Trap Your Hero in a Dilemma

Every hero must have a goal. What makes a goal fascinating to watch isn’t just the struggle to get the goal, but when the hero is stuck between two equally unappealing choices and must constantly juggle both choices until finally making a decision.

Dilemmas constantly keep the story moving forward because we want to see how the hero responds to the two choices. In “Legally Blonde,” the hero has two choices:

  • Be dependent on men by acting as a sex symbol
  • Be independent by becoming a strong woman

Throughout the story, the hero is constantly torn between each choice. Initially, she thinks she needs her boyfriend to feel like her life is complete. Yet to pursue her boyfriend, she must become a strong woman and get herself into law school.

Once in law school, she has a choice between dropping out or studying hard to pass her classes. In the process of chasing after her ex-boyfriend, she doesn’t even realize she’s becoming a stronger, independent woman. Her dilemma is that she wants her ex-boyfriend back, which means becoming dependent on a man and being a sex symbol. Yet she really needs to become strong and independent as a woman not reliant on man.

So the dilemma is a choice between the hero’s Want vs. the hero’s Need. This makes both the Want and the Need difficult to achieve because the hero thinks to get what he or she wants, they must sacrifice or ignore what they need.

This constant tug of war between the hero’s want and need keeps a story moving forward because we’re constantly watching the hero struggle with this dilemma. When screenwriters talk about how hard the middle of their screenplay is to write, it’s because they fail to recognize that the middle of the story is this monumental tug of war tearing the hero apart.

The closer the hero gets to what they want, often the further they get from what they need. Heroes fail to realize that if they get what they need, they’ll also get what they want. Instead, heroes typically struggle to get what they want in one way, not realizing there’s another way.

For example, “Tootsie” is about a hero who wants to prove to the world that he’s a great actor. What he needs to learn is how to treat women with respect. In his quest to get an acting job, he dresses up as a woman and becomes a popular character on a soap opera. Yet the more popular he becomes as an “actress,” the further he gets from getting what he needs, which is to learn how to treat women better.

Dilemmas are the heart of the screenplay’s middle. The more you can torture your hero into being torn apart in a dilemma, the easier it will be to write that middle of your screenplay.

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