WHY SPEC SCRIPTS FAIL: Dilemma in Story

Stewart Farquhar shares tips for creating dilemma in story for both the antagonist and protagonist.


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The dictionary defines dilemma as a situation with a choice to be made in which neither alternative is acceptable. Two equally unacceptable alternatives—two equally painful choices. Stewart Farquhar shares tips for creating dilemma in story for both the antagonist and protagonist.

The dictionary defines dilemma as a situation with a choice to be made in which neither alternative is acceptable. Two equally unacceptable alternatives—two equally painful choices.

On many occasions the dilemma involves an ethically wrong decision that may produce a desirable outcome but could have a severe moral consequence.

In story it is the physical manifestation of a struggle that occurs within the mind of a character. It creates suspense, excitement and angst from page one to the resolution.

A dilemma forces the protagonist, and sometimes the antagonist, to struggle, make choices and evolve.

Here are some examples I use to encourage clients and students as they develop a scene or story:

A dilemma of emotional magnitude can be riveting.

  • Do you betray your spouse or your best friend?
  • Do you tell a family that their loved one was dead immediately after the massive stroke, or do you tell them that any response to pain or noise indicates partial life?
  • Do you tell a dying friend the horrible truth about their son or let them die with their illusions?
  • Are you trapped in a comic situation in which the person you’ve met is simultaneously the best thing that ever happened to you, as well as the worst?
  • What does a rookie undercover cop do when a veteran police officer offers him a devil’s choice between results and morality?
  • As your food supply dwindles to one day, do you feed yourself or your children?
  • As an officer of the court, do you follow the letter of the law or allow for extenuating circumstances?
  • Your best friend’s partner is having an affair with your partner, do you say something or have your own affair?
  • As the only physician during a deadly epidemic, do you leave to save yourself and your family or stay and risk their certain death?
  • Is murder justified for the greater good of humanitarian goals?

These are great and, in some cases, obvious examples of dilemma. More importantly, these are tests of a character’s convictions. They explore the limits to which your character will go. What’s their price? Are they willing to pay/accept the cost?

One “test” is to create a worst-case scenario for your character within the context of the story, then think of another situation equally as bad. Force your character to choose.


The Art of the Dilemma


However, it doesn’t always have to be so obvious or even bad. Small “dilemmas” also lead to a crisis and a decision that has long-term consequences for your protagonist. It is not always a choice between right and wrong or good and evil. Realistically speaking, those definitions are only valid from an observer’s position. Each character always feels they are doing the correct thing. Alternatively, to the character faced with such a choice, they may be seen as just a means to a greater good.

A small dilemma may be as straight forward as to who to invite to a birthday party or to eat lunch with in the cafeteria, or as gut wrenching as numbers 2, 6 and 8 above.

As he discusses in time travel story, Scarab, Stavros Halvatzis’ protagonist, Jack Wheeler, has to choose between two conflicting scenarios. In a world that has been reset to eliminate the death of the woman he loves, he can declare his love for her once more, but risk the possibility, no matter how remote, of recycling the events that led to her death. Or he can keep his feelings for her a secret and eliminate any possibility of a risk. His uncertainty makes his choice a hard one, since there is no evidence to suggest that telling her he loves her would endanger her life at all. That is the nature of a dilemma – no clear choice.

It is this inner dilemma that manifests the outer tension which drives the protagonist actions and interactions with other characters. It is the gradual reveal of this inner dilemma that keeps us interested, and wanting more.

What is frequently ignored is that the antagonist, in many cases, operates with the same challenges. Sometimes the goal is diametrically opposed to the protagonist. Or, it may just be a character’s different approach to a mutual goal where the winner takes all.

NBA Championship / MLB “World Series” / NFL Super Bowl come to mind?


What Football Has That Your Script Needs


CONSEQUENCES in your story.

  • What is the dilemma that your protagonist must work through?
  • What is the dilemma that your antagonist must work through?
  • What happens if your hero/heroine makes wrong choices?
  • What happens if your adversary makes wrong choices?
  • What are the moral / ethical reasons for each choice of action?
  • What is at stake with each choice?
  • A dilemma is sometimes positive.
  • Inaction is a choice.

More articles by Stewart Farquhar

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  • During this live webinar you will learn how to construct central emotional conflicts to hook your audience
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