security. If she changes, she’ll gain her freedom at the risk of financial insecurity.

Obviously we know which choice she should make, but the hero doesn’t know. By gradually watching how the hero changes and finally decides to choose the riskier option, we can see what happens.

This dilemma creates a tug of war between the hero’s choices. One option always seems safer but the other option is scarier because it forces the hero to change, and most people don’t want to change.

What makes the hero’s choice even harder is the constant obstacles deliberately designed to keep the hero from changing. What forces the hero to change is the threat of physical or emotional death.

In “Back to the Future,” Marty (the hero) literally has to change because if he doesn’t get more confident in his musical abilities, he won’t get his mom and dad together at the dance and he won’t be born.

In “Star Wars,” Luke has to change because Darth Vader’s storm troopers have wiped out Luke’s old way of life by killing his aunt and uncle and burning down the farm.

So a good story constantly nudges the hero into changing and choosing the riskier but ultimately more liberating option out of a dilemma. The dilemma sets up an interesting problem and the story forces the hero to change so we can see the gradual progression of the hero from beginning to end.

Finally, the hero must choose the riskier option in a dilemma in a logical and believable manner. That means the hero must constantly be nudged towards changing through every activity and every character. The mentor teaches the hero how to change and the ally acts as mirror image who either shows the hero who he or she can be, or shows who the hero currently is.

In “Star Wars,” Princess Leia is strong and confident, so she shows Luke what he could be. On the other hand, Hans Solo is flawed like Luke, so he shows Luke how he currently is.

The basic structure of a good story is this:

  • Force the hero to choose between changing or not changing
  • Create events that constantly force the hero into choosing the riskier option
  • Have secondary characters who reflect the hero as either who the hero currently is or who the hero needs to change into

Stories don’t have to be unpredictable in their plot. They need to be unpredictable in how they follow a predictable plot.

In most stories, were know it’s going to have a happy Hollywood ending. The main question is not knowing how it will come to that happy Hollywood ending, and that’s the source of suspense and interest, not the plot itself.

When you create a dilemma for your hero to face, a tragedy will occur if the hero chooses the worst change while a happy ending will occur if the hero chooses the better change.

Change occurs by making the hero become the opposite person he or she was at the beginning. By putting your hero in a dilemma, it forces the hero to choose one way or the other.

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