The first two chapters of Writing a Great Movie


I always start my screenwriting seminars by asking why we go to so much trouble writing a script. It all comes down to one word: Audience. It’s all about the audience. And for them it’s all about two words: Great Movie!

This book is a practical manual on how to write a great movie. I teach the craft of the dramatist, focusing on a set of key tools for the screenwriter within the context of a complete working technique. In the Part One of the book I explain how each of the tools works, and illustrate them with a series of successful movies: Training Day, What Women Want, Minority Report, The Godfather, Tootsie, and Blade Runner. I also provide a short demonstration of each tool to help you understand their function. I would recommend that you not only watch those six films before you read this book, but that you become an expert in them because it really help you learn and internalize my tools and techniques.

Part Two consists of the real-time creation, development, and construction of an original screenplay that I’m really writing, built from scratch, to give you a clear picture of how to actually use these tools in full detail on your own scripts. I start with an utterly raw idea and build it up, with you watching over my shoulder as I wrestle it into shape. I try to leave the process as unvarnished as possible, because it shows what you’ve got to deal with as a writer—the problems, discoveries, wipe outs, eureka moments, puzzles, and black holes that constitute the daily grunt work of building a script. It’s crucial to bridge the gap from having an understanding of these tools to being able to successfully apply them to your own partially developed screenplays. Writers of every skill level can learn this material, and my intention is to be as useful and practical as possible so that you can consistently write screenplays that work.

The key tools that are the focus of this book come from widely varying sources and are a mixture of classic structural principles and cutting-edge technique. The first tool comes from observations that Aristotle made about what tends to be common to those dramas that grip an audience—dilemma, crisis, decision & action, and resolution. Theme is connected to dilemma and so on because the way in which the protagonist resolves the dilemma expresses the theme of the script. Next is a powerful brainstorming tool called the 36 Dramatic Situations. It consists of storytelling’s raw elements like madness, disaster, ambition, and the necessity of sacrificing loved ones, and it can help trigger story possibilities and enliven your creative process. The Enneagram is a highly effective resource for creating and developing dynamic, complex, and realistic characters. It’s a system of personality profiling that combines ancient wisdom about human nature and cutting-edge psychology, and it’s great for doing character work. Research and brainstorming, while not strictly tools themselves, are key parts of the complete writing process. The Central Proposition works with the logic of argumentation adapted to dramatic writing to tie the parts of a script together into a coherent whole and enhance the conflict. Finally, the three-step process called Sequence, Proposition, Plot is a remarkable tool for actually constructing the mechanics of the plot. It works with reverse cause and effect to make a script tight and keep it on track, as well as with a sophisticated conflict mapping process that helps create and structure conflict to keep the audience on the edge of their seats.

Before we get into the first part of the book, I’d like to share some useful insights born of my experience as a writer, script consultant, and dramatic writing teacher for many years. I was classically trained as a playwright in the work of William Thompson Price, a turn-of-the-century playwriting teacher who had twenty-eight students, twenty-four of whom had hits on Broadway. I worked in the New York theater as a dramaturg and taught playwriting for several years before I started teaching screenwriting. All the tools from playwriting are perfectly applicable to screenwriting, because they’re really about the craft of the dramatist. It’s about making a story work dramatically. It has to be actable, and it has to grip an audience. I’d like to clarify that when I talk about drama in this book, I’m speaking generally about all genres, because these tools and techniques work equally well for writing comedy, thriller, action, romantic comedy, horror, science fiction, or “drama.” Since I teach the craft of the dramatist, I refer to creating drama to cover the art of dramatic plotting, because whether you’re writing a nutball comedy or a bone-crunching thriller, it has to work dramatically.


When you go into a movie with major expectations, what specifically do you expect? You’ve heard this movie is great, that it will rock your world, and you’re excited. Can you put your finger on what you expect from it? Obviously this will vary with different genres, because you expect one thing from an intense drama, another from a romantic comedy, and yet another from an action thriller, but it’s interesting to examine your expectations as specifically as possible. Remember, it’s your job as a screenwriter to satisfy audience expectations.

Anyone who’s done live performance knows intimately that it’s all about the audience. Some screenwriters who sit in their rooms trying to come up with wild stories aren’t necessarily trained to think in terms of the audience. But that’s what this medium is all about. It’s a performance medium intended to transform an audience. A movie playing to an empty theater has no power—it’s just shadows on the wall. The power of the film resides in the response of the audience.

I would urge you to make a professional study of the audience—your audience. First, pay attention to the buzz about an upcoming film. Why do people want to see it? Are they electrified or just interested? One a scale of 1-10, how intense are their expectations? Next, study audiences as you’re on your way into the movie theater. Look at your own expectations as you go in. Gauge the electricity in the air. While the movie’s playing, feel the audience response. Are they thrilled, scared, let down, intoxicated, bored, or exhilarated? Then, when the movie’s over, stand outside the theater and watch the audience come out. Study the expressions on their faces. Listen in on how they’re reacting. I’m always passionately curious about how my fellow moviegoers are reacting to the movie we’ve just seen together.  

When Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace came out in 1999, people camped out at Graumann’s Chinese theater six weeks in advance (it’s true—I lived right down the street). On opening night I went there and hung out with them, specifically to study audience expectations. I interviewed them, asking “What are you expecting?” They were pumped! I’d get answers like, “Oh man, I saw the first one when I was seven and it was the greatest movie ever! I’m expecting a ride to the moon!” When the theater let the first couple hundred people in, they ran inside screaming, jumping, and whooping it up. Those fans really had it—audience expectations, that is—and I wanted to stick my finger in that electric socket. Here’s what Billy Wilder said about audiences: “I never overestimate the audience, nor do I underestimate them. I just have a very rational idea as to who we’re dealing with, and that we’re not making a picture for Harvard Law School, we’re making a picture for middle-class people, the people that you see on the subway, or the people that you see in a restaurant. Just normal people.

Study your own reactions. Make yourself your own guinea pig. You’re an audience member and you can see right into your own deepest responses. Observe your body chemistry afterwards. Are you tripping on adrenaline? Is your gut churning? Are you in shock? Examine your mood. Are you giddy and in love? Do you feel energized, infatuated, distressed, inert, crazed, pissed off, silly, serious, demonic, transfigured? How did the movie match up to your expectations? Think about how you feel when you come out of a truly great film. Consider the various levels of exhilaration, satisfaction, intensity, adrenaline, happiness, clarity, fury, energy, or love that you’re feeling. As a screenwriter, this is the type of thing you want to do to an audience.

The Writer Sculpts the Mood of the Audience

More than studying your own response to a movie, it’s essential to ask: How do you want your audience to feel? Specifically, what mood do you want them to be in at the end of your movie? As the dramatist, you’re sculpting the mood in which they leave the theater. It’s like a magic spell or hypnosis, where it all comes together at the end, as in: “When I snap my fingers you will feel light and refreshed.” It’s all about transforming the mood of the audience—so what mood do you want to transform them into? The more specifically you can pinpoint the mood that you want the audience to leave the theater in, the clearer your focus will be as a writer.

I had an experience of this a few years ago when a friend came back from seeing the band, The Moody Blues, and he was in a fabulous mood. He was telling me how phenomenal the show was and how I had to go the next night. Now I’d had my fill of the band years before, so I wasn’t getting very fired up or even pretending well. He got frustrated and said, “No, you’re not getting it!” He had something inside him that he really wanted me to have. This is what I’m talking about. What do you have in you that you really want to transfer to your audience? What, specifically, are you trying to do to them? The more you can pinpoint this, the more focused you’ll be as a writer and the more clearly you will see your intention for the entire movie.

What Do We Hunger For in Movies?

If I’m walking down the street and there are people lined up around the block for a movie, I’ll look each one of them in the eye as I walk by and ask (in my mind), “Why are you here? What do you need out of this movie? What are you hungering for? What are your hopes, your dreams, your ambitions, your desires?” They’re there to get something special and I’m observing them with the passionate curiosity of a writer, a scientist, a student of human nature, and a fellow moviegoer. I’m trying to get an ever deeper and more complex, but also a clearer and simpler, understanding of the audience. I consider it part of my job, because the audience is who I’m writing for. I’m not writing for readers, agents, studio execs, directors, or actors. I’m writing for each and every person who enters a theater and wants to see a great movie.

Another good question is “What’s special about a good movie?” It’s simple enough to ask, but it’s literally the sixty-four million dollar question these days. If everyone knew what was special about a good movie, then each movie you see would be the best movie yet made. Certain movies have a “magic something,” and it’s your job as a screenwriter to put that magic something in the script. The more you can put your finger on it, the more you’ll be able to either recognize it when you stumble upon it or to create it.

“Why do you love movies?” is yet another good question. Your initial answer may be simple enough, but if you contemplate it over the years you’ll get deeper and deeper levels of understanding. What are these bizarre things called movies? Why do you love them? What hunger do they satisfy? It’s interesting to think about the movies that stay with you, to look back at scenes you’ll never forget, and to remember the first time you saw one of your favorite movies. Sit down and make a list of the movies that changed your life, gave you a new outlook on life, or awakened something in you. Think about why they had this effect and try to articulate specifically what they did for you.

And then there’s the question “In real life, what transports you?” What puts you over the moon? What puts you in a wildly altered state? To be really transported is an astounding experience. It is to be swept into a different dimension, to be taken to an exalted place, to feel a wildly energetic freedom. It’s interesting to look at the absolute peak experiences in your own life—the ones you can count on one hand, the ones that stand out far above all the others. If you can isolate one of them, examine the confluence of powerful emotions around it, the intensity, the exhilaration, or the pain. Why will you never forget it? Bring this level of intensity to your writing and it will help you to create a great movie. Not that you’re replicating this specific event, but that you’re bringing that level of intensity to your script. The audience wants your movie to be one of the absolute peak experiences of their lives. As a storyteller and dramatist, you’re working with the elements of magic, transformation, rekindling dreams, and changing people’s lives or perceptions. Throughout history, the storyteller has traditionally been a bringer of fire, of life, energy, healing, freedom, fun, action, insight, beauty, intensity, focus, and clarity. You have a wonderful job, bringing powerful transformative energy and a full spectrum of emotions into people’s lives.

The Stage and the Altar

Way back in history, the stage and the altar were the same thing. The altar would be used as a stage, with religious dramas enacted upon it. Generally these dramas were about the transformation of the hero and were for the benefit of those gathered there. They were used as a way to show those watching how to transform themselves. From its earliest days drama has served a shamanistic function. People need help and often seek guidance in getting through life’s transitions: from childhood into adulthood, entering into a marriage or dissolving one, having children, dealing with success or failure, growing old, and facing death, among many others. Think about the great movies that have given you a direction in life or helped you understand something key about yourself or the world. It may sound strange to think of movies having a religious function but, again, it’s about transforming an audience.

As Gandhi said at the end of the award-winning film about his life, “I can show you a way out of hell.” Martin Luther King said that a powerful emotional experience can be the first step on the road to commitment. Comedy is about transforming an audience as well, and clowns have their ancestry as priests. Laughter is very transformative. Many comedians take their job very seriously. They know it’s crucial to laugh as a way to deal with life. Groucho Marx once inscribed a book, “They’ll never know how necessary our insanity is to their sanity.”

Audience Demand

People expect a lot from movies. Audience demand is a very important thing to understand because it’s so powerful, even if audiences are often unaware of it themselves. It’s like a river that looks lazy on the surface but has a fierce undercurrent. Audience demand is definitely there and it’s your job as screenwriter to satisfy it, so get in touch with it. A great way to get in touch with audience demand is to remember the last time someone told you that you’ve got to go see a particular movie, it will rock your world, and change your life. You go and the movie’s really disappointing. Look at your reaction. It isn’t “Oh too bad, it was lame.” It’s more like, “DAMN IT! I didn’t get what I was promised and I’m mad. I needed that!” The mark of a great artist is that he or she often gives the audience what they want even if the audience itself doesn’t know what it wants. So penetrate down to what audiences want and demand, and get in touch with it as much as you can. It’s your bread and butter. Locating it is like digging up the street, finding the giant electric line that powers the whole city, and tapping into that power. Audiences bring a lot of energy to the theater and if you can tap into it, then it will multiply the power of your movie.

Why does an audience bring such a powerful set of demands to a movie? It’s because in real life our own demands often go unmet. Notice in your own life the myriad demands that you place on your friends, your spouse, your parents, your children, your neighbors, and your politicians. How many are likely to be met or can ever be met? Look at the demands placed on you in your own life.

Movies are an arena in which magical things can happen and that’s part of their enchantment—the things that could never happen in real life can happen in film and theater, even if it’s only for a few special hours. Many of us have what could be called chronic avoidance, in which we tiptoe around tricky or difficult issues. Say, in a dysfunctional family there may be an unspoken contract that a certain issue will not be broached, so everyone tiptoes around it. There can be a tremendous hunger for resolution. And then if someone does tackle this tricky issue it may blow up in their face, making the problem a thousand times worse and still leaving it unresolved. The hunger for resolution is still active. People seek closure and meaning in life.

Another important question is, “How do you intend to penetrate the indifference of the audience?” Audiences of today are very jaded. From their point of view they’ve seen it all and they know it all. This isn’t true, of course, but they can genuinely feel that way nonetheless. Plus, anyone entering into a new experience will tend to arrive with a certain degree of insulation. This is natural, but it’s something you have to overcome to get through to the audience. It’s very much akin to an electrician stripping the rubber coating off a wire to get a live connection.

Drama is often compared to a crucible. In chemistry a crucible is a ceramic pot used to contain a powerful chemical, or in steel making it’s the container that holds the molten steel. Look at the drama as a crucible in which we can experiment with radical solutions, powerful chemicals, explosive reactions, and forbidden ideas. People often need radical solutions in their lives, but these can be tricky to experiment with. What if your marriage is falling apart and you need a radical solution? You don’t want to go home and just try one out, because if it doesn’t work then there goes the rest of your marriage. But you can watch a movie or play that does so, and thereby get a feel for how it might work for you to try at home. The movies are a “let’s pretend” arena in which we can engage in an experiment from a safe distance. We can put out our feelers or do a taste test to see how it might work in our own life. Some of the best medicines are poisons in the right dosage. In the same way, radical insights in life, properly used, can liberate people. The healing power of art is something that people continually seek out, and it has always been a central part of civilization itself.

Transforming the Audience

Part of the fun of being a dramatist is being a bull in a china shop, going after the sacred cows, going where it’s verboten. Here’s a quote from the writer, Salman Rushdie: “One of the things a writer is for is to say the unsayable, speak the unspeakable, and ask difficult questions.” The key word in the entertainment industry is “outrageousness.” You can describe your job as a screenwriter as a cross between a bomb maker and a poet. You’re blowing up ideas and doing it all through language. The audience seeks a profound transformative experience, so as a dramatist you’re working with elements of great change, radical transformation, and powerful resolution, with the possibility of powerful, cataclysmic, permanent change. It’s a chance to really rewire the brain of the audience—to permanently change the way they think—and the audience is up for that. They come in, open their minds, and say, “Come on. Do something, anything. Let’s party. I need change.”

Catharsis is an emotional release, a cleaning out of the system, a fresh start. Aristotle described it as a cleaning out of the undesirable emotions, a purging of the system. Think about how a great movie can make you feel cleansed or new or energized or inspired. Sometimes you just need to burn clean the normal day-to-day banter that rattles around in your brain. David Mamet, in Three Uses of the Knife (Vintage Books, New York, 1998), says: “The purpose of theater, like magic, like religion—those three harness mates—is to inspire cleansing awe.” Catharsis is like an oil change and it brings up the question, “What do you periodically need to have cleaned out of your system?” It’s been proven by behavioral scientists that people need to change states at least once a day. You see people come home, have a beer, go jogging, or go to the movies, to shift into a different state.

What I teach is classic structural technique for the dramatist, the time-tested structures of which most successful plots consist. It’s a good thing to have under your belt. Not that you want to rely on it for everything, but in my experience it will cover about 85 percent of the scripts you work on. Tim Robbins, the actor, writer, and director said in an interview:

“I respect the classical form of film and storytelling. I’ve done experimental, absurdist and dadaistic theater and there are ways to incorporate those styles into storytelling, but you’ve got to go to the classical structure of storytelling. I don’t believe in indulgence for the sake of indulgence. I believe in the audience. I think they’re central to what we’re doing. That’s why we’re doing it. I’m always aware that an audience will be watching this. I don’t want to get too esoteric or intellectual with something I’m doing because it really is entertainment we’re doing.”

Tim Robbins – Actor, Writer, Director

My playwriting teacher, Irving Fiske, did a translation of Hamlet into modern American English in 1946, and in his introduction he said: “The profoundest hunger of the modern audience is not for an escape from reality, as is commonly thought, but for an escape into reality from much of the meaninglessness of their everyday lives.” Certainly, escape from reality is a perfectly valid form of entertainment, but escape into reality is a powerful concept. A solid jolt of reality can connect an audience with what really matters to them in their lives.


A big part of your job as a screenwriter is to dramatize your script. To dramatize a story means to make it gripping to an audience, to create continuous, coherent, compelling dramatic action. Essentially what we’re talking about is turning mere “Story” into Drama. Mere Story is a term a script doctor would use to describe a weakness in the material, in the same way that the term, episodic, would be used. Episodic means that there are unconnected episodes that don’t really go anywhere and don’t build much tension. A simple example of mere Story is: Joey wakes up in the morning, has some orange juice, ties his shoes, and walks his dog. It’s a mere succession of events that don’t necessarily engage the audience. It’s flat dramatically, and it has to be dramatized or it probably won’t work as a performance medium. There’s a huge difference between narrative and drama. What I teach are the habits of mind of a trained dramatist, and part of your job as a dramatist is to be able to recognize mere Story when you see it and to be able to dramatize it. It’s much like turning water into wine.

Turning Story into Drama

You want your whole script to be Drama and not Story. You want each act to be dramatic and not mere Story, and the same goes for each sequence, and for each scene. You never want to revert to mere Story. How you do this? The short answer is this book. There’s not one magic button that you push to turn Story into Drama, but the skilled combination of all the tools and techniques that I teach can render every part of your script dramatic. It’s about keeping the audience on the edge of their seats and engaging them emotionally, but it has to build in intensity, be actable, alive, and compelling. Mere Story means that it’s merely information and is flat for the audience.

You definitely need a good story as the basis of your script, but mere Story is not enough. In the same way, you need life in your script, but mere life is not enough. You need character, but mere character is not enough, and you need action, but mere action is not enough. There’s an important distinction here, because you need storytelling skills as big as you can get them. A movie is a story rendered into the dramatic medium. You need imagination, a sense of adventure and fun, an ability to weave a story together and to spellbind an audience—and you need all these things as big as you can get them. It’s important to bear in mind that even the most advanced structural tools applied to bland material simply won’t work. Well-structured crap is still crap. It may run like a formula one race car, but it’s still not a movie that anyone will pay to see. To compete as a screenwriter you need a healthy and vigorous imagination, and it’s hard to stress this enough. But however creative your story is, it still has to be dramatized if it’s going to work in this performance medium. It has to be actable and it has to grip an audience.

Perhaps the single biggest misconception is that a good story automatically makes a good film. There are many excellent novels that don’t lend themselves to being movies. There’s a saying in theater: “It may sound great around a campfire but it’s not stageworthy. Yes, it’s a good story, but we can’t act it out on stage in a way that will grab an audience.” Essentially your job as a screenwriter is to create compelling dramatic action. By compulsion, I mean that at the high point of suspense you couldn’t pay the audience to leave. They must stay and see how it turns out.

Creating Dramatic Action

This brings up the concept of Dramatic Action. Dramatic Action is not car chases and shoot outs. It’s a state of action you put the audience in, a state of subjective excitement that a movie creates in the audience. You’ve probably seen movies in which half the world is being blown up, yet again, and you’re nodding off in your seat, and you’ve seen movies with two people fighting it out in a living room, and you’re riveted. It’s in the latter that you’re truly in a state of action. This is the real meaning of Dramatic Action. You want to get the audience on the edge of their seat and keep them there.

It’s generally acknowledged that 90-95 percent of all scripts submitted in both film and theater are atrocious. And I’ve often heard, don’t kid yourself, it’s 95 percent. Script readers at Hollywood studios tell me it’s 98%. And when they say atrocious it’s not just a figure of speech. These scripts are so bad as to be unreadable. This means only 2 to 5 percent of all scripts submitted are even worth reading. Is it surprising, then, how many mediocre movies get made? Writing a screenplay is much harder than most people imagine. So what is the problem? Many of the people writing these scripts are intelligent and often have good stories to tell, but they have yet to grasp the craft of the dramatist.

Creating Unity of Action

Aristotle noticed that those dramas which grip an audience tend to consist of one complete action. He talks about it as the telling of a deed—a hero’s deed. The ability to find one main action at the core of a script can help unify it. For instance, even in a script as complex as The Godfather, there is one main action at its heart, and it’s that Michael defeats Don Barzini and saves the Corleone family. Can you find the one main action that constitutes the heart of your script? Is there one main deed that your hero performs? Part of this has to do with the fact that you’ve got roughly a two-hour window in which to tell your story. Movies are more-or-less this length and it’s rather inflexible, unless you’re hugely successful and are allowed to make a three-hour film. Having that limited amount of time forces you to focus your resources. It’s like being in a fight where you only get one punch—you really want to make it count. You’ve got to find the main action of your script and build everything around it. The tools presented in this book will help guide you through doing just that.

Unity of Action is a concept that is not well understood in either the film or theater industries. This simple definition of Unity of Action has held up well for me over the years.

1.   A Single Action

2.   A Single Hero

3.   A Single Result

You have one main action happening, one central person doing it, and one result springing from it. This means that all the parts of the film serve the one main action that the script revolves around. A good example of Unity of Action is a symphony. Each of the instruments in the orchestra are doing different things, but they all work together to create this one piece of music. In drama you have powerful ideas operating together as a unit—operating together to achieve a specific goal. You see this in the military and sports, where everyone’s doing different things, but they’re all working toward the achievement of one thing. In drama, we’re talking about structural unity and coherence. If it’s not part of the one main action, then it doesn’t belong in the script.

Getting Down to the Core of Your Script

Part of the definition of dramatic writing is that it’s a fight to the finish. The old saying goes: conflict is to drama as sound is to music. Conflict or opposition is central to what makes a story compelling to an audience because it helps creates suspense. A fight to the finish is two people in a knock-down, drag-out fight and only one of them will walk away. It’s two dogs fighting over a bone. This is true whether it’s a fight over the fate of the world, or over where to go on the family’s Christmas vacation. Conflict makes comedies work dramatically as well, but within a different context.

If you go back to the earliest Greek theater, there were only two characters onstage. The introduction of the third character by Sophocles was considered a major dramatic innovation. This ability to see two main characters in conflict helps you to get down to the absolute core of your material. Once you strip it down to your protagonist and antagonist, then you’re at the nucleus of your plot. If this works, then the rest of your script will have a good shot at working. If it doesn’t, then whatever you add to the plot probably won’t help.

Engineering Your Screenplay Before You Write It

William Thompson Price said that you can take all the energy that goes into rewrites and engineer your screenplay properly before you write it. This is what this book is all about. I’ll be showing you how to build a script—the art of plot creation, development, and construction—and a big part of this is knowing how to structure coherent, compelling Dramatic Action. It’s a lot of work, but so is twenty rewrites. I’ll teach you how to do it up front. Here’s what David Mamet has to say on the subject in his book On Directing Film (Penguin Books, New York, 1991):

It’s very difficult to shore up something that has been done badly. You’d better do your planning up front, when you have the time. It’s like working with glue. When it sets, you’ve used up your time. When it’s almost set, you then have to make quick decisions under pressure. If you design a chair correctly, you can put all the time into designing it correctly and assemble it at your leisure.

Dramatic Writing is an Elusive Art

Dramatic writing is generally considered the most elusive of all the literary disciplines. It’s hard to pin down; it’s slippery, tricky, and unpredictable. In my experience as a script consultant, I’ve found that it’s tricky figuring out why something looks good on paper and fails onscreen. It can be hard to figure out why something works most of the way through and then falls apart. It’s mysterious how a movie with all the top people and big money loses a bundle on its opening weekend, and the same basic plot shot for a pittance goes on to make a fortune. The producer of the big movie may never know why the little one worked and his or hers didn’t.

Writing a script is much like building a car from scratch. You’re literally manufacturing the entire vehicle from the ground up, building tires out of rubber, stretching out your own brake lines, and building your own carburetor. You can end up with a vehicle, but it may not run. It may have a number of compound, complex problems, and fixing any one of them still doesn’t make the damn thing run. A screenplay can be just like this. It may never work no matter what you do, and you may never know why.

One of the things I’ll be urging you to do with these key tools discussed in Part One is to use them as precisely as possible. The tools and techniques create certain distinctions that help you cut through the native elusiveness of dramatic writing. They give you a set of talons that help you grab onto this slippery thing, dramatic writing, stop it in its tracks, and make it do what you need it to do. You don’t want to muddy the distinctions every time they become inconvenient. This is a central part of the craft of a dramatist. As William Thompson Price says in his book The Philosophy of Dramatic Principle and Method (W.T. Price Pub., New York, 1912): “In dividing the drama into distinct principles or elements we get at the function of each. By this means we are enabled to make an implement of a principle. We do not confound the uses of each.” Again, what I teach is the habits of mind of a trained dramatist. You can train yourself to think in certain ways that will help your stories work dramatically.

As an artist, you will use the tools you learn in this book to help make your script work, but you want to be the master of these tools, not their servant. The power saw doesn’t dictate how the house will look. Solid craft will help you be consistent as a writer—your material will tend to work and you’ll be able to successfully tackle a broad spectrum of plots and genres. Even though I teach classic structural technique, which is extremely useful to have as second nature, it’s important to note that literally anything can work. And either it works or it doesn’t. A movie is two hours of entertainment, period. It can be someone onstage shouting at a wall for two hours, and if viewers line up around the block for six months to see it, then it works. So learn the craft, but don’t worship it, and don’t limit yourself to how you apply it. Also bear in mind that precision of technique doesn’t negate the need for deep intuition, passion, explosive creativity, and dynamic storytelling. These are crucial for a storyteller and should not be underestimated, but if you combine them with substantial craft as a dramatist, then you can have a complete package as a screenwriter—and that is rare indeed.

Principle and Method

The two main things that I teach are principle and method. There are certain principles that tend to make drama work, and there are certain methods that embody those principles. If, for instance, you’re learning how to fly an airplane, it’s not enough to know which buttons to push at what time. You have to understand the principles of flight, and your understanding of those principles will inform your application of method. Then you know why you’re pushing this particular button at this time and what it does to the vacuum above the wings. The same thing is true in acupuncture. There are certain principles behind why acupuncture works—you’re balancing meridians and opening flow, etc., and there are certain specific methods that embody those principles—exactly where you put the needles and for how long.

Your understanding of the principles informs your application of the methods. I’ve had students who understood the underlying principles, but didn’t have a good grasp of the actual techniques, and that only gets them so far. I’ve also had students who were good at the tools, but didn’t know why they were using them and that’s working in a limited and blind way. You want to know them both inside and out. Essentially, the principle becomes an implement. The more you understand the principle behind a tool, the more you can adapt the tool as needed because you understand its function.

One of the benefits of teaching these tools for so long and using them hands-on with each student is that I’ve acquired more and more expertise in their use. A friend who has been a martial arts teacher for years said that because teaching forced him to stick to the basics, it solidified his foundation as a martial artist in a profound way. He said he realized that they are basics or first principles for good reason. David Mamet talks about this in On Directing Film:

It’s good, as the Stoics tell us, to have tools that are simple to understand and of a very limited number—so that we may locate and employ them on a moment’s notice. I think the essential tools in any worthwhile endeavor are incredibly simple. And very difficult to master. The task of any artist is not to learn many, many techniques but to learn the most simple technique perfectly. In doing so, Stanislavski told us, the difficult will become easy and the easy habitual, so that the habitual may become beautiful.

The tools that I teach in this book have served me well over the years, and I find them quite suitable for a complete working process.


A key thing to pay attention to as a screenwriter is storytelling because that’s the center of the whole process. Yes, as a dramatist you have to be able to shape the story to work as a performance medium, but it’s still storytelling, and if the story is lame then the drama will be lame. You can’t turn bad grapes into great wine.

Study the best storytellers, steep yourself in them, read all the time, listen to books on tape, see live theater, find stories from different cultures, and let them all inspire you, light you up, jump start your imagination, entertain you, and ignite you with their incredible amperage and magnitude. Refuse to be second rate. Boil with creative energy. Get crazy. Go wild. Free your mind. Get outside your normal storytelling ruts. Explosive creativity is a crucial thing to be able to tap into. Don’t ever let anybody order you to stick to what you know in life as the sole source for your stories! Astonish audiences, blow their friggin’ minds so they’ll never think the same way again, shake their worlds up, shake them awake, shatter their sense of how things are and how they must be. Violate their secure little place as an observer, lift them out of their seats, and plunge them into the world of greatness, of energy, of exuberant passion, exploding adrenaline, ecstatic freedom, wild savagery, absolute fun, true love, boundless energy, and indomitable spirit.

Think about how the greatest movies you’ve ever seen have transfigured you. Reflect upon how you felt while you were watching them, how you felt afterwards, how you needed that lift, that energy, that greatness of heart. Look at how you felt coming out of such classics as Braveheart, Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects, Blade Runner, Ordinary People, American Beauty, Psycho, Lord of the Rings, Gandhi, The Sting, The Terminator, The Shawshank Redemption, The Bourne Identity, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lawrence of Arabia, Chinatown, Amadeus, On the Waterfront, Back to the Future, Platoon, Casablanca, The Seven Samurai, The Hustler, Twelve Monkeys, and In the Heat of the Night, to name a mere handful. Some of these films must have left an indelible mark on you, on your soul, and on your entire life. Do you even remember the last time that you were absolutely lit up, ecstatic, wildly free, totally energized, and utterly alive? People need that the same way they need oxygen, maybe even more so, because so many people limp though life without feeling truly alive much of the time. Some of the original storytellers were shamans, and their responsibility was to keep people free so they could experience the present fully, so they were awake and alive, so they could really live life.

Ask everybody you know who their favorite writers are, and why, and what those authors do to them. Listen to how they talk about them; look at them as they relive their pleasure, fear, energy, exuberance, adrenaline, and fun. Then go out and read them, or if you’re too busy, listen to them on tape as you drive to work (books on tape are free at the library), put a book by your bedside table, or on your treadmill. Turn off mindless TV and work, really work, to be one of the top storytellers in the world, in the history of the world. If you’re a screenwriter, then this is your job! People are starving, dying, for great stories, and something inside you is screaming to give it to them, otherwise you wouldn’t be a writer. If you’re going to do it, then be the best. Stun them, stagger them, and transfigure them with your storytelling passion.

Writing a Great Movie is a manual of plot creation, development, and construction, and I sincerely hope that it gives you some dependable tools to add to your screenwriter’s toolkit. It is not meant to displace other techniques, but to complement them and to round out your abilities as a dramatist. This book’s primary focus is on structural technique, so does not cover things like dialog, which is a separate topic and would require entire volume of its own. Remember that to maximize your ability to learn my tools you should have a real expertise in the films, Training Day, What Women Want, Minority Report, The Godfather, Tootsie, and Blade Runner because I work with them extensively to illustrate the tools in action. Best of luck with your writing, and please knock my socks off at the movies. That’s what it’s all about.

Chapter 1 

Using Dilemma, Crisis, Decision & Action, and Resolution to Dramatize a Plot

Twenty-five hundred years ago the Greek philosopher Aristotle made some astute observations about the nature of drama, using his native Athens as a laboratory. These observations were based on an annual religious theater festival that he attended. Each year a topic would be assigned to the playwrights, who would all have to write on that specific subject. (This would be akin to having every filmmaker presenting a new movie at the Sundance Film Festival one year focus on the Kennedy assassination.) Aristotle thus had the chance to compare and contrast these plays in very specific ways, and he observed that while some put the audience to sleep, others were intensely gripping. This made him wonder, “Is there anything in common among those plays that grip an audience?” He studied them and found that, in fact, they did tend to have several elements in common—a good, strong Dilemma, Crisis, Decision and Action, and Resolution.

It’s important to note that these elements are just the products of his observations. They’re neither rules nor dogma nor laws. Aristotle was not a dramatist—he never wrote a play that we know of. Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus did not study with him; it was, in fact, he who studied them.


Let’s start with dilemma, which may be defined as a situation with a choice to be made in which neither alternative is acceptable. Two equally unacceptable alternatives—two equally painful choices. The story of a person trapped in a challenging dilemma can be riveting. Let’s create a scenario of two equally bad options in which a character’s brother needs a life-or-death operation and asks to borrow some serious money. But all the cash our character has is earmarked to finally turn his barely surviving business into a success and make a down payment on a new home, thus saving his marriage and removing his kids from a dangerous neighborhood. Neither option is good at all. This is a dilemma to lose sleep over.

The Use of Dilemma in Training Day

In Training Day, rookie undercover cop Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) is caught in an intense dilemma when grizzled veteran Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) offers him a devil’s choice between results and morality. Jake is in awe of Alonzo, a legendary undercover cop who gets incredible results. Intensely ambitious, Jake has a shot at being asked to join Alonzo’s elite undercover narcotics squad, but Alonzo is dragging him down a slippery ethical slope. Although nothing will make Jake let go of this incredible opportunity, Alonzo’s got him smoking PCP, robbing drug dealers, and being party to murder and armed robbery, all the while explaining that this is the only way an undercover narcotics cop can get real results. In essence, Jake’s guru is also his worst enemy. He’s damned if he goes along with Alonzo and damned if he doesn’t. He can either bend the law to take down the big-time bad guys or go back to being a “patrol fairy” (a regular cop). Jake is trapped, and this trap is what the movie’s about. The dilemma in Training Day is that while it’s unacceptable for Jake to let go of this great opportunity to be an undercover cop with a heavy hitter like Alonzo, it’s equally unacceptable to get dragged into the increasingly questionable morality and tactics into which Alonzo is leading him.

Damned If You Do and Damned If You Don’t. Two equally unacceptable alternatives. Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Kill or be killed. You can’t hang on and you can’t let go. Trapped between a rock and a hard place. I’ve learned from working hands-on with thousands of screenwriters and playwrights over the years that a solid dilemma can always improve the plot. A writer may come in with a well-plotted story, but when we create a dilemma or strengthen one that already exists, it invariably improves the material.

Essentially, there’s either a dilemma inherent in a plot or there is not. If there is, then we identify it, build on it, and complicate and dimensionalize it in ways that substantially develop the script. If there is not, then we experiment with the possibility of creating one, and this often leads to a set of intriguing possibilities that can enhance the material. This will create heightened dramatic action, engaging the audience much more in the character’s fate. It puts the protagonist in a more complex and compelling situation. This makes the actor’s role a meatier one, which attracts top actors looking for substance, depth, complexity, and challenge.

There’s an excellent example of someone caught in a dilemma in the 1956 science fiction film, Forbidden Planet. Commander Adams (Leslie Nielsen) has traveled to a shipwrecked space colony to check for survivors and finds only two, the scientist, Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), and his daughter, Altaira (Anne Francis). Morbius has used alien technology found inside the planet to build Robby the Robot, a very sophisticated machine. While demonstrating Robby for Commander Adams, he has Adams give Robby his ray gun. Morbius then orders Robby to point the gun at Commander Adams, who’s getting pretty nervous. Morbius orders Robby to fire, but the robot begins to short circuit instead. Arcing electricity, he’s frozen in place. Morbius explains that Robby is caught in a dilemma. On one hand he’s been programmed to never disobey Morbius’ orders, but on the other hand he’s been programmed to never harm a human being. Morbius says that if he leaves Robby like this he’ll melt down, so he releases him from the command. This is an interesting look at how someone acts when they’re trapped in a good, strong dilemma.

If you’re forced to choose between having to sacrifice yourself or a loved one, chances are you’ll find yourself paralyzed—unable to make a choice. If you’re creating a dilemma, you want your protagonist to be short circuiting like this, frozen between two bad choices. There is an important distinction here regarding being paralyzed by a dilemma. Your character is generally not physically hiding at home under the covers, but rather is stuck internally, and perhaps limping through life, trapped by the powerful circumstances that you’ve created.

Trapping a character in a dilemma is much like cornering a wild animal. A cornered wild animal is very dangerous and is capable of phenomenal acts, such as jumping long distances or attacking with astonishing strength. Characters can do similar things when tightly cornered, and this can be spellbinding onscreen. Think about when you’ve been badly cornered and remember that feeling, that desperate, tormented feeling of being trapped in a horrible way. Notice it the next time it happens and study it as a dramatist.

I always find it interesting to look at the characters in my scripts as though they were animals. Animals have much more naked behavior. They don’t rationalize why they’re trying to kill you if you happen to invade their territory—they just do it. Characters can have similar instincts beneath their complicated social behavior. Look at your protagonist and antagonist as two lions fighting over a carcass, two apes in combat, or a mother bear protecting its young from a predator. It’s another way to see the core of a character beneath all the human reasoning, posturing, and clever rationalizations.

The Importance of a Dilemma of Magnitude. A potent dilemma is important—a dilemma of magnitude.Magnitude implies significance. Is it significant to an audience? Look at the difference between the film The Shawshank Redemption and Dumb and Dumber. This is not meant as a value judgment, because Dumb and Dumber was funny as hell, but The Shawshank Redemption is a film of more magnitude, more substance. Here we’re talking about a dilemma of substance. You can have two bad options, but without significance to an audience; for example: It’s unacceptable to clean the house and it’s equally unacceptable to wash the car. That is a dilemma, but it has no magnitude—it won’t rivet an audience. It has to pass the “So what?” test.

The “So what?” test is something that can challenge everything which tries to work its way into your script. Harry Cohn, the founder of Columbia Pictures, ran his development process as follows. He would sit his writers down at a conference table and ask for their ideas. The first writer would lay out his idea and Cohn would respond, “So what?” The next writer would pitch his idea and Cohn would shoot it down the same way. And idea had to pass Cohn’s “So what?” test before he was willing to pursue it.

A dilemma of magnitude means your dilemma must pass the “So what?” test. Even in comedy, the protagonist will generally take the dilemma seriously him- or herself, even though it’s hilarious to us—in fact, the worse it is for him or her, the funnier it is for us. Once you get a dilemma up and running, then you should experiment with magnitude. Is your dilemma as substantial as it could be? Is it as potent as it could be? Does it hit the audience where they live and resonate in their own lives? How much more intense could you possibly make this dilemma? You want to be extremely tough on your own material, because everybody else is certainly going to be.

The Importance of a Sense of Proportion. In terms of using dilemma in a screenplay, it’s also important to have a sense of proportion. A dilemma will tend to kick in after some set-up time, often about a quarter to a third of the way into a script. This set-up time enables you to get to know and care about the character. To identify with a character means that you are essentially pretending to be that person.

The first triangle indicates roughly where the Dilemma might kick in. The second triangle indicates where Crisis tends to occur and the third triangle is for Decision and Action. The fourth is for Resolution. This offers a rough sense of proportion, and does not indicate specific pages where the elements will necessarily be found. The point is that it takes a bit of set-up time to get to know and care about your protagonist, and for your plot to develop. In Training Day, Jake’s dilemma doesn’t begin until Alonzo makes him smoke PCP.

One good, strong dilemma can carry the whole film. Once your protagonist gets trapped in it, the dilemma can build in intensity until it gets to the crisis point, which forces a decision and action. The dilemma is finally resolved at the point of resolution (essentially the ending). In other words, one central dilemma can form the engine of a drama.

In Training Day, once Jake gets trapped in his dilemma, he is truly paralyzed by it all the way through to the make-or-break point. This occurs when Jake discovers that Alonzo has tried to have him murdered by the Latino gang, and he goes to arrest Alonzo. While Jake is no longer paralyzed by the dilemma, he’s still got a tough fight on his hands to fully extricate himself from it. He finally frees himself from the dilemma when he beats Alonzo, takes the money as evidence, and leaves him to his fate. The dilemma carries the film—it’s what the movie is about.

The Use of Dilemma in What Women Want

In What Women Want, Nick Marshall (Mel Gibson), a man’s man at the top of his game in the advertising world, finds himself edged out of his dream job as Creative Director by a woman, Darcy Maguire (Helen Hunt), and he’s determined to drive her out by hook or by crook. When he unexpectedly finds himself with the ability to hear what women are thinking he realizes that he has the perfect way to get rid of Darcy. He steals her ideas and undermines her by listening in on her thoughts, and as he does so he discovers that she is not only an incredible person, but is a true genius in advertising. Although he can’t let go of his revenge, it’s equally hard to “kill her off,” so to speak. He hates her but he’s fascinated by her and is falling in love.

The plot is a lot like Salieri and Mozart in Amadeus, with the intense love/hate thing that Salieri had for Mozart. Bear in mind that within the context of a romantic comedy, this quest for revenge is a light touch—but it definitely drives Nick. The more he sees into Darcy with his mind-reading ability, the more he finds that she is a magnificent creature, incredibly talented, sexy, stylish, and totally honest. His magic skill that gives him a way to get rid of her also enables him to see her for who she really is. She’s the worst thing that ever happened to him as well as the best. The dilemma of this film is that it’s unacceptable not to ruin Darcy because she stole his job, and now that he can read her mind he’s got a golden opportunity to do it. At the same time it’s equally unacceptable to destroy her because now that he can read her mind he sees that she’s truly phenomenal both professionally and personally, and he’s falling in love with her.

The Use of Dilemma in Minority Report

As a teaching tool, I want to demonstrate my process of figuring out the dilemma for Minority Report since this will be more instructive than my merely telling you what it is and you saying, “Right, obviously.” So I’ve just watched the movie and I’m going through the process of trying to put my finger on the dilemma. It feels as though the protagonist has one (and bear in mind that there isn’t automatically a dilemma in any given film), but I need to dig to be able to put my finger on it.

Chief John Anderton (Tom Cruise) is the head of Precrime, a police agency that with the help of new technology is able to predict murders before they occur. Precrime’s three psychics predict that Anderton will soon kill a man he’s never met, Leo Crow (Mike Binder). Knowing that the Precogs are infallible and that the system is perfect, he’s forced to run before he is convicted and permanently incarcerated by his own organization. He runs, and on the way out, encounters Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell), the Justice Department investigator, who confronts him with evidence of his narcotics use. Anderton’s boss, Lamar Burgess (Max von Sydow), has warned him that the Justice Department is trying to take Precrime away from them, and Anderton believes that Danny is setting him up.

In this future world when the Precogs tag you, you’re guilty. They don’t need to catch John in the act of committing murder. When a brown ball shows up with his name on it, they come immediately to lock him away forever. That’s the law. There’s no evidence required, no dead body, no trial, and no appeal. John is guilty because the system is perfect. He totally believes that, and his life’s purpose is based on this absolute belief. Precrime is his baby.

One aspect of a possible dilemma is quite obvious—it’s unacceptable for John to be destroyed by Precrime. He cannot allow himself to be caught, especially since he believes he’s been framed by Danny. Not only is his survival at stake, but he’s convinced that he’s being framed so Danny can destroy Precrime. So he’s fighting for everything he is, has, and believes in. This side of the proposed dilemma is easy to see.

Now let’s look at its opposite, which is that it would be unacceptable to run. How would John be divided? What would be powerful enough to counterbalance this incredibly strong imperative to escape? Would it be loyalty to Precrime? Would it be his belief in the infallibility of the Precogs—that they must be right and thus he is, in fact, going to kill this Leo Crow? Certainly there must be a powerful nagging doubt, in spite of how powerful his belief that Danny is framing him. He’s a “priest” and his “religion” or his “god” has pointed its finger of doom at him. Is it unacceptable to stick around, but equally unacceptable to run? Is he damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t—but does what? I’m a bit stumped at this point. But this is good, because if there is a good, strong dilemma, then it will be instructive for you to see me try to figure this out.

I can put myself in John Anderton’s shoes and see if I feel frozen like Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet. As Anderton, I do feel this paralysis, this short circuiting, this pressure from two sides. This is not a simple problem or situation like “the cop has to catch the bad guy.” It’s much more complex. But what is it that’s freezing me up? I can’t allow myself to be destroyed by Precrime so I must run, yet I seem to feel equally compelled to protect Precrime. Is this a kill or be killed dilemma? It’s clearly unacceptable to be killed by Precrime, but is it equally unacceptable to kill Precrime? Although I feel a strong allegiance to Precrime, is it equal to my need to escape certain death? This is the main question—if I’m barking up the right tree, that is. The dilemma is not as clear as in Training Day. Some dilemmas take much more digging and ferreting out, and this is part of the skill of being able to work with this tool, dilemma, on a wide variety of plots and potential plots.

The first clue comes when John goes to Precrime’s inventor, Iris Hineman (Lois Smith). He questions her in the greenhouse and she tells him there’s no getting away from the prediction that he’ll commit murder. “The Precogs are never wrong,” she tells him. You can see the defeat in Anderton’s face. He’s dealing with destiny, with fate. His oracle, the Precogs, have decreed that he will commit murder. Part of him believes that Danny framed him, yet part of him still believes that what the Precogs saw will, in fact, come true and that he, of all people, is “destined” to kill someone he’s never met within two days.

But then Iris stops John in his tracks when she tells him that “occasionally they do disagree.” She says that sometimes a Precog will dissent from the other two and generate a minority report—a report that is instantly destroyed to preserve the infallibility of Precrime. This makes him realize that he may be innocent, and that he may have locked up innocent people.

Now I feel like I’m beginning to get a handle on the dilemma in this film. Is it that he can’t stick around and he can’t leave? The more strongly John is drawn back into Precrime as he runs away from it, the more this dilemma is reinforced. He abducts Agatha (Samantha Morton), the female Precog, who might have his minority report in her memory (if it even exists), which would give him a way out.           

As I dig deeper, I’m convinced that Anderton’s dilemma is that it’s unacceptable for him to stick around because he has been convicted of a future murder, but it’s also equally unacceptable for him to leave because he has an opportunity to prove his innocence by finding the minority report.

In the DVD commentary, Spielberg says “Is there a flaw in the system or in him? That’s what drives Anderton.” This takes the dilemma further in an interesting direction because it indicates that the mystery is just too juicy to walk away from. Anderton believes strongly in his own innocence, but he also believes absolutely in the system and he has to find out which one is broken. The fact that he’s a Neuroin addict (a futuristic drug) and is hung up on his missing son and broken marriage opens up some self doubt, but he still cannot believe that he’s going to kill this Leo Crow. If he runs away and disappears, then it will drive him crazy not knowing. He is utterly compelled, and this strengthens the half of his dilemma that makes it unacceptable to run away and disappear. Adding layers and dimensions and complexities to a dilemma makes it richer, deeper and more riveting.

In the end I arrived at the following understanding of Anderton’s dilemma in Minority Report.     It’s unacceptable for John Anderton to stick around because he’s been given a death sentence for a future murder and there’s no way out if he gets captured. But it’s equally unacceptable for him to disappear because he has a chance to clear himself by finding the minority report on his case, plus the mystery of all this is too intense and he must get to the bottom of whether he is flawed or the system is.

The Use of Dilemma in The Godfather

In The Godfather, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is caught in a substantial dilemma insofar as he’s being drawn into the family business, even though he knows it will ruin him. His dilemma is that it’s unacceptable for him to sacrifice his happy and peaceful civilian life by getting involved in the family criminal activities, but it’s equally unacceptable for him to allow the family to be destroyed by his non-involvement, given that it has become increasingly apparent he’s the only one capable of running the business properly.

Although Michael steers well clear of the family business, he gets drawn in by the assassination attempt on his father, Don Vito (Marlon Brando). His brother, Sonny (James Caan), is clearly not a good don and his older brother, Fredo (John Cazale), is much worse. If Michael doesn’t get involved, the family will probably fall, and if he does then it will cost him his freedom, his happiness, and his soul. He’s damned if he gets involved and damned if he doesn’t.

The Use of Dilemma in Tootsie

In Tootsie, Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman), a notoriously difficult actor whom no one will hire, has a major dilemma once he dresses up as a woman, Dorothy Michaels, and gets cast on a major soap opera. It’s unacceptable to quit being Dorothy because he’s finally got work, a fat paycheck, respect as an actor, and a growing relationship with his co-star, Julie (Jessica Lange). It’s equally unacceptable to keep being Dorothy because the ruse is proving to be a disaster at many levels.

A lecherous actor, John Van Horn (George Gaynes), is French kissing him and wants more, his friendship that unexpectedly became a romantic relationship with his friend and acting student, Sandy (Teri Garr), is falling apart, and he can only pursue Julie so far because he’s dressed as a woman. Michael can’t let go and he can’t hang on. Becoming Dorothy is simultaneously the best thing that ever happened to him and the worst. It’s creating him and destroying him at the same time, and this dilemma is genuinely funny. Dilemma works for all genres. Put Jim Carrey in an excruciating comedic dilemma and the more excruciating it is for him, the funnier it is for us.

The Use of Dilemma in Blade Runner

In Blade Runner, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is caught in a dilemma about the fate of the replicants (humanoid slave robots). He’s told they are slaughtering people and it’s his job to destroy them, but he has also seen how their inventor, Dr. Tyrell (Joe Turkel), treats Rachael (Sean Young). “Rachael is an experiment, nothing more,” Tyrell says. She is entirely disposable. But Deckard is moved by Rachael’s emotional discovery that she is actually a replicant and not human. He sees that the replicants have a legitimate grievance and that killing them is murder. He’s a good detective because he’s perceptive and he sees them for who they really are. As he falls in love with Rachael he opens up emotionally, and in the process his fascination with and feelings for the replicants grow. This is clearer in the older version (not the director’s cut) with the voice-over in which Deckard ruminates about why replicants have emotions. He also begins to question his own—blade runners are expected to be hunting and killing machines, and aren’t supposed to have emotions. And yet the replicants are still out there killing people; so his internal debate—his dilemma—goes back and forth. The dilemma is that it’s unacceptable to allow the murderous replicants to stay alive, but it’s equally unacceptable to kill them because one of them saved his life, and he begins to feel for her. Deckard is discovering that they are very human, that they have good reason to kill, and that his killing them is murder.

Becoming a Student of Human Dilemma

In order to gain expertise and wielding dilemma as a dramatist, you need to become a student of human dilemma. Look at those around you who are caught in their own particular dilemmas. Look at specific dilemmas in history. Look at dilemmas in the news. Dilemma makes headlines because moral dilemmas are newsworthy. If you look up “dilemma” on, you will find thousands of headlines and stories about dilemmas. One such headline, “Ethical Dilemma Over Stem Cell Donors,” has to do with where the eggs for stem cell research in California will come from. Critics of collecting the eggs for research say that there might be long-term health consequences from the fertility drugs used to promote excess egg development, and that paying poor women for their eggs essentially encourages them to put their health at risk. And yet the eggs are needed for groundbreaking research, hence the dilemma.

I saw a great quote in the Hollywood Reporter in an article on the show Law and Order. One of the staffers, Roz Weinman, said of the show, “You can embrace a gigantic array of social, moral, legal and ethical dilemmas inside this concept. My background in sociology helps in telling stories that raise those kinds of issues. It’s a terrific platform for floating unique dilemmas and different points of view.” Ms. Weinman is clearly someone who understands human dilemma and brings that level of experience to her writing. You can be sure that the writing staff on that show has turned over thousands of dilemmas in their quest for compelling dramatic action. That’s the kind of work that gets you the gold.

Dilemmas can be found anywhere that people have conflicting needs, conflicting ambitions, emotions, imperatives, desires, necessities, or absolutes. So-called sticky subjects like politics, race, class, gender, marriage, children, justice, war, ecology, future planning, the stock market, pentagon spending, welfare, abortion, taxes, big business, and health insurance are fraught with dilemma. How do people get caught up in dilemmas in these kinds of situations? To use just one example, consider the issue of national security versus privacy. There are serious concerns on both sides of this issue. No one wants our country to be vulnerable to attack, but most people don’t want their privacy and personal freedoms stripped away to achieve that end, feeling that the cure would be worse than the disease.

Study Dilemma in Your Own Life. Dilemmas are not just something that happens to movie stars in films. In your own life you are surrounded by hundreds of dilemmas, large and small. They don’t have to be earthshaking for them to be real and intense to you. Your skill as a dramatist working with dilemma will be enhanced considerably if you are able to recognize them in your own life and understand how prevalent they are. Look at the tough choices that have stopped you in your tracks, in both big and small ways. Are you trapped in a boring job that keeps you from pursuing your art? Do you need to borrow money from a friend, but it risks ruining a long-term relationship? Are you staying in a bad marriage because you’re afraid of the unknown? What are the most painful dilemmas you ever faced? Look at areas of intensity like loyalty, money, security, betrayal, friendship, politics, career, love, and children. Try to articulate both sides of the dilemma.

I’ve noticed that with dilemmas in my own life it can be easy to avoid dealing with them. I may need to call someone for business but know that she’s difficult to deal with. My inner debate goes back and forth: “I want the work, but what should be a two minute conversation will likely go on for twenty without getting to the point. I need the business, but she’ll just—.” At some point I just decide, “Oh never mind, I’ll think about this tomorrow.” I don’t want to have to decide about it. Even in this miniature dilemma I notice the tendency to want to put it off, to want to escape because there’s no answer in either direction. It’s like two north magnets that push away from each other. Observe yourself as you deal with dilemmas, both big and small, and see how you deal with them. See how they feel.

Now isolate one of your own dilemmas. State it as: “It’s unacceptable to _________ but it’s equally unacceptable to _________.” Study the ramifications of how this dilemma impacts your world. Write about how it paralyzes you, how it makes you feel, the inner debate that rages about it, the sense of frustration, the rage at being trapped in such an impossible choice. Then take it further. Think about how much worse it could be. What’s the most excruciating form of this dilemma you could possibly imagine? Go off the deep end with it. Find ways to complicate it, add layers to it, add dimensions, compound it. Think about people around the world who are caught in dilemmas that we can scarcely imagine—a family who might be forced to sell a child into slavery to keep the rest of them alive for a few more months. People who are forced to join a revolution that will probably get them killed, but if they refuse their farm will be burned down and their livelihood destroyed.

Recognize Dilemmas When They Occur. A friend who took my screenwriting course used to spend a lot of time in Internet philosophy chat groups. He told me that someone described a situation they were caught in and he replied, “Wow, you’re caught in a classic dilemma.” He described their situation to them in these terms and they replied, “Hey, I never looked at it that way before.” What’s interesting is that he did not solve their problem. He could perceive dilemma where the other person couldn’t. It’s as though he had those special infrared glasses that bank robbers wear that enable them to see the red laser beams that protect a bank vault. Recognizing dilemmas when they occur is a crucial skill in screenwriting. Essentially there’s either a dilemma in your script or there isn’t. But if it is there and you can’t see it, then you may be trying to create one while it’s sitting right in front of you, unrecognized.

Connect with the Average Person in the Audience. It’s important that the average person in the audience be able to connect with the dilemma of your protagonist. In other words, are the viewers able to see themselves in it? Does it have significance in their own world and their own lives? Hollywood often misses the mark with the average person by assuming that they’re consumed with something superficial, when actually they are compelled by something much deeper and more human. Perhaps they are losing sleep because a friend committed suicide, or because their kids are drifting away from them. If they see a protagonist caught up in something that hits them where they live, then the audience will be wondering if this character can find a way out of the dilemma that’s torturing them in their own lives.

The deeper you go, the more universal you get. A movie about a salmon fisherman in Alaska that has a good, strong dilemma could impact, for instance, a banker in Tokyo who might say, “Hey, I’m caught in the same dilemma.” Or a brick maker in Argentina may say, “Wow, that’s my life up there.” Neither individual may know anything about Alaskan fishing, but at a deeper level, this fisherman’s dilemma may be about honor and betrayal and duty and survival.

One question I ask when I develop a script is: “Can the guy across the street, who I don’t know, relate to the dilemma in this story?” He’s my audience and, remember, it’s all about the audience. Let’s say I’m writing about a king who has to choose between giving up his throne and sacrificing his family. Can the person across the street relate to that? The first thing I do is say, “OK, how can I as the writer relate to this king’s dilemma? I’m not a king.” But I do know about moving away from a family to pursue a career, so yes, kingdom versus family, I can relate to that. And if the king did it this way, I could relate to it even more. And if he did that I would really feel connected to this guy. Then I can indirectly study the guy across the street, consciously tuning the dilemma of my protagonist to my audience.

Understand the True Meaning of the Word “Dilemma.” The word dilemma is often misused, and therefore misunderstood. When Irving Fiske, my playwriting teacher, first explained Aristotle’s observations on dilemma, crisis and so on, I misunderstood dilemma. I thought to myself, “Oh that’s a situation, in which somebody has to solve a problem.” It wasn’t until about a year and a half later that one night, on a whim I looked up the word in the dictionary. I still remember it verbatim twenty years later: “Dilemma: a situation with a choice to be made in which neither alternative is acceptable. Two equally unacceptable alternatives—two equally painful choices.” This definition not only clarified my understanding of Aristotle but increased my ability to add power to a dramatic plot.

People will often say, “I had a dilemma today, I lost my keys.” But this is not a dilemma—it’s just a situation or a problem. Unfortunately, the word has devolved to mean just that to many. A few years ago I looked up dilemma in the dictionary again and it said that a new meaning is entering the popular lexicon through extensive misuse—it is almost becoming correct to say, “I had a dilemma today, I lost my keys.” The more you use it properly, however, and the more you see dilemma in action all around you, the more you’ll be able to fully wield it as a dramatist.


The first thing to do is to see if there already is a dilemma inherent in your script idea. Is there a situation in which your character is damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t? Is there a way that your protagonist is caught in something that traps her, squeezes her, paralyzes her with some hard choices? The more you understand dilemma the more you will recognize it or feel its presence when it’s there.

What’s most important is to understand that you’re looking for something big, something central. It’s nothing peripheral or minor. It’s a dilemma of magnitude that can carry a whole film. You’re looking for something as big as an engine in a car. You can certainly find other motors in a car, like the ones that work the windshield wipers or the electric windows, but they don’t power the vehicle. Look at the choices your main character faces and make a list of them. If there’s not a dilemma in your story at this point, that’s fine too. We can experiment with creating one and make the plot more powerful.

Essentially what we’re talking about is turning a situation into a dilemma. For example, “a cop having to catch the bad guy” is a situation, but if he owes his life to the bad guy or the bad guy is his brother, then he’s got a much tougher choice. Creating dilemma is about complicating choices, adding alternatives, and making them painful. This may sound simple, and in many ways it is, but you will be surprised at how much dramatic horsepower you can add to a script by focusing specifically on the dilemma. You want to take a good hard look at the two equally unacceptable alternatives, and be as specific as possible, which forces you to pay attention to something that might otherwise be overlooked. A deep and complex exploration of dilemma can take you on a fascinating journey into the heart of the story and the character in ways that you may never have imagined.

It’s important to pay attention to the word equal in the phrase “equally unacceptable alternatives.” If the alternatives are equally unacceptable, you will have the true paralysis that a dilemma creates. If they’re not, then there is an easier way out. It’s like being given a choice of whether to jump in the lava or get burned with a match. They’re both unacceptable, but not equally unacceptable. The more you pay attention to keeping the alternatives equal, the more you trap the protagonist. This is especially true as you begin to experiment with the dilemma, playing with story options and exploring extremes. If you intentionally or inadvertently alter one side of the dilemma, you can easily make one of them more unacceptable than the other. The cure for this is to keep track of whether they are equal, and if needed, to increase the power of the choice that has fallen behind on the intensity scale. Electricity will always take the path of least resistance, and to bottle it up both routes have to be blocked. You want to keep Robby the Robot short-circuiting—the paralysis of being caught between two equally painful choices. So test and adjust as you go along.

Experiment with Extremes. Once you get a dilemma up and running, you then want to play with extremes. Go off the deep end. Take them as far as you possibly can, just to see how far you can go. How excruciating can this dilemma become? You don’t have to keep it at that ultimate intense level, but it’s good to know what its limits are. Think about the movies you have seen that didn’t go far enough. They had something there, but they failed to perceive where the story could go, what its potential was; or perhaps they just chickened out. The process of going off the deep end gets you outside the box, keeps your material fresh, and violates the homogeneity that plagues the film industry.

There’s a great quote in the James Bond novel, Dr. No, where Dr. No says, “Mania is as priceless as genius.” You want to turn up the dilemma to the max, just to see what it’s like at that level of intensity. Don’t play it safe. Get crazy. Remember, it’s the movies!! This is known as “Attack as a Storyteller.” Have a sense of attack, go after the audience, give them the ride of their friggin’ lives. This works in any genre. How nerve wracking can you make it? How scary? How funny? How silly? How dangerous? How unpredictable? How disorienting? How beautiful? How disturbing? How moving? How utterly, insanely tweaked?

Make Chaos Your Ally as a Storyteller. Exploring the extremes can take you into uncharted waters, but this is part of the adventure of screenwriting—getting outside your safety zone. This process can plunge you into chaos. Don’t be afraid of it—make chaos your ally. Most writers say they aren’t doing their job right if they’re not getting in over their head. The more craft you have as a dramatist, the less afraid you are of chaos. In fact, you will begin to revel in the chaotic process of creation. If it’s neat and orderly and simple, then it will often turn out flat, lifeless, uninspiring, or worst of all—boring. Remember, it’s the entertainment industry. The key word in the entertainment industry is outrageousness. Do you want to write the same old movie that everyone is writing, or do you want to create something that blows the lid off everything else?

When I’m starting a script there’s a point where I’m getting in over my head and part of me says, “Uh oh, I’m in trouble here.” Another part says, “All right! Now we’re getting somewhere.” Someone once said that writers are like a show horses—they’re not happy unless they’re trying to jump over something that can kill them. My favorite part of the writing process is when I’m at the point at which anything goes. It’s all still wide open and there’s a real sense of total possibility, adventure, and raw excitement.

A good way to take the dilemma to its extreme is to think about someone you truly despise. Take this person and, as a thought experiment, place them in the dilemma your protagonist faces and crank it up to the most excruciating it can possibly be. Imagine the dilemma as a torture device and crank the screws tight so that your enemy is screaming. Then take this torture device off, put it on your protagonist, and set the screws that tight. You’ll have your protagonist really screaming and you’ll have your audience on the edge of their seats. You tend to like your protagonist, so you were treating him too well and letting him off too easily. In fact you want to torture your audience with your dilemma.

Put Yourself in the Shoes of the Protagonist. Be the person who is trapped in this dilemma and experience it firsthand. Say to yourself, OK, I am this person stuck in this particular dilemma. It’s unacceptable to _________ and it’s equally unacceptable to _________. I can’t move in this direction because of _________, but there’s no way I can _________ either. I’m so screwed. How did I get in a position like this? It’s such an impossible choice, but there’s no getting out of it. I tried to wriggle out of it, but it won’t let me go.Really get in there and live it; thrash it out as though it’s happening to you. It will help you to write about it and to understand your character much more fully.

It’s also a good exercise to put yourself in the position of your antagonist, and look at the protagonist trapped in his dilemma. You’re the protagonist’s enemy looking at how he’s stuck and vulnerable because of this dilemma. You see a chink in his armor, maybe even a gaping hole that you can take advantage of. The antagonist doesn’t always create the dilemma for the protagonist, but will always take advantage of it.

Understand the Power of Dilemma. One of the images that I like to use in terms of dilemma is the Jaws of Life. These machines are used in car accidents to rip open the metal and get the trapped person out. I find that a compelling dilemma will pry a character’s life wide open. All of her weaknesses are on display. There’s no hiding from it, no pretending it isn’t happening, and no wishing it away. It’s worth repeating that a good, strong dilemma gives the actor a meatier role, because the material is more complex. From my experience talking to actors, I know that they’re starving for complex, dangerous, challenging parts. And this is an important part of getting a film made—attracting talent.

You will find that a good, strong dilemma can give you a real handle on your protagonist. Imagine a big pair of pliers with each half of the dilemma representing one side of the pliers. The more you squeeze, the more of a brutal grip you’ve got on your main character. And because the audience identifies with the protagonist, you’ve also got a brutal grip on them as well. Dilemma is also a handle with which to grip your plot. You may have all this energy for your raw story, yet not be quite sure where or what to grab onto first. Start with dilemma. Then crank it up so that all your energy is translated directly into the story. The more powerful your dilemma is, the more powerful your script is.

Finally, be sure to examine the ramifications of the dilemma. At first you need a laser focus on the protagonist and her dilemma, but once you get that squared away, you need to take a step back and look at the protagonist’s entire world. What are the ripple effects? For example, if a Mafia character has to choose between ratting out his brother or doing twenty years of hard time, there are going to be ramifications. Having to make such a choice will impact his relationship with his brother, his ability to think clearly, his relationship with his gang, his ability to sleep, his relationship with his wife and kids, and so on. Understanding these ramifications will help you paint your film’s world.

Getting Deeper into Dilemma in Training Day

Now that you have a solid grasp of dilemma, let’s return to Training Day to explore Jake’s dilemma more deeply. It’s unacceptable for Jake to let go of Alonzo’s offer to join his undercover narcotics squad, but it’s equally unacceptable to go all the way with Alonzo because it’s contrary to Jake’s moral compass. The problem is that everything Alonzo says about doing undercover cop work is absolutely true. After Jake stops the crackheads from raping the schoolgirl, Alonzo tells him that his squad only goes after big game, saying:“To protect the sheep you got to catch the wolf, and it takes a wolf to catch a wolf.” He plays on Jake’s ego and ambition, saying: “You got the magic eye, Hoyt. You up your street IQ you gonna do some damage out here, I guarantee. Crime fighter.” And after Alonzo shoots the drug dealer, Roger (Scott Glenn), Alonzo is able to defuse Jake: “I walk a higher path, son. I can give you the keys to all the doors… You’re a leader. You want my job, you got it. You want to lock up poisoners? This is the best place to do it.”

This is very compelling to Jake, who truly does want to make a difference. He knows that Alonzo’s telling him the truth about how you get things done in this underworld, but it’s still ugly and brutal and corrupt. Alonzo is very much the devil, and the devil is seductive and silver tongued, telling him both what he wants and needs to hear. It sounds great and it plays into Jake’s ambitions. In the opening scene, Jake tells his wife that if he aces this assignment, the department’s wide open and that he could get his own division someday. “You should see those guys’ houses,” Jake says. Antoine Fuqua, the director, says in the DVD commentary that Jake’s ambition is his fatal flaw. Not only is Alonzo telling Jake to do undercover work, but how to fulfill his ambitions, how to make detective.

Another aspect of Jake’s dilemma is that they’re getting real results hunting big game in the drug underworld. Alonzo says that judges have handed out 15,000 man years of incarceration time based on his investigations. In the screenplay, the screenwriter, David Ayer, describes Jake as being half impressed, half appalled with Alonzo. He’s appalled when Alonzo forces the drug dealer, Blue (Snoop Dogg) to spits out Sandman’s name, a higher-level dealer, but he’s impressed when this leads to Alonzo getting the Sandman’s address. Then after they rob the Sandman’s money Alonzo uses it as a bribe to quickly get a valid warrant. And then even after they’ve robbed and killed Roger, Alonzo shows him how they’ve just taken a high-end drug dealer off the street. It’s appalling, but equally impressive.

Jake is also constantly being reminded that he has a shot at a “real” job, one with teeth and claws, as opposed to his old job. Jake keeps getting it rubbed in his face that he’s a rookie, which stings and makes him want to succeed even more. In the scene on a side of a highway after the shootout at the Sandman’s, Alonzo tells him to go back to measuring car wrecks. The camera cuts to a close-up of Jake looking back and forth between Alonzo and a cop helping a stranded motorist change a tire. He is clearly quite torn.

This illustrates yet another powerful aspect of Jake’s dilemma—that of adventure versus security. This is a universal dilemma, because many people are trapped by this choice. Adventure is tantalizing and exciting, but it’s dangerous and potentially catastrophic. Security can be boring, stagnant, and suffocatingly claustrophobic, but it is safe and fairly predictable. People stay in bad marriages because the alternative is to face the void. This is a core issue that everyone faces in various ways. It’s the devil whispering in your ear, “Go for it. Risk it. What’s it worth if you just chicken out?” But then you’ve got the angel whispering in the other ear, “Wait. Think about how hard you worked to get where you are. Are you going to risk it all on one throw of the dice?” Alonzo represents absolute adventure, but the blade cuts both ways. Jake is forsaking security for adventure—and doing undercover narcotic police work is high-end adventure, to be sure—but as Alonzo’s true colors begin to emerge Jake begins to look longingly at the safe harbor he is leaving behind. Neither alternative is any good.

Let’s look at a two-column chart for the dilemma in Training Day. This type of list is handy because it’s easy for parts of your dilemma to get all muddled together in your brain and this polarizes them.


Damned if he quits                                   Damned if he keeps doing it

Totally wants to be in squad                     Alonzo’s morals are freaky

He’s extremely ambitious                         He could get arrested or even killed

Awed by Alonzo                                       Appalled by Alonzo

Alonzo is a god in this arena                    Alonzo is the devil

Alonzo gets big results                              Must be a criminal to catch criminals

Jake is totally dedicated                           He’s being drugged and shot at

Wants to do good                                      He’s an accomplice in theft

Will not quit                                              He’s violating his vows as a cop

Driven by his career                                  Headed for jail

Adventure                                                 Destruction

He’s making a difference                         It’s costing him his soul

He’s really learning the streets                 He’s becoming corrupt

Results                                                      His moral compass rebels

Freedom                                                    It costs too much

Ambition                                                   Danger

Investigation bearing real fruit                 It’s costing Jake his integrity

He’s joining Alonzo’s elite group            Alonzo’s making fun of him                          

Alonzo is his guru                                     Alonzo is his enemy

Alonzo is persuasive                                 Alonzo is corrupt

Old job too boring                                     New job too risky

Power                                                        Loss of soul

An important aspect of producing this type of list is to let yourself run with it, without worrying about being repetitive, because you can see fresh aspects of the dilemma by hitting it from different points of view. This columns tend to have a back and forth interplay, in that both sides connect to each other, such as Ambition on the left and Danger on the right, but you can also just run down one side of the page without specific reference to what’s on the other side, and then go back and think the other side through.

Another important part of understanding Jake’s dilemma is to find the ways in which you relate to it personally, the ways in which you’ve been in Jake’s shoes. Think about how you can relate to his type of situation. Think about what you want badly and what you’d be willing to sacrifice to get it. Have you been caught between achieving results and your ideals? How far have people who you admire pushed things in order to succeed? And yet, how far is too far? How do you keep your moral compass in the face of conflicting demands? This is part of why Training Day is so universal and affects people at a deep level.

Let’s Create a Demo Plot with a Good, Strong Dilemma

Now let’s experiment with dilemma by making up a quick plot and putting it through its paces. (In the second half of the book we’ll work through the full development of an entire plot on a script that I’m really writing). Let’s say that a super-wealthy businessman hires a detective to protect his wife from unknown assailants, and in the process the detective falls madly in love with her. This is a simple enough idea, but is there any dilemma inherent in the basic premise? I don’t know. Falling in love with your boss’s wife can put you in a tough spot, but it can certainly be expanded upon. Let’s play with the plot, paying attention to possibilities that could put our detective in a situation in which he’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. Let’s say that this wife is wild, feisty, and intensely sexual, and he finds himself immediately attracted to her. She could run with a rich, crazy, exotic crowd that our detective finds exhilarating, since we’ll say that he’s never been around big-time wealth. This makes the job hard to let go of. But remember that there’s somebody out to kill her and there’s substantial danger to it. To complicate matters further, let’s say that there’s something off about her that makes his sixth sense tingle. In a voiceover we could hear him thinking, “If I had any sense I’d walk out the door right now.”

Now the plot is expanding into something which has the elements of a strong dilemma. It’s unacceptable to let go of this job because it pays well, he’s very attracted to her, someone has pissed him off by trying to hurt him, and he finds himself in an exhilarating world of wealth and power, but it’s equally unacceptable to keep doing the job because it is quite dangerous and unpredictable, and she is strangely off kilter—all his instincts are screaming for him to get out.

Let’s take our plot further. Say that in one attempt on her life, the wife is not only unfazed by it, but even drunkenly defiant, perhaps crazily so, and is actually good in a fight, earning his respect. What if she’s a trouble magnet, spirited and adventurous? What if he’s sober, conservative and industrious, emotionally shut down and small minded? What if she’s attracted to him and lets him know it? What if he can’t stop thinking about her? What if she’s love-starved and needs him? What if she’s vulnerable emotionally, like a little girl who needs a daddy? But she’s also an intoxicatingly sexy woman. She’s crazy and fun, and challenges him on many fronts. She can be a sexual predator and a reckless troublemaker. Picture Catherine Zeta-Jones as this wildly intoxicating, adventurous bitch on wheels who’s driving him crazy, but who’s also truly audacious, fun, and mesmerizing. Do you see how I’m working this in terms of dilemma? I’m playing with extremes. How can I make it worse in both directions? How attractive can she be? How dangerous? How unpredictable? How provocative? I’m complicating the dilemma, dimensionalizing it, deepening it, and layering it.

Let’s take it even further. Let’s say she’s a sexual animal who and attracts men in droves, many of whom are the wrong kind. What if she intentionally gets herself into dangerous situations with tough guys just to make our detective deal with them? What if she’s totally hot for him and lets him know it? Taunts him with it, dares him to do something about it. He wouldn’t be able to sleep—every time he closes his eyes he sees her. She could work hard to make him jealous, flirting and jumping in bed with anybody and everybody, rubbing it in his face. She could run around the house naked and he could be losing his mind. She’s the best thing and the worst thing that ever happened to him. The more flawed he is, the more susceptible he is to her charms, her perversions, her tweaked energy, but it also makes him more frightened, lost, intimidated, and damaged. She could be opening him up emotionally, dragging him out of reclusion and forcing him to really live life for the first time. But the attempts on her life could heat up and it could get quite touch and go. He could almost get killed protecting her. Her crazy streak could get truly freaky. It could be a genuinely scary and deeply puzzling mystery. What if she even seems to have a death wish or acts suicidal?

As I play with the possibilities, I keep a laser focus on the dilemma. Every idea, every extreme that I try on all have to do with how it impacts, improves, and compounds his dilemma. I’m turning Story into Drama. This is the process in real time. Our detective’s dilemma is really about a mouse caught in a mousetrap, and he knows it’s a mousetrap, but the damn cheese is so awesome that he can’t walk away from it. Let’s look at a two-column chart of his dilemma to help clarify things.


Worst thing that ever happened to him    Best thing that ever happened to him

She’s big trouble                                       She’s irresistible

She’s got a real enemy                              He refuses to be intimidated

She makes him crazy                                He’s having the time of his life

He’s losing control emotionally               He’s opening up to life

She’s crazy and unpredictable                  She’s vulnerable and needs him

He can’t sleep                                           He can’t live without her

Danger                                                      Adventure

Death                                                        Fun

Disaster                                                     Freedom

Trouble                                                      If he leaves, life would be boring

Panic                                                         Challenge

She’ll cost him his PI license                    He’s living the high life

He can’t trust her                                      She saves his ass

He could get killed                                    She could get killed

The mystery is deadly                              The mystery is too intriguing

Is he being played for a fool?                   The money is too good to quit

He’s jealous of her lovers                         He won’t get to be with her

She’s a trouble magnet                             She’s tough, and good in a fight

This list could go on and on as I explore the material and expand upon it. It’s a good way to see it clearly. You should stop at this point and work on this plot yourself. Where can you go with it? How far can you take it? What’s the most intense that this dilemma could be? What’s the tone of the movie? If it’s comic, then how dark is too dark before you puncture the tone? If it’s a thriller, how much comic relief strips it of its teeth and claws? It could go in the direction of The Big Lebowski or become more like Body Heat. This is the process. Work it like a maniac. Go off the deep end. Fill pages of notes. Turn it inside out, upside down, change the sexes of the characters, get crazy, attack the audience. What’s the scariest you can make it? What’s the funniest? What’s cliché about it? What’s fresh about it? Why do you like it? What bores you about it?

Put yourself in the detective’s shoes and live the dilemma yourself. Think, “OK, I’m this detective and I’m caught in this tough spot.” Describe it to yourself from this first person point of view. There’s no substitute for taking on the role of each of your characters, because it enables you to see their point of view explicitly rather than indirectly and abstractly. Put yourself in the wife’s shoes. Be the killer and think about how badly you need to kill this wacko bitch. And even if the would-be killer is totally psychotic, his take on why she deserves to die can be extremely valuable and help take the story to the next level. Plus, just exploring in this way can explode your plot into wildly new dimensions. Go back and forth between extreme subjectivity and extreme objectivity. Roll it around in your subconscious. Do some research on what a bodyguard does. Brainstorm as hard as you can with it. See some movies that do something similar; read novels that play with this type of thing; see how masters of the genre handle it. Take enough time with the idea so that the obvious aspects of this type of story become apparent. Play with it and tell a great story. Mix your raw storytelling skills with your craft as a dramatist.

Are you caught in a similar dilemma in your own everyday life? How do the little dilemmas in your life match our detective’s? Does adventure call to you, but it will cost you the security that you already have? Probably, but how? Does your buddy want you to drop out of college and run off with him to see the world? Do you want to quit your job and do a risky but potentially highly profitable start-up? Is your marriage in trouble and do you want to try something to spice it up, but it might just make more trouble? If you can find a similarity in your own life, it will help you as the dramatist to make the connection. The more specifically you can articulate it, the more successfully you’ll be able to communicate it.

So let’s lay out a full statement of the dilemma including all it aspects, layers, and dimensions. It’s unacceptable for him to let go of this job because he’s head-over-heels in love with her, the pay is incredible, he’s having the time of his life, he’s being dragged kicking and screaming into really living for the first time, he has a shot at going to bed with her, the mystery is too challenging, he’s angry that someone has tried to hurt them both, she needs him, and he’s having pure adventurous fun. It’s equally unacceptable to keep doing the job because it’s quite dangerous and he may well get killed, she’s all kinds of trouble, he’s going crazy, he can’t trust her, he’s being dragged out of his emotional safety zone, he’s afraid he’s being set up, she makes him insanely jealous, there’s something really off kilter about her, and all his instincts tell him to run the other way.


The second of Aristotle’s four elements that spellbinding drama share is Crisis, the point at which the dilemma comes to a critical juncture, the make-or-break point. Crisis forces the protagonist to react immediately to his dilemma, instead of being able to contemplate it from a distance. Figuratively it’s the gun to the head, the breaking point. While dealing with the dilemma, the protagonist has been worrying, “What am I going to do when I have to make a choice?” Crisis now forces that choice and it demands an immediate response.

In submarine terminology, when the sub is sinking toward the bottom of the ocean, it will hit what’s called “crush depth” where it will implode from the pressure. In a plot, crisis is that crush depth. A good, strong dilemma will be intensely gripping to the audience, but at crisis we take that dilemma and hyper-compress it a lot more, which amps the pressure through the roof. It’s the cornered wild animal now backed in to the corner and pushed to the limit. Watch out!

The crisis is the decisive moment, the point of imminent failure in which anything and everything have become unstable. It’s all on the edge, and immediate destruction looms in full. It indicates that many of the systems that constitute order and control could be failing catastrophically. Many things in the protagonist’s world might be collapsing—his operations, goals, emotions, physical health, romantic connections, sanity, plans, friendships, partnerships, or finances. All of this has to do with trauma, radical change, panic, upheaval, imminent collapse, the edge of destruction, loss, failure, calamity, the abyss, and staring death in the face. It’s the crunch point and it creates intense dramatic action.

The first triangle is generally where the dilemma kicks in and builds in intensity to the crisis (the second triangle), followed immediately by decision and action (the third triangle); the fourth triangle is the resolution. Again, this provides just a rough sense of proportion and is not meant to specify page 30, 60, 90, and so on. It’s just intended to help those learning this process to understand that the crisis occurs toward the end of the timeline as things come to a head. I’ve seen so many of my students have substantial misconceptions about this proportion that I mention it here for clarity’s sake.

Some years ago I was explaining crisis to a group of students in New York when one of then said, “Oh, I get it. A crisis is a crisis!” The whole class laughed, but I said, “No, he’s got it. That’s exactly right.” Think about a crisis in your real life. Your spouse is mad at you, the kids are sick, you’re late for work, the car won’t start, you may get fired from your job, and then something really bad happens. It’s all the worst possible things happening at the worst possible moment. It invites the question: “How many anvils can you drop on your protagonist’s head at once?”

The Use of Crisis in Training Day

When searching for the crisis in a movie you’re watching, you may think you’ve found it, but then discover that things get even worse for the protagonist. Sometimes you can’t be sure until after the dust has settled. For instance, when I was studying Training Day, I thought at first that Jake’s crisis occurred when Alonzo insisted that Jake claim he shot Roger. It seemed so obvious that I never questioned it and taught it that way to students. But in further intensive study of the film, I found that, in fact, Alonzo manages to chill Jake out in the car. Jake doesn’t appear to yield or agree, but in the next scene he follows Alonzo up to the Hillside gang’s house and seems perfectly mellowed. He’s hanging out, playing cards, and apparently trusting Alonzo again (at least to a certain degree), and it’s not until Jake discovers that Alonzo left him there to be murdered by Smiley, the gang leader (Cliff Curtis), that he really snaps and goes beyond the point of no return. So in Training Day, Jake’s actual crisis is when he discovers that Alonzo set him up to be murdered. He’s literally staring down the barrel of a gun and the fullness of who Alonzo really is hits him like a Mack truck.

The Use of Crisis in What Women Want

In What Women Want, Nick’s crisis is that just as his revenge to get rid of Darcy is bearing fruit, Nick has fallen completely in love with her and is sweeping her off her feet. He has stolen her idea and won the Nike account, and they make out in her new apartment, but then he finds out that she’s been fired for not doing her job well.

The Use of Crisis in Minority Report

In Minority Report, John Anderton’s crisis occurs when he’s in the hotel pointing a gun at Leo Crow, the man it was predicted he would murder, after learning that Crow abducted and murdered his son, while Agatha screams at him that he can choose to not fulfill the very murder that she predicted. Anderton’s whole world is warping and ripping in half, and the whole rest of his life hangs in the balance.

The Use of Crisis in The Godfather

In The Godfather, following the attempt on Michael’s life which kills his Sicilian bride, he is thrust into a leadership crisis when he is put in charge of the family because Sonny has been murdered. The family is in trouble, Barzini is muscling in, and Tessio and Clemenza, the Corleone’s lieutenants (Abe Vigoda and Richard Castellano), want to break off. When Don Corleone puts him in the hot seat by appointing him the head of the family, it pushes everything to the next level.

The Use of Crisis in Tootsie

A good example of a multifaceted crisis occurs in Tootsie. Michael’s crisis essentially occurs when, dressed as Dorothy, he tries to kiss Julie and she freaks out. Their cozy relationship is over and he’s stuck being Dorothy because the producer won’t let Dorothy out of her contract. But notice how many other terrible things happen when he’s at his most vulnerable. When he tries to tell Julie that he’s really a man dressed as a woman and that he’s in love with her, the phone rings and it’s her father, Les. Julie insists that Dorothy go out with Les and let him down easy since Julie now believes Dorothy’s a lesbian. Les then proposes marriage and, as Dorothy runs away from him, she gets grabbed at home by John Van Horn, who tries to rape her. As soon as John leaves, Sandy is at the door, and chews him out when he admits that he’s in love with another woman. All the lies that Michael has been juggling during the entire movie come crashing down on his head all at once. He has always been in deep water, but now he’s drowning. Something drastic has to be done or he’s finished.

It’s always important to be able to put your finger on one key element that constitutes the crisis, rather than just a flurry of things, so in Tootsie it would be when Michael tries to kiss Julie. Everything else complicates it and adds to the crushing weight, but when she blows up in his face, he’s lost the one thing that was making his life work.

A crisis doesn’t have to be that complex, but in the same way that a complex dilemma can be more satisfying than a simple one, so too can a crisis in which many systems are collapsing simultaneously. One trick that I find useful for this is to examine your story around the two-thirds or three-quarters point and find the elements that are coming unglued. Once you’ve found them, see if you can focus them or gang them up on your protagonist all at the crucial moment. While this isn’t necessary, it can certainly enhance the intensity and complexity of your crisis.

The Use of Crisis in Blade Runner

In Blade Runner, Deckard’s dilemma about killing the replicants comes to a head when Roy Batty kills Dr. Tyrell, the inventor of the replicants (Joe Turkel), and Sebastian, the genetic scientist/toy maker (William Sanderson). It propels Deckard into action against the replicants and he can no longer debate their fate. Roy has killed one of the top industrialists in the solar system on Deckard’s watch and Deckard must take action. He gets sent to Sebastian’s apartment where he runs into Pris, the luxury pleasure model (Darryl Hannah) who attacks him and is in the act of killing him.

Let’s Add a Crisis to Our Demo Plot

Now let’s experiment with our story about the detective who gets hired to protect the wild, sexy client. What we’re looking for is for his dilemma to come to a head somewhere around the two-thirds or three-quarters point in the plot. We have him in a situation in which he cannot keep protecting her, yet cannot walk away, and we want to bring all this to a crunch point. Here are some questions that I’ve generated about the story coming to a crisis: How bad can it get? What’s an entertaining way for this disaster/adventure to come to a head? How bad can she get? How screwed can he get? How close to solving her case can he get? What’s a humorous way to blow it up? What’s a dangerous way to blow it up? How can everything get much, much worse? How does the husband factor in? What if the detective finds out she’s into blackmail? That’s going to throw things into an entirely new light. What if he discovers that it’s a much more dangerous game than he ever suspected? What if she’s truly insane? What if he’s been played for a sucker? What if he’s now completely in love with her right as everything comes to this critical juncture? What if they’ve finally made love and it was beyond fantastic? What if they’ve finally made love and she starts acting really crazy? What if the threats to her become extremely dangerous? What if he’s losing his mind? What if he discovers that she has betrayed him? What if he suspects that she has sold him out? What about the people who are trying to hurt her? Who are they and what are they really up to? If she’s into blackmail, then how would that blow up at the critical moment? What about her sanity going completely over the edge?

One of the things about working a dilemma like this is that at the critical moment, things can also be right on the edge of success, as well as being disastrous. For instance, because our detective’s dilemma is partially about his inability to leave her, I want to bring that to a head. So I have them finally make love and now he’s totally smitten with her. To go along with that, she would have to seem to be in love with him, perhaps even be ready to leave her husband for him. Maybe she’s bringing out real strength in him, so that he’s finally acting like a real man, instead of a half-broken guy who can’t stand the heat. Maybe he’s very close to finding her attackers. Maybe he gets a huge bonus after a particularly dangerous fight and he’s now got some significant savings for the first time in his life. So he’s getting really close to succeeding as well as really close to failing, all of which constitutes a crisis.

Here’s an attempt to lay out the crisis in a simple form: Right as our detective gets very close to solving who’s after the woman he’s protecting, they sleep together and are now madly, deeply in love. He’s high on life, feeling like he can move mountains, but then gets information from her attacker that she’s really a blackmailer and that she’s been using him and may have seriously betrayed him. She’s acting crazier and his own sanity starts to crack. And right at this juncture, they get attacked in a serious way by her enemy.


A crisis forces the protagonist to make an immediate decision and take an action, and is the turning point in the script, for good or bad. The word decision means to “cut off from.” Decision and Action in the face of crisis reveals the true character of the protagonist. The mask is stripped off. The classic example is when the big strong guy jumps up and runs out screaming and the little guy jumps up and saves the day. Think about how you never know who your real friends are until you’ve been through a crisis with them. Someone you thought was your friend may desert you when things turn critical, while someone you didn’t really know or like steps in and saves the day. The audience is fascinated with seeing the mask stripped off. Why? Look at how infrequently we see this kind of naked human emotional reality. Pretence, subterfuge, diplomacy, self deception, and layer upon conventional layer cover reality so that, in fact, it’s a rarity to see the mask stripped all the way off.

Crisis also offers a crack in reality that can be taken advantage of by the opportune. The Chinese word for crisis is made up of two characters—one for danger and another for opportunity. It is said that great moments are born of great opportunity. Seemingly impossible things can be accomplished in the teeth of a crisis. Scoundrels can overturn a government; adventurers can seize the moment and steer things their own way; desperate people can find strength and courage they never suspected they had.

In real life it is people’s ability or inability to make decisions in critical circumstances that make them who they are. Those who stand out are extremely good at making decisions in the most high pressure situations. It’s what sets them apart. People rise to positions of leadership based on how their ability to handle pressure, think clearly, sort possibilities, and operate on instinct, brains, and character. They’re extremely effective in a crisis. A great compliment among sailors is, “He’s a good man in a storm.” Conversely, someone who’s unable to marshal their forces to get it right, or simply cannot work their way through a catastrophic situation will fail. It’s the test of character and that’s why it makes such compelling drama.

Look back over your own life at the crises you’ve faced and try to find those moments when you performed incredibly, as well as those in which you fell apart miserably. Many people spend their lives beating themselves up over a failure at a crucial moment. Have you saved someone’s life in a tight situation? Have you cost someone their life? How do you tend to respond when things get critical? Some people get calm and are effective in a crisis while others panic and come apart at the seams. Who is the best person you know in a tough spot? Who is the worst? How do they act? Can you figure out why and what makes them tick? Are you surprised at how a seemingly frail person can emerge as a hero and a supposed person of power can buckle?

Not only is character revealed in a crisis, but it can actually be formed on the spot. People are capable of phenomenal things when crisis erupts. There are the familiar tales of the little old lady who picks up a car off her grandson, or the laid-back farm boy from Missouri in the Vietnam War who snaps and becomes a creature of the jungle. That particular element of their character was always there, but it never had to reveal itself before. This is when the lump of coal turns into a diamond under pressure. It’s the make-or-break point.

The thing about decision and action is that it breaks the paralysis or stasis of dilemma. The protagonist can be fundamentally frozen by the dilemma even as it escalates. What has been done is to put the protagonist into a highly pressurized situation with dilemma and then make it a whole lot worse, hyper-compressing it at the point of crisis. Something has to give. The protagonist is forced by crisis to make a decision and take an action about the dilemma. This heightens the dramatic action that much more, putting the audience on the edge of their seat.

Crisis often brings out the best in people, but it can also bring out the worst. In most instances your plot will either end with a creative resolution (a happy ending) or with a tragic resolution (a sad ending). If it’s a creative resolution, then, at the point of decision and action, your protagonist will probably begin to break out of the paralysis of the dilemma and kick into high gear. A decision has been made and an action has been taken that launches things toward the conclusion.

If the resolution is tragic, then the protagonist may well do the worst possible thing at the most critical moment and begin the downward spiral to complete failure. You’ve probably seen this in real life when you’ve tried to convince someone not to do something that is obviously totally wrong at a critical juncture in their life, but you simply cannot stop them and they rush off into failure. A bad choice at a crucial moment works in a comedy as well, by the way. The protagonist, perhaps an Inspector Clouseau type, will get it catastrophically wrong at the crucial moment and still stumble into solving the case in a hilarious way.

The Use of Decision and Action in Training Day

In Training Day, when Alonzo tries to have Jake killed and Jake squeaks out of it, his decision is that he is going to take Alonzo down or die trying, and his action is to burst in on Alonzo and tell him that he’s under arrest. He has now passed the point of no return and will not stop until Alonzo is in jail or dead.

The Use of Decision and Action in What Women Want

In What Women Want, Nick Marshall decides he’s got to somehow repair the damage he’s done to Darcy. He goes to his boss, Dan (Alan Alda), and essentially orders him to hire Darcy back because the whole idea for getting Nike Women’s account was hers. He cannot allow his sabotage of her to stand unchecked and he sets out to find Darcy and undo it all, when he gets sidetracked by saving Erin, the suicidal girl. We see Nick for who he really is at this point, a man who is growing and learning, and who cares deeply about Darcy.

The Use of Decision and Action in Minority Report

In Minority Report, John Anderton’s decision is that he will not kill Leo Crow, and his action is that he arrests him instead. Things spin out of control when Crow tells him that the murder prediction was all a set up, and then pulls the trigger, killing himself. Anderton’s real character emerges when he refuses to kill Crow.

The Use of Decision and Action in The Godfather

In The Godfather, Michael’s decision is to move the family to Las Vegas and his action is to essentially declare war on Barzini by going after his agent, Moe Green, the Las Vegas casino owner (Alex Rocco). This may not be readily apparent, but let’s look at the scene again. It’s all there: Michael comes in and tells Fredo to get rid of the girls, that he’s here to do business, then immediately goes after Moe Green, telling Moe that he’s going to sell them his share of their hotel and casino (they’re co-owners). Moe explodes on Michael, saying the Corleones are washed up in New York and were chased out of town by Barzini. Moe says he’s talked to Barzini and can make a deal that allows him to keep his hotel and casino. This is not a casual business meeting at all. Michael has thrown down the gauntlet to Barzini by going after Moe Green. This is highlighted in the next scene when Don Corleone tells Michael that now they’ll come after him and that Barzini will set up a meeting in which someone that Michael absolutely trusts will guarantee his safety, and that Michael will be assassinated at that meeting. This is war. It may not seem like it, because it’s indirect—Michael and Barzini never go head to head—but the point of no return hasdefinitely been crossed. Bear in mind that Michael is playing it smart and it looks like he’s running away and getting in over his head, but it’s because everyone underestimates him that he is able to take them all by surprise in the end.

The Use of Decision and Action in Tootsie

Often the protagonist is in more trouble than ever before once he makes his decision and takes action, but he is now active rather than paralyzed. Once Michael Dorsey in Tootsie makes his decision to reveal his true self on live TV and does so, Julie is furious at him. He has by no means resolved anything; he has merely gotten out of being Dorothy—at the cost of any connection to Julie. He’s out of the frying pan and into the fire. It’s not until he makes things right with Les, Julie’s father, and wins her over at the film’s conclusion that he fully resolves his dilemma. I say this to show that there is a real distinction between decision and action, and resolution. They’re truly not the same. That will become clearer when we discuss resolution next.

The Use of Decision and Action in Blade Runner

In Blade Runner, Deckard’s decision is to go after the replicants despite his desire not to, and his action is to kill Pris (however reluctantly) and then try to shoot Roy, the replicants’ leader (Rutger Hauer). He’s still trapped in his dilemma concerning killing the replicants, but his hand has been forced and he has taken action. He doesn’t like killing Pris—he’s still a draftee doing an awful job that he’s torn about—nor is he happy or eager to have to go after Roy.

Let’s Add a Decision and Action for Our Demo Plot

So now our detective is madly in love with his client, but has just learned that she has probably betrayed him and, as a result, they’re under attack by her enemy. He’s clearly got to make a crucial decision and take an action. What’s he going to do? His whole world is upside down and he’s got to come up with something fast. Is she the love of his life or is she the worst thing that ever happened to him? Has she really betrayed him or is somebody trying to ruin both her and him? Is he sane enough to even deal with these questions now? Can he stave off this deadly attack and survive somehow?

Here’s an attempt to explain a decision and action in the face of crisis: He panics and lashes out at her as he tries to fight off the attackers. She explodes at him and he realizes that she actually has betrayed him. He fights with her and calls her crazy and says she’s ruined his life. He tells her that he knows everything about her blackmailing her unknown assailant, and that he’s through being her dancing monkey. They barely escape their attackers and then separate.


Resolution, the fourth of Aristotle’s key elements to creating riveting drama, is the protagonist actively and conclusively solving the dilemma, for better or worse. The dilemma should be resolved by the protagonist as opposed to someone doing it for her, or it just happening to fall together. We tend to want our protagonist to be the doer of the action. If someone else does it for her, this is called Deus Ex Machina, the god in a machine who appears unexpectedly and solves an apparently insoluble problem. Such a scenario is not satisfying to audiences. The cavalry can show up and help John Wayne win the battle, but it shouldn’t win the battle for him. Resolution by happenstance can also be equally ungratifying to audiences.

Being caught on the horns of a dilemma can be resolved several different ways. One way is to choose one of the horns—one of the unacceptable alternatives. Michael Corleone does this because he’s caught between being a criminal and being a respectable civilian. He chooses being a Mafia don in the end and this resolves his dilemma. However he seems unaware at this point that his dilemma has cost him his soul because he’s become such a reptilian crime lord. That’s the tragedy of the piece, that he resolves the dilemma at the cost of his soul.

The other way to resolve a dilemma is to go between the horns. By thinking on her feet, our protagonist is able to come up with a radical third alternative in which neither of the two equally unacceptable alternatives is taken. You see this often when there is a creative resolution—when the protagonist devises an unexpected way out. A great example of this is when Mitch McDeere (Tom Cruise), the young lawyer in The Firm, is trapped between the Mafia law firm he works for and the crooked FBI agent, Wayne Tarrance (Ed Harris), who’s trying to muscle him into violating his client-attorney privilege to take down the Firm by illegally turning over documents. Mitch comes up with a radical third alternative when he realizes that the Firm is systematically over-billing its clients through the mail. Mitch presents the FBI with the mail fraud bust, satisfying the letter of their agreement, but he doesn’t violate his client-attorney privilege, which would have gotten him disbarred.

The resolution should be fixed firmly in finality, that is, it should be irreversible. If the protagonist wins it should remain a victory and, if he loses, it should remain a loss. Audiences tend to be gratified by a resolution that doesn’t backslide. This is not to say that you should never have an ambiguous ending. If you want to irritate or unsettle the audience then, by all means, have an ambiguous ending. But don’t give your screenplay an ambiguous ending just because you can’t think of a better way to end it. Remember, it’s all about the audience.

The Use of Resolution in Training Day

In Training Day, Jake conclusively resolves his dilemma by beating Alonzo in a fight to the finish and going off to turn in the evidence of Alonzo’s criminal activity. He destroys Alonzo, within the legal world, which is what matters to Jake, as well as within the criminal world. He has finally completed what he set in motion at the point of decision and action.

The Use of Resolution in What Women Want

The resolution in What Women Want is that Nick comes clean with Darcy. He tells her that he ripped off her ideas because she “stole” his job, and that he feels awful and has been totally dazzled by her. He is ready to lose everything, and fully expects that he’s lost her, but she forgives him. He conclusively resolves his dilemma by coming completely clean.

The Use of Resolution in Minority Report

The resolution in Minority Report is that John Anderton finishes off Lamar (Max von Sydow), the retiring head of Precrime, by having the images of him murdering Anne Lively broadcast to the group gathered to honor him. He confronts Lamar with the cost of creating a murder-free society, which was to kill Agatha’s mother, and demands that Lamar murder him in order to maintain the system. Lamar takes his own life instead.

The Use of Resolution in The Godfather

In The Godfather, Michael Corleone goes all the way as a criminal when he kills off all his enemies, including the traitors within his organization, to emerge as a soulless crime lord. He achieves total power, but loses his connection with the family he set out to save.

The Use of Resolution in Tootsie

In Tootsie, Michael Dorsey makes up with Les and then reconnects with Julie. He has grown so much as a person that Julie is willing to let him back into her life—this time without the dress.

The Use of Resolution in Blade Runner

The resolution in Blade Runner is that Deckard drops out of the situation in which he was trapped in and runs off with Rachael, one of the replicants he was ordered to “retire.” After saving Deckard’s life, Roy shows him what it means to really live, and Deckard gets it and begins living with everything he’s got. He finds a radical third alternative in a dead-end dilemma, breaking free of the entire system in which he was trapped.

The Use of Maximum Dramatic Reversal  

Aristotle also observed that those dramas which grip an audience tend to have maximum dramatic reversal, also known as peripety (from the Greek peripeteia). The classic example of dramatic reversal is when the hunter becomes the hunted. Other examples include the king becoming a beggar, the master becoming a slave, or the underdog triumphing. Maximum dramatic reversal is about things swinging around to their opposite, and it’s part of the kick of a great or satisfying ending. It adds intensity and completion, often through an element of the unexpected.

There is a real reversal in Minority Report because in the beginning Anderton is an absolute believer in Precrime and its ability to shape destiny, and in the end he is totally outside of its universe, a defiant man with free choice. In What Women Want, Nick undergoes a complete reversal because he is so open, so clear, and so opposite the shallow man he was in the beginning. Jake is as different as day and night by the end of Training Day, having gone from being a “daisy-fresh rookie” to a seasoned veteran. In Blade Runner, Deckard’s reversal is that he changes substantially from the emotionally disconnected, passionless person we meet at the beginning of the film (his ex-wife called him Sushi, cold fish). By the end he has been awakened by Roy, drops out of the game, and runs off with Rachael. In Tootsie, Michael Dorsey undergoes a complete transformation. Instead of being a hustling, neurotic guy who lies to women and is a pain in the ass to work with, he has become realistic, straightforward and honest. In The Godfather, Michael Corleone has changed completely, but in the opposite direction. He starts out as an innocent and ends up a soulless, cold-blooded Mafia don.

The Use of Discovery or Recognition

Aristotle also talked about a moment of fundamental discovery or recognition, often appearing as a revelation, an awakening, or an epiphany. The protagonist may discover that she has had a major blind spot that has been causing her problem, or may find that she has been part of the problem and, seeing this, can now become part of the solution. This kind of recognition can set the protagonist free to decisively resolve things. In some cases the discovery or recognition is external, with the protagonist learning some crucial piece of information that constitutes a final piece of the puzzle.

When Jake Hoyt is beating Alonzo down in Training Day he says he realizes that he’s not like Alonzo, and that he has an entirely different way of operating. Nick Marshall has a fundamental recognition in What Women Want when he tells Darcy the truth. More than ever, he realizes that he’s been utterly horrible to her while she has been faultless and magnanimous. In Minority Report John Anderton makes the crucial discovery that Anne Lively is actually Agatha’s mother and it all clicks. He had learned of her existence right before the frame up was set in motion, and that’s why he was framed. In The Godfather, Michael Corleone doesn’t really experience an internal recognition because he doesn’t seem to notice how cold and hard he’s become. He’s a tragic figure, in spite of his total victory. Michael does have an external recognition however, when he gets Carlo to verify that it was, in fact, Barzini who was behind setting up Sonny’s execution at the toll booth. In Tootsie, Michael Dorsey’s moment of discovery is when he tells Julie: “I was a better man with you as a woman than I ever was with a woman as a man, you know what I mean? I just gotta learn to do it without the dress.” He finally understands what it means to be in a real relationship and this helps him pull it all together in the end and make it work with Julie. In Blade Runner, Rick Deckard has a substantial recognition when Roy, as he dies, shows him what living life to the fullest means. This electrifies Deckard, galvanizing him into his resolution.

Aristotle maintains that recognition and reversal can occur anywhere, but if you cluster them around the resolution, you will get the most impact. The recognition will open the protagonist’s eyes and can enable him or her to conclusively resolve the dilemma, and if there’s a substantial reversal, you will enhance the overall dramatic impact even more.

 Let’s Add a Resolution for Our Demo Plot

Does it seem like we will have a happy ending with our detective and his wacko client? Will they get back together and live happily ever after? Probably. But how and why? And on who’s terms? Are they happy and/or crazy at the end? Do they take out the attacker together? How does our detective transform? Does his lover transform as well? What’s the secret of all the weird stuff that’s been happening? Had she betrayed him or was it a misrepresentation or misunderstanding? These are tough questions in a plot that is so scantily developed, but here’s an attempt to pull it together: He ends up inadvertently teaming up with her to take out several of her attackers and remove her from danger. As it turns out, she had been using blackmail to protect herself from some former business partners who went seriously corrupt and tried to implicate her. He comes completely to life and becomes a totally free-spirited wild man. She has freed him from his own inhibitions and now they’re perfect for each other, so she leaves her husband and marries him.

Is this a perfect plot? Certainly not, but it demonstrates all the aspects of this tool, which consists of the elements, dilemma, crisis, decision and action, and resolution. I spent a few hours working on it because it’s a skeletal teaching demonstration. If it was a story I was actually working on I would have spent a hundred hours on it. What we’re doing is looking at a plot under construction from the ground up, rather than just examining Aristotle’s observations as applied to acknowledged masterpieces, like Training Day and Tootsie. The important thing is that you acquire the thought processes and habits of a trained dramatist. It’s what will enable you to consistently create, develop, and structure dramatic plots that work.



  1. Does your story have a dilemma or potential dilemma inherent in it? It may well not. Does your central character feel trapped by some hard choices? What are they? (Remember that the main dilemma happens to your protagonist.) Does this pressure build up, as though walls are closing in on him or her? If there is a dilemma inherent in your story, then define it clearly.
  1. If there isn’t a dilemma in your material, then try out possibilities to create one. This involves looking at the difficulties faced by your protagonist and then creating a second equally painful choice for him or her that complicates things in such a way as to create a dilemma. A dilemma will almost always enhance the dramatic power of your story.
  1. Can you frame the dilemma as “It’s unacceptable to _________ and it’s equally unacceptable to _________”?
  1. Is the dilemma big enough in scope to carry your script? Does it embrace most of the story, or does it get resolved quickly and then vanish? Does the resolution of the dilemma constitute the end of the story?
  1. Do we care about the protagonist and his or her dilemma? Are we riveted by it? Does it pass the “So what” test? Is this a dilemma of magnitude? If not, why not? What would make it more intense, more significant, more substantial? Will the average person in the street care passionately about this type of story, this type of dilemma?
  1. Create a two-column chart in which you polarize the two equally unacceptable alternatives. This will help you to separate them. The less abstract you make these two equally painful choices, the more easily you can work with them. Get your hands dirty. Don’t try to be neat and orderly. Don’t be afraid to be repetitive. Go off the deep end and play with the dilemma using this chart.
  1. Have you found yourself in a similar dilemma in your own life, even if it’s on a much smaller in scale? Write about what it’s like to be trapped in such a dilemma.
  1. Can you gauge how strangers might be impacted by this dilemma? Will they care? Will they identify with it? Will they feel connected to it? Will it move them? Why? The dilemma has to be universal and it has to resonate with real people in the real world, or you lose your audience.
  1. How can you make the dilemma more intense? What’s the worst it could be? Does this possibility radically expand your story? Don’t be afraid to get in over your head because you may stumble into a bold new dimension by not trying to control the creative process too tightly.
  1. How can you complicate the dilemma and add new layers to it? You may find that it’s much deeper than you first suspected. Remember that it takes a while for the obvious to become apparent, so you’ll continually have new insights about the dilemma as your story develops.
  1. Are you limping through the creation process or are you attacking it? Don’t be afraid of chaos. Don’t settle for less. Put in the necessary time to get genuine depth and power, and to tap into the true potential of your story. Give the audience the ride of their lives.
  1. Has the dilemma grown beyond being a dilemma? If you make certain plot choices, you can sometimes undo the dilemma because the two unacceptable alternatives change in relation to each other. Are the two sides still equally unacceptable? Has one side gotten less painful? If so then you have to beef the other side up to correct the balance. This will have the effect of ratcheting up the dramatic power of your story even further.
  1. As you begin to understand the dilemma at a deeper level, can you feel it in your bones? Do you carry it with you all the time? Do you see people around you or in the news who are trapped in similar dilemmas?
  1. As you get deeper into the story, you should be able to articulate the dilemma more clearly. Can you see new levels, dimensions, and aspects to it? These layers should still constitute one single major dilemma.
  1. Take some time to write about your protagonist’s dilemma. Explore its personality, its flavor, its intricacies, and hidden recesses. Play with the dilemma, try things on, turn it over in your brain. You’ll find that putting it down on paper enables you to clarify your thinking and to see a complex dilemma more objectively. It’s not easy to hold the whole thing in your head. The more time you spend with the protagonist’s dilemma, the more fully and clearly you’ll be able to articulate it.


  1. Does your story come to a crisis—a critical make-or-break point for the protagonist where a substantial choice must be made—roughly two-thirds or three-quarters of the way through the story? What does the crisis consist of? Articulate it clearly.
  1. Does the crisis cause the dilemma to come to a head? Has the dilemma gotten so intense that both halves are at the breaking point? Is your protagonist about to cave in from the pressure? Remember that part of a crisis may be that the protagonist is right on the edge of succeeding, so that everything crashing down on his or her head becomes that much worse.
  1. What are the wildest possibilities for your crisis? The scariest? The most unpredictable? The most dangerous? The funniest? (Your response will depend on what type of plot you’re writing.)
  1. Looking at a crisis as the worst possible things happening at the worst possible moment, are there any other awful incidents in your story that could be heaped onto this moment? These would be events that might happen nearby in the plot, but which could be moved slightly to coincide with and complicate the crisis.
  1. In your own life, have you been caught in a crisis similar to that of your protagonist? Can you remember how it felt, even if it was on a much smaller scale? Write some notes about it. Does it enhance your understanding and your ability to work with the crisis in your script?
  1. Think about how the audience will be impacted by this crisis. Is there any way they can say “So what?” and thereby dismiss it? Can they see their own lives in it? Does it resonate with them on a universal level?
  1. When you define the crisis for your plot it can give you some fresh insights into the dilemma. This is also true of decision and action, because that’s the point at which your protagonist has to do something decisive about his or her dilemma. Sometimes you’ll find that these fresh insights will open up entirely new ideas for your plot. Stay flexible and keep your ideas in suspension as long as possible, allowing new possibilities to work their way into your story.

Decision and Action

  1. Does the crisis force your protagonist to make a critical decision? Does he or she take a substantial action as a result? Can you distinguish between the decision and the action? A decision alone is not enough; drama is the stuff of action.
  1. Is the paralysis of the dilemma broken at this point? Does your main character make a dynamic change? Does he or she begin to either pull things together or to fall apart at this crucial juncture? Remember that this is not the complete transformation that comes at the resolution, but the solid beginnings of this transformation (for either good or bad).
  1. Could this decision and action be more intense? What’s the most intense it could be?
  1. Is the true character of your protagonist revealed at this point? What is revealed about him or her? Is something new emerging? Is something clarified? Has something crystallized? How will this affect the audience?
  1. Have you been in a similar situation in which you had to make a critical decision and action in the face of crisis? How did it feel? What if it had been even more intense? What if you had done something unbelievably catastrophic or incredibly heroic at that point? Play with the possibilities.


  1. Does your protagonist actively resolve his or her dilemma? What does your protagonist do to wrap it up? Articulate this clearly. Even in a tragedy, the protagonist should be proactive in completing his or her own destruction.
  1. Are you clearly distinguishing between decision & action and resolution?
  1. Is the resolution fixed in finality so that it isn’t going to backslide or become undone? If your resolution is ambiguous, are you doing it intentionally to mess with the audience, or did it just end up being vague?
  1. Is the resolution an ending worthy of a great movie? Is it substantial (even if it’s a comedy)? The ending should be the biggest moment in the movie. Does it complete the magic spell that the entire movie has been weaving?
  1. What are some other possible endings? Are you missing a huge obvious possibility that can wrap up your story? Have you experimented with radically different endings?
  1. Have you explored the extremes for your resolution?
  1. How does the resolution gratify the audience? If it’s a tragedy, does it knock the audience down and give them a powerful emotional experience that they’ll never forget? If it’s a creative upbeat resolution, what is the audience’s final mood?

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