The first two chapters of The Hero’s Dilemma

Drama at the Heart of Your Story

Jeff Kitchen

This book is about how to get started creating and developing a story using a tool that’s been around for thousands of years, but which is not well known or widely taught—Dilemma. The dictionary defines Dilemma as two equally unacceptable alternatives; two equally painful choices. Using Dilemma in a story means trapping the story’s main character between two options, each of which is equally unacceptable. It’s just a way of amplifying the central choice that’s faced by the protagonist in any story. When you’re making a decision, your mind weighs options and if both options are difficult and equal in strength, then it becomes much harder, if not impossible, to choose.

It may sound simple, but Dilemma is an enormously effective way to make both the story and its central character more compelling. Think of the lever, a fundamental device that provides mechanical advantage. While simple, it has the amazing properties of being able to lift great weights. Combined with other fundamental devices like the inclined plane, the wheel and axle, or the wedge, they can be assembled into a complex mechanism. First principles are crucial and form the foundation of how many things work, and they are first principles for a reason—because they work.

There’s a critical distinction you need to understand before learning to use Dilemma to turn a good story into a movie or TV script. While dramatic writing looks like normal storytelling, it’s remarkably different because you’re translating the story into something that actors can perform in front of an audience. You’re constructing a drama, no matter what genre your story is. You’re not just telling a story, you’re in the planning stages for putting on a show. Dramatic writing is a performance medium, and every aspect of the writing must reflect that.

In a novel, you can tell the story however you please, and can explain what a character’s thinking through interior monologue. But in a movie or TV show you need to enact the story, with actors performing it, and with dialog showing what they’re thinking. Making a story actable and gripping is much harder than it sounds, and it can take years to master, even though skilled practitioners make it look easy. Poor writing and clunky dialog can make a good story look like a clunky elementary school play instead of a professionally written dramatic plot.

Your story must work dramatically. You’re writing drama, not story—and drama is as different from mere narrative as a train car is from an airplane. They’re both heavy metal tubes that people travel in, but a plane flies. It flies because of what’s known as lift, a vacuum above the wings. A script works dramatically because the writer creates a specific effect known as Dramatic Action. This is a subjective state of excitement in the audience, in which they’re actively engaged in the story and must know what happens next.

They’re caught up in the story’s emotions and they’re trying to solve the various puzzles within the story; they’re fully engaged in the plot’s forward progression; and they’re hanging on every syllable of dialog. The audience is an active participant in the story, and whatever power the story has resides in the audience. A movie playing to an empty theater has no power. The power of the film resides in the response of the audience. This is drama. It takes a certain alchemy to turn a narrative into drama—and to make sure that every scrap of narrative is dramatized, with none of it reverting to mere information. Turning that train car into a vehicle that can fly is no simple job, and dramatic writing is similar in degree of difficulty—even if it looks easy.

The fact is that dramatic writing is generally considered the most elusive of all the literary disciplines. It’s naturally slippery and can go wrong in so many ways. Nobody knows if a big movie will succeed or fail. If it doesn’t work, then it can be quite tricky to diagnose why—when it came so close and had all the money and all the top people in it. Most people underestimate how elusive it can be to make a script work, but the brutal fact is that 99% of all script submissions are rejected. That’s a stunning number. A drama is more constructed than written, and there are thousands of ways that an amateur can butcher it, and hundreds of ways a professional can miss the mark.

Dilemma is just one part of the process involved in turning a good story into a salable script—but it’s a crucial part. Similar to the need for a solid foundation before we can construct a building, Dilemma, Crisis, Decision & Action, and Resolution constitute the story’s dramatic core—upon which everything else is built. If you get the foundation wrong, then the entire building fails. I demonstrate the full and proper use of this tool by building a story from scratch in this book, focusing on the protagonist’s Dilemma as I invent more and more of the story. You’ll see the story grow and change as I work to make the Dilemma more and more compelling.

A familiar example of Dilemma is whether to choose between Adventure or Security. This is a universal Dilemma because this choice traps many people. 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 life worth if you just chicken out?” But then there’s 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?” These are conflicting imperatives, contradictory instincts, and everyone experiences that choice in varying degrees on a regular basis. It’s a classic Dilemma that gamblers, business executives, risk takers, teenagers, thieves, and entrepreneurs wrestle with all the time. The brain freezes up when both sides are equally painful because a decision can’t be made. The more important the issue, the more impossible it is to choose.

This book is simple in some ways because I’m not providing lengthy explanations of how to use the components of the Dilemma toolkit—Dilemma, Crisis, Decision & Action, and Resolution. Having taught for so many years, I’ve found that real know-how comes from working with a tool rather than just talking about it. It’s still abstract until you actually work with it. Mere knowledge is weak compared with real know-how. Possessing information about sailboats is entirely different from being able to sail one through a storm. I’m trying to immerse you in an apprenticeship in the craft of the dramatist. This is the same work I do with students in my two-year training program.

So most of this book consists of using the Dilemma toolkit to create, develop, and structure a real story from a one-sentence idea. It’s not quick or easy. It’s long and complex and it takes a lot of hard work, precision of technique, and attack as a storyteller. I provide quick introductory instructions for each component of Dilemma, but the real instruction is in the doing. This is not a shortcut. It’s a real craft. You’ll see the story grow and develop as we hold our focus on the main character’s Dilemma while we invent the story.

This book is intended to be an unvarnished process of building this story. It’s rough in certain ways because part of the process involves pure story invention, and part of it involves working with the Dilemma toolkit to create, shape, and sculpt the story at deeper and deeper levels.
It’s repetitive as well, because story creation requires multiple iterations as possibilities come together. It gets refined, challenged, reworked, discarded, rethought, and refined. Plus, I explore multiple options, often leaving some to steep and percolate, and then coming back to them later. This book has been several years in the making, but I’ve tried not to sand it to a high polish. I prefer it to be rough-hewn since that’s truer to what it’s like building a story from scratch. And while this book is focused on writing screenplays, TV scripts, and stage plays, the techniques work well for writing novels or any kind of narrative.

Lee Child, author of the best-selling Jack Reacher novels, wrote a fascinating book called The Hero, in which he explores the evolution and function of what we collectively know as a Hero. Going back to prehistoric times to track the emergence of speech and then storytelling, Child says that the first forms of verbal communications were used for “speculating, strategizing, coordinating, discussing, predicting, and developing plans.” Communication was straightforward, direct, and honest, and was used for survival. A story that was told around the campfire might be about how one member of their tribe survived a sabertooth tiger or even killed one with a club—which taught others how to survive in the harsh world of the Cro-Magnon era.

The introduction of fiction was a milestone because it was the telling of a story which isn’t true about a person who doesn’t exist. A fictional story of a survivor’s victory would be retold for generations, and it was a form of instruction. But this story also became “a kind of parable, reassuring and educational, about how disaster can be faced and survived.” It served to encourage, empower, and embolden its listeners, and was embellished over many tellings for maximum impact and effectiveness. As our species gained in “brains, language, reality-based planning, a ferocious will to live, and a deep love of story,” we relied more and more on these stories to teach us how to survive and thrive. In fact, stories are built deep into our entire culture. “Fiction became curiously central to our natures. Our official name is homo sapiens sapiens, but some say it should be pan narens, the storytelling ape.”

Lee Child says, “All stories have a purpose, and the older and more durable the story, the more elemental the purpose is likely to be.” Elemental means primitive; fundamental; basic but simple, strongly felt. Sometimes these stories were for the purpose of entertainment, but “if the listener needs reassurance of some kind, or consolation, and the teller aims to better equip her family for future trials, then the story will likely be suspenseful in nature, replete with dangers and perils, over which a memorable character will eventually triumph in a decisive manner.”

As these memorable characters gained in stature and became more inspiring, they grew steadily in complexity and power. They became larger than life and turned into idealized examples of desired behaviors. It’s not until Homer’s tale of Odysseus that the hero as we know it is codified in our culture. It’s “one who suffers, one who endures, one who survives a long and complicated journey through the dangers and perils, and thereafter emerges with his honor and identity intact.”

What started out as a generalized form of empowerment slowly morphed into a model that people could align themselves with and emulate. In the eighteenth century, the hero began embodying altruistic qualities like dedication, integrity, bravery, and tenacity. The heroes in our fiction solve things that often remain unsolved in our reality, giving us a sense of justice, completion, or satisfaction. A fictional hero exists in a parallel universe and gives us “the sheer satisfaction of a happy ending” which osmoses into our real lives, encouraging and emboldening us to keep forging ahead. Heroes are very real and substantial to us—even if they’re only mythological—and even though not all protagonists are heroic, heroes do occupy a central part of our culture.

With so much of storytelling these days co-opted by the establishment’s power structure, the traditional value of the word Hero has been cheapened by manipulative corporate overkill. But heroes are important, and they do have their place in our psyches and in how we navigate the world. We still need stories to encourage, empower, and embolden us. The “heroes” in our movies, TV shows, plays, novels, and other stories can impact us profoundly and truly forge who we are and how we think and act. So even though the word Hero is not on our lips as much as it used to be, the concept is firmly rooted in who we are and how we face the world with wisdom, character, energy, and inspiration.

This book is not about how heroes overcome impossible odds, but about how a hero can be stopped in his or her tracks by an impossible question. Equally unacceptable alternatives can make it impossible to send a command because the brain is short circuiting, unable to even begin to decide which child to sacrifice or which loyal friend to betray. Tough choices of magnitude are compelling, and people everywhere wrestle with them daily. To see ourselves and our problems represented through the actions of a “heroic” character on this combination stage/altar, takes us on a journey to confront our own deepest doubts and maybe find a creative solution that can encourage, empower, and embolden us. How we resolve our Dilemmas in life often contributes directly to human evolution because we’re figuring out how to survive tricky situations. Dilemma creates dramatic power because there is no easy answer, so our hero is paralyzed internally, which complicates and amplifies the conflict in the story that’s being enacted.

I’ll be referring to three movies to illustrate Dilemma, so you should first watch Training Day, Tootsie, and Almost Famous. I don’t want to ruin them for you by talking about their endings before you see them.

A central part of dramatizing your story is to maximize the intensity of the central question faced by your protagonist. Every main character has to make a key choice and if you ratchet up the alternatives as much as possible, then you rivet the audience more.

A choice consists of alternatives; do I choose this or that? If one of them is easier, then the choice is less compelling. For instance, having to choose between jumping in boiling water or getting a sunburn is an easy choice and won’t rivet an audience. But if we jack up the weak side to getting scalded by steam, then it’s a much more difficult choice. And if we make the two alternatives equally unacceptable then we have what’s known as a Dilemma.

It maximizes the tension that’s inherent in the central choice being faced by the story’s main character. Instead of having to choose between two bad options, but maybe unequal (leaving an easier way out), we’re focusing on boxing the protagonist in, like cornering a wild animal. And like a cornered wild animal, someone on stage who’s faced with such a no-win situation can rivet an audience.

A good strong Dilemma can paralyze the decision-making process—unless it’s not powerful enough. An insignificant Dilemma, like whether to wash the dishes or mop the floor will bore an audience. But having to choose between your spouse and your best friend can be agonizing—especially if you lose one by siding with the other. So the Dilemma must be significant and compelling enough to hold the audience spellbound. It’s also important for the audience to connect with the character’s dilemma.

We often hear of Dilemma called other things like damned if you do and damned if you don’t; caught between the devil and the deep blue sea; trapped between a rock and a hard place; kill or be killed; a double bind; a no-win situation; a blessing and a curse; a dichotomy; Hobson’s choice; and caught between Scylla and Charybdis, among others. A Dilemma is a familiar thing—everyone has been trapped in them in varying forms and degrees. Do you hurt one friend’s feelings by turning down their invitation when you’d rather not go? Do you spend the money you’ve saved for new clothes on something less useful but more fun? Do you study or party? Do you finish grad school or travel Europe? Do you tell the truth to someone and hurt their feelings or lie to them to protect them? What I’ve noticed about a Dilemma of my own is that I’ll often veer away from choosing because there’s no easy answer.

A Dilemma is being forced to obey two mutually exclusive commands and any move toward obeying one violates the other. You can see a great example of that in the 1956 science fiction film, Forbidden Planet. Type in this link: to see the short clip. Commander Adams is investigating a shipwrecked space colony which has only two survivors, Morbius and his daughter. In this scene, Morbius is demonstrating his robot, Robbie the Robot. He has Adams give Robbie his ray gun and then Morbius orders the robot to shoot Adams. But Robbie freezes and electricity arcs around him as the machine short circuits, unable to disobey the direct order, but also unable to harm a human being. This paralysis is a defining feature of someone trapped in a good strong Dilemma.

This inner paralysis can make a hero on screen or on stage so compelling. It works in any genre. He is unable to make a decision. We’re compelled to keep watching to see how they deal with it. Whether it’s Ethan Hawke’s Jake Hoyt in Training Day, or Jim Carrey’s Fletcher Reede in Liar Liar, the fact that they’re internally frozen between two equally painful choices helps make those movies work dramatically. So the essence of all this is to focus on the central choice faced by your main character. Strengthen it by making both alternatives unacceptable and equal—and you amplify the power of your story. A good strong Dilemma pries open the inner workings of the protagonist, exposing his or her weaknesses, doubts, and malfunctions. Its power is similar to the Jaws of Life, a device used to pry open car wrecks to rescue injured passengers.

This ability to grip the audience means that you’re affecting them emotionally, keeping them rapt as you propel the story forward. If the story moves ahead and the audience doesn’t care what happens next, then you’ve got mere information. But if it moves forward and they’re on the edge of their seats, then you’ve got drama. David Mamet says it well in his famous memo (Google it): “Everyone in creation is screaming at us to make the show clear. We are tasked with, it seems, cramming a shitload of information into a little bit of time. Our friends, the penguins [industry execs], think that we, therefore, are employed to communicate information—and, so, at times, it seems to us. But note: the audience will not tune in to watch information. You wouldn’t, I wouldn’t. No one would or will. The audience will only tune in and stay tuned to watch drama.”

Drama compels the audience to keep watching. They’re in a state of action, engaged with the unresolved story, caught up in a continuous state of doubt. They must keep watching. This is called Dramatic Action, and it’s the essence of the entire craft. It’s not action on the screen, like explosions or car chases—that is mere activity. Dramatic Action is a state of action that you put the audience in. They’re up on the edge of their seats, engaged emotionally and mentally in the fate of the characters. They’re rooting for them, trying to figure out the puzzle of the story, working to think ahead of the action—compelled, riveted.

This intense connection to the forward-moving action of the story is what you, as the dramatist, are trying to create. It’s all about the audience. If you’ve ever acted on stage, then you know intimately that living connection to the audience when they’re hanging on every syllable and action. You also know what it’s like when they’re just not there; they’re checking their phones—because then you’re dead in the water. It might even be the same show you did last night, but something’s off in this performance. If you don’t have the audience rapt, then you’ve got nothing. It’s a sailboat with no wind, or a solar panel at night.
The key thing to always bear in mind is that 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. It’s the only thing there is from one point of view. I still remember when I first saw Pulp Fiction in the mid-90’s, I was blown away and brought my girlfriend back the next day. As I watched that show, I could feel electricity in the air as the audience was riveted by the story. I’m not talking metaphorically about that electricity—it was real and crackling, and if I’d had a voltmeter, I could have gotten a reading. That is Dramatic Action—an engaged and electrified audience with no dead spots.

Not only do you have to grip them, but it must be consistently compelling. If you’ve got them a lot of the time but there are gaps where it goes flat dramatically, then it still doesn’t work. You never want to revert to just story, to mere information, to flat narrative—because it’s not dramatic, it’s not actable and compelling. It also must be coherent, which means it’s structurally unified—one complete action. A simple definition of Unity of Action which has stood up well over the years, is: A single action, a single hero, a single result.

A good strong Dilemma goes a long way to focus the story because the story is about the Dilemma. It helps unify all the story material into a single coherent tale, into one complete action. A crucial aspect of working with Dilemma is that it constitutes much of the story’s proportion. It’s what the story is about and it’s what constitutes the bulk of the plot. I was amazed when I heard Cameron Crowe say of his autobiographical film, Almost Famous, that the whole movie is about the Dilemma boy reporter William. He can’t be friends with the band, or he won’t be a professional rock reporter. But he can’t remain purely objective because they’re the coolest people he knows—and he’s uncool. This is how I always taught Dilemma—that Jake Hoyt’s Dilemma is what Training Day is about. On rewatching Almost Famous, I saw instantly how all the elements of William’s Dilemma are woven throughout every aspect of the story. I could see clearly how his Dilemma is explicitly what the movie is about. This is what I teach, and it’s what we focus on as we build the story in this book using Dilemma, Crisis, Decision & Action, and Resolution.

The idea with Dilemma is that it helps dramatize your story as you create, develop, and structure it. Instead of inventing a new story and coming back later to dramatize it, you dramatize it as you create and build it. As you build a house, you’re making sure everything is level and square as you proceed. If you’re designing an airplane, you’re constantly paying attention to making sure it’s aerodynamic. These are not casual interests since a plane that can’t fly is useless—and a screenplay, TV script, or stage play that doesn’t grip an audience is useless. It must be actable, and it must compel an audience, otherwise you’ve got information and not drama. The same techniques and principles work wonders in constructing a novel, as well. Shaping a story’s structure as you develop it is like how they make those braided bamboo plants—by weaving them together as they grow.

You start with an idea for a story that grabbed your attention. The main thing is that the idea itself be worthy of making into a movie, TV series, stage play, or novel. Not every idea is worthy of becoming a film, nor is every person capable of being an NFL quarterback or an astronaut, however fierce their desire. You can’t turn a weak idea into a great film any more than you can turn spoiled ingredients into a gourmet meal.

A crucial aspect of being a professional storyteller in the entertainment industry is that you must be able to judge stories on their merits. Just because it came out of your brain does not mean it’s brilliant. Just because it really happened to you does not mean producers will spend millions to film it, or even thousands. Some stories don’t have what it takes to rivet a global audience, and you must know the difference. If you accompany a top-level horse trainer to an auction, you’ll see them reject some horses outright and spend top dollar to acquire others. If you don’t have a trained eye, then you can see no difference between the two animals. But the differences are very real, and you need to learn that level of discernment in evaluating stories. No matter how good you are at technique, well-structured crap is still crap.

Once you have a good story to work with, you’re naturally creating and weaving together elements and components that can constitute a great, compelling story. That’s normal. What you want to do as you’re exploding with ideas is pay attention to the protagonist’s Dilemma, right from the beginning. The Dilemma is that central. If you’re designing and building a race car, then as you engineer all the aspects of the story, you’re continually focusing on the engine. It drives the whole thing, and every aspect of the car serves it. More horsepower means better tires, bigger brakes, a stronger suspension, and so on. It’s the same with Dilemma, which is considered the “engine of the drama.”

As soon as I get a story up and running in the simplest terms, I want to know what the hero’s Dilemma is. I don’t need to know a lot about who the protagonist is, but a rough sense of this person enables me to consider a potential Dilemma for this emerging story. It actually helps the story and the character to emerge. Is there a way in which our main character can be trapped between two equally unacceptable alternatives? Between two equally painful choices? Is there a way in which he’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t? There’s either a Dilemma inherent in your story or there isn’t. If there is, then isolate it and articulate it. What exactly is it? Spell it out clearly. Can you frame it as It’s unacceptable to and it’s equally unacceptable to ?

If there isn’t a Dilemma, then experiment with creating one. You don’t want to force it onto the story but try to create one because it can transform a fascinating story into a riveting drama—in any genre. Every story written for the screen or stage must work dramatically. Think of Jim Carrey in Liar Liar, and his Dilemma—that he cannot lie because of the magic spell, and he cannot tell the truth because his job depends on it. The worse his Dilemma gets for him, the funnier it is for us.

So get a Dilemma up and running, without cramming it down the throat of the story. The story comes first, and everything serves it. Through hands-on experience with thousands of people, I’ve seen that Dilemma greatly enhances almost every story. Don’t underestimate it. Once you’ve articulated a Dilemma—even if it appears weak at first—you can then work on it, shaping, amplifying, clarifying, deepening, and dimensionalizing it.

You want a deep, complex, multi-dimensional Dilemma that can really grip an audience rather than a shallow predicable one that no one cares about. You’ll see that much of this book consists of deepening and complicating our character’s Dilemma as we develop the story. A lot of it is exploration, playing with possibilities, trying things that can make his Dilemma more potent, which makes the story more gripping. One great way to do this is to lay out the Dilemma in two columns—one for each of the unacceptable alternatives. This helps tease them apart since they can become tangled together in your brain. But it also helps expand each side as you feel your way through the Dilemma, experimenting with ways to make it more intense and compelling. You want a Dilemma of magnitude, which means it’s significant to the audience, of substance, something they can dig their teeth into.

In Training Day, Jake Hoyt is caught in a good strong Dilemma, unable to let go of his burning ambition but equally unable to abandon his moral compass. Studying with his Dilemma, I look at ways in which he can’t let go of this job and can’t keep doing it. I start with thinking about how he’s damned if he doesn’t because nothing will pry him away from joining Alonzo’s elite undercover narcotics squad. I break the sides of Jake’s Dilemma into two columns as a way to see them better, since it’s easy for them to blend together. Under the heading, He Can’t Let Go of His Job, I list things that have to do with achieving this goal—Alonzo is a legendary cop; Jake can make detective; take poisoners off the street; Alonzo makes huge arrests; etc. He’s really gung-ho and nothing will stop him. But in the column labeled He Can’t Keep Doing It we’ve got—Alonzo’s actions are confusing; his morals are questionable; Alonzo has him smoking PCP-laced pot right away; and he’s doing illegal search and seizure, etc.

The script says that Jake is alternately appalled and impressed by Alonzo. He’s appalled when Alonzo sticks a pen down the dealer’s throat (Snoop Dog) to recover the swallowed crack and forces information out of him. But then he’s impressed when that information leads to the location of the Sandman’s home. He’s appalled when Alonzo uses a fake warrant to search that house, apparently stealing money there. But he’s impressed when Alonzo uses that money to “purchase” a legal warrant to take down a huge dealer. If he doesn’t play by Alonzo’s rules, then he doesn’t get the big results, but if he does, then he’s quickly veering into criminal behavior. If you’re writing this screenplay, then you want to push both sides of the Dilemma to their limits, making the story deeper and more complex. Jake’s Dilemma is what Training Day is about. You can dig into a comprehensive study of Dilemma on Training Day in my first book, Writing a Great Movie: Key Tools for Successful Screenwriting.

• Alonzo is a legendary cop
• Jake can make detective
• Take poisoners off the street
• Protect the defenseless
• Alonzo makes huge arrests
• Alonzo says Jake’s got the magic eye
• Damned if he quits
• Totally wants to be in squad
• He’s extremely ambitious
• Awed by Alonzo
• Alonzo is a god in this arena
• Jake is totally dedicated
• Wants to do good
• Driven by his career
• Adventure
• He’s making a difference
• He’s really learning the streets
• Results
• Freedom
• Ambition
• Investigation bearing real fruit
• He’s joining Alonzo’s elite group
• Alonzo is his guru
• Old job too boring
• Power

• Alonzo’s actions are confusing
• Alonzo’s morals are questionable
• He’s smoking PCP-laced pot
• Doing illegal search and seizures
• Mishandling evidence
• Doing murder and armed robbery
• Damned if he keeps doing it
• Loss of soul
• He could get arrested or even killed
• Appalled by Alonzo
• Alonzo is the devil
• Must be a criminal to catch criminals
• His moral compass rebels
• He’s violating his vows as a cop
• Headed for jail
• He cannot support Alonzo’s actions
• Destruction
• He’s becoming corrupt
• It costs too much
• Danger
• It’s costing Jake his integrity
• Alonzo’s making fun of him
• Alonzo is his enemy
• New job too risky
• Disaster

A deep and vigorous exploration of how far you can take your main character’s Dilemma can open up unsuspected dimensions in your story. Part of this is exploring the ramifications of the Dilemma. It can take a while for all that is obvious about his or her Dilemma to become obvious. Make a two-column list of both sides of your protagonist’s Dilemma. Don’t be afraid to say the same thing in different ways as you build this list. Let it rip and just blunder through tons of possibilities.

Bear in mind that these are your own notes to yourself—no one else will see them—so being repetitive need not be embarrassing. Saying the same basic thing multiple ways enables you to stumble onto the perfect way to say it. This can often be a phrase that’s instantly recognizable to everyone. Having a comfortable and familiar way to describe the Dilemma helps you communicate it clearly. You’re also getting in touch with what is universal about this Dilemma.

It’s one thing to construct or amplify a Dilemma of magnitude, but it’s another to have the average member of the audience be able to connect to it. If they can’t relate to it, then in spite of your intentions and work, it won’t necessarily grab them. Here’s a quote from legendary writer-director Billy Wilder: “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.”

You need to pay attention to who your real audience is and work to connect your story and your main characters to them. Imagine someone who lives on your street who you don’t know—maybe a dancer who drives Uber to make ends meet or a housewife working to get a real estate license. Study them in the abstract and think about how much they might care about your protagonist and his or her Dilemma. What are they wrestling with in real life? Do your concerns in the story have any relevance to them? Are you tapping into some universal question or is it out of step?

Are there any things about your main character’s Dilemma that might make that make them sit up and feel like their story is unfolding on the screen? Things that connect to the average person, and what they might have to sacrifice in the quest to achieve their dreams. The deeper you go, the more universal you get. If a broad audience can connect to your Dilemma, then you can rivet a global audience.

For several years I’ve mulled over possible stories about people who trade in secrets getting Alzheimer’s, like spies or mob guys, and unintentionally letting those secrets slip. Their bosses would need to stash them safely away somewhere or maybe have them bumped off. In my two-year training program for writers, one of my students, Justinian, missed a day and was behind on a fun new exercise building a story around a compelling Dilemma. So I cobbled together a story based on this idea so he could quickly catch up. But he emailed me back, saying he didn’t quite grasp how the story was useful for the exercise. So I wrote out the story’s basics again, thinking it through in a little more detail. In our Zoom class the next day, we discussed the story, and I helped take it even further, now having worked on it for three days in a row. It started to click, and I found that it grabbed my imagination.

At the same time, I was outlining this book and looking around for a story idea to demonstrate the process of building a story from scratch around a good strong Dilemma. And because this story’s Dilemma was becoming more and more compelling, I decided to use it. I told Justinian, and he thought it was a great idea, saying he’d had fun with it in class.

In order to demonstrate the process, I’ll start with this story’s raw beginning, developing it as I focus on the protagonist’s Dilemma. The barest idea is that we have a mob hitman who’s suffering from dementia. There’s nothing else and there’s no plot, just a character in a situation—and there’s certainly no Dilemma in it. He is not trapped in any way like Robbie the Robot or Jake in Training Day. The only thing I have is that he’s hiding his condition from his boss and coworkers because he knows they’ll probably kill him to prevent him unintentionally leaking mafia secrets.

Can I figure out a way in which he’s damned if he doesn’t and damned if he does? If he’s a loyal soldier and he’s been assigned to kill someone, then it’s clearly unacceptable to let that person live—so he’s damned if he doesn’t. That’s pretty easy to see. But is there some way in which it might be equally unacceptable to kill this person—so he’s damned if he does? That’s a challenge to figure out, but I know from experience that if I can make that work without it feeling contrived, then it can amplify the story’s dramatic power. So what are some scenarios that would make it unacceptable for a hardened mob killer to murder his intended victim?

One possibility occurs to me due to the fact that he’s suffering from dementia. What if when he goes to kill her, he has an episode and forgets what he’s doing? He could break into her place and wait, ready to shoot her with a silenced pistol when she walks in. But then he has an episode while waiting and forgets why he’s there and looks around, then wanders out onto the fire escape. She enters and comes back inside, and she might think he’s a neighbor from upstairs with Alzheimer’s and they get talking. If his personality is quite changed by dementia so that he’s friendly and she likes him, then they could connect. She might try to make him comfortable because he’s lost, vulnerable, and sweet.

He’s been concealing his dementia from his mob associates, so she could be the only person who knows that his mind is going. He could be in deep need of genuine human contact because his world is closing in on him. She could be a bright light in the darkness, and he finds he desperately needs to keep interacting with her even though he’s supposed to kill her.

And he is going to kill her, but he needs a little more time with her. What starts out as an absolute imperative to execute her could evolve into an unexpected connection, and an urgent desperation to spend time with her. It’s one possible direction and, if handled properly, could make for a compelling story. This is just a starting point, and I want to explore the possibilities for amplifying and dimensionalizing this Dilemma. Nothing more exists at this point.

So we want his hitman to be an ice-cold killer who’s covering up the loss of his mental faculties. But when he’s in a dementia episode, he becomes a different person, vulnerable, lost, sweet, agitated, and starved for human contact. He can’t let her live, but he’s in deep need of human contact. This is not a Dilemma of magnitude, but it’s a start—a possible something. If we can build this story up so that he’s paralyzed internally, short circuiting like Robbie the Robot, then we’ve maybe got something. And if this Dilemma matters to the audience, then it can be riveting. We’re talking here about writing a movie, but it works the same for a TV series, stage play, or novel.

We want to maximize the two halves of this Dilemma—that she can’t live another minute and he cannot kill her now. Later is fine, but not now. I can see a simple logline for this story: A fiendish hitman who’s concealing his dementia stumbles into a life-changing relationship with the woman he’s been ordered to kill. One basic idea would be that he gets assigned to kill her to keep her from testifying against the mob boss he works for. She must be terminated fast, or she’ll take down the entire crime family.

As I turn this Dilemma over in my mind, a thought occurs to me: What if she reminds him of his dead wife in some way? Would that make it more compelling, more emotionally resonant, more dynamic? That idea is interesting, and then this occurs to me—what if, due to his dementia, he sees his intended victim as his wife—hallucinating his wife onto her? That would really add something to the story. It would be kind of a miracle, a vision.

Would his wife be dead and now he’s seeing her? There are a number of possibilities. Would he see an old woman before she died? Then I realized that if she’s young and happy, it would really be a vision—a vision of lovely exuberant youth, laughing, fun, adventurous, and beautiful. This visionary experience happens when he’s having a dementia episode while he’s with his intended victim. He hallucinates his young wife on top of her. He looks at her and sees his young wife.

This would be a stunning experience for him, electrifying, and life changing. This is an elaborate gift from the universe, and he’d want to spend more time with her, a few more precious hours. So he’d try to be around his intended victim as much as he could manage, soaking in her presence and experiencing his joyful young wife. He’d have to figure out the logistics of how to do this. As the writer, we need to think this through, as well as several other components and complications of this potential Dilemma. One major thing we need to think about is what’s going on when the hitman is clearheaded and what’s happening when he’s in a dementia state. There are major ramifications to that, and while we don’t need that right away, we’ll need to rough out those basics pretty soon. Then another thought springs to mind. What if this time period in the past that he’s experiencing with his young wife occurs just before he became a soulless killer for the mob?

So far, we have that he awaited her return to kill her but had an episode and forgot why he was there. He looked around a bit and then wandered out onto the fire escape; she came home, and he wandered back in and she thought he’s a guy from upstairs with Alzheimer’s. And if he hallucinates her as his deceased wife when she was young and vivacious, before he became a mob killer, then he’s transported to a wonderful place.

This awakens him, transforming one aspect of his mental descent into something fascinating and beautiful. It gives him something to live for, counteracting the claustrophobic darkness that surrounds him as his mind fails. And yet she still absolutely must die, no question. He keeps going in and out of dementia but must hide that, and he needs the human contact that she provides—in fact, he’s desperate for it. So she represents death itself because her testimony will destroy his entire mob, and she represents life and a miraculous rebirth of sorts.

So it’s unacceptable to let her live, but it’s equally unacceptable to kill her. She’s a supernova of light in the crushing darkness of his debilitating illness that he’s been facing utterly alone. She’s deep and friendly and real, honest and present, kind and compassionate. He hallucinates her as his young, happy wife before he went over to the dark side as a brutal killer, taking their laughter with him.

But a key question is, would he remember seeing his young wife when he comes back to reality from an episode? I don’t think the story works if he doesn’t remember it. I haven’t done any research on dementia yet since the story is brand new, but I can already see that I’m going to need him to remember. This means that when he comes back out of the episode, he remembers seeing her as his wife. This would be earth-shattering and would stop him in his tracks. So even though he knows it’s not real, he must experience his laughing young wife again. It’s a dazzling source of life to see her again at around age 23, when they were young and wonderfully in love. Maybe this woman has the same laugh as his young wife, and it triggers his hallucination of her.

And yet, he absolutely must kill her. Her testifying in court will end his universe. There’s no question that she must be liquidated. He would go back and forth between being the killer and being delusional, but he can’t kill her just yet. Not until he gets more time with his wife. So he’s still a hard killer, but he’s greedy for more of this experience. This witness is a major miracle in his life, just when he faces the darkest time and desperately needs another human to talk to. We’re dealing with elements of despair and hope, darkness and light, emptiness and fellowship, bottomless depression and warm friendship. He can’t let go of her and he can’t hold on to her. He’s just trying to get a few more precious days with his young wife, who’s a supernova in his infinite darkness.

I did a search for dementia-related psychosis as a starting point. Reading through this material is like a mineral-rich fertilizer that helps the story grow by leaps and bounds. I’m getting an overview and lots of practical details for the story, as well as solutions and partial-solutions. It takes a little time to even know what questions to ask.

I already had some idea of the basics and used that to cobble together the story framework that we have now. It’s all built around this hitman’s Dilemma, building toward a Crisis, and that’s all we’ve really got so far. But as we solidify his Crisis, Decision & Action, and Resolution, they become the story’s framework, over which we can stretch our story like the fabric of a tent. Dilemma turns story into drama, so what we’re actually dramatizing our story as we build it. The drama is built deep into the story’s structure, its internal architecture. And because our hero, this beaten-up, burned-out hitman, is caught in this emotional Dilemma, we’re drawn into his fate.

He cannot let go of the fact that she’s about to give state’s evidence against his boss in federal court, which will end their entire criminal enterprise. And he can’t let go of this miraculous window that gives him access to his wife, back when they were happy and in love. It’s like a profound religious experience, similar to seeing a vision of the Virgin Mary. His dilemma is what this story’s about.

Like the strong field that surrounds a magnet, the Dilemma exerts a shaping force on the story. If you place a magnet under a piece of paper and sprinkle iron filings on it, the filings arrange themselves in the shape of the magnetic field. By focusing on his Dilemma as we build the story, we help shape the story. It’s similar to wrapping steamed wood around a mold to make a boat.

Let’s journey through some research and see how it suggests ways to shape the story. It deepens and dimensionalizes everything, making it feel more real, and helping solve problems I’ve been wrestling with. As we journey through this section of research, bear in mind the old saying that good research meets you halfway. This means that as we explore this material, we’ll get ideas, information, and insights that prompt more ideas, plus answers to some of our questions.

I paraphrased some basic research from various sources here.

• In broad terms, psychosis is when a person has trouble distinguishing what is real and what isn’t. Someone with psychosis may have delusions, such as a firm, false belief that someone’s trying to kill them. They could also have hallucinations—seeing or hearing some object or person that others don’t.

That’s so spot-on for this story. The legendary science fiction author Philip K. Dick suffered from this and wrote about it. He said he could be looking at a wall and it would break up into pieces as he watched it. A great quote by him is: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” Our hitman definitely has trouble distinguishing what is real due to his delusions and hallucinations, but interestingly, he also looks forward to them.

• Those suffering from dementia may try to hide their symptoms, afraid of the stigma that often accompanies such mental health problems.

Many people try to hide symptoms of their illness, afraid they might get fired, arrested if they seem inebriated, embarrassed, or excluded.

• There’s no cure for Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

That’s a serious piece of information to factor in. I didn’t know that, although it makes sense. I don’t necessarily see our hitman having Alzheimer’s, but it’s something similar in severity.

• Some people with milder psychosis might not need treatment. If a hallucination or delusion doesn’t bother them, then treatment is often unnecessary. If it does bother them, then simple methods like ensuring that their environment doesn’t trigger an episode can definitely help.

So sometimes a hallucination can be a good thing and the person doesn’t need much. It’s hard to tell at this point how bad our hitman might get, but we’ll feel our way along and bear this information in mind.

• A woman with dementia mistook her reflection for someone else and felt anxious. Covering the mirror made her feel better. Another person thought someone was spying on them, and lowering the window shade helped a lot.

Maybe this will prove useful in some way as we build our story. It would take someone who has experience with people suffering from dementia to know that, but we’ll keep it as a possibility.

To distract someone from an episode, ask about their kids when they were young or engage them in a game or interesting conversation.

We’re already doing this, so this information reinforces what we stumbled onto—that latching onto a memory can be calming and entertaining.

The cause of dementia is injury to, or loss of, brain cells (neurons), and includes many different symptoms:
• Memory loss
• Difficulty finding the right word
• Problems speaking or communicating
• Trouble focusing
•Struggling to complete tasks
• Impaired judgment
• Difficulties with day-to-day activities
• Trouble comprehending what’s being seen

I know some of this, but it’s helpful having it all in one place. The idea that our hitman struggles to complete tasks fits well with what we’re writing.

Stage 1: No dementia is seen—this is normal behavior.
Stage 2: Questionable impairment—starting to have difficulty but can function independently.
Stage 3: Mild impairment—has obvious, but still mild difficulty with daily activities.
Stage 4: Moderate impairment—needs help caring for self and with daily activities.
Stage 5: Moderate to severe impairment—many noticeable declines and needs real assistance.

Our hitman seems to be in the middle of the chart, not too solid and not completely broken. But we do want him to be coming apart more and more as the story progresses.

• The primary treatment for dementia is to be supportive. Current medications cannot reverse or stop the process. The most beneficial things are environmental changes, a structured schedule, regular exercise, and staying engaged with others.

So a supportive environment, a structured schedule, regular exercise, and staying engaged with others is what he needs. His intended victim could exercise with him, and maybe they have some kind of structured or regular interaction. If she’s been told that the mob may target her, she might really want him around. In fact, wouldn’t she be hiding out, under federal protection, or stashed somewhere to keep her safe? We’ll have to figure that out.

• Dementia is characterized by odd behavior, memory problems, paranoia, disorientation, agitation, and delusions.

We’ve got all that. Maybe we need a bit odder behavior and agitation, but we’ll figure that out as we progress

We’ll bear those in mind and utilize them if they help the story.

• They often suffer from increased social withdrawal or paranoid behavior.

We’ve got that, but we probably need to emphasize it more so that it’s not just all golden time with his young wife.

• Other symptoms are laughing or crying at inappropriate times, the inability to follow instructions, hallucinations, and nighttime wandering.

These are reasonably simple symptoms that we can layer into the story as needed.

That’s a simple tour through some solid research that I paraphrased, and you can see that the story’s growing as I read through it. This material suggests ideas and solutions and helps knit together specifics for the growing story. I want to point out that while this story utilizes dementia; I do not take it lightly, nor do I present it as a source of entertainment. I watched my beloved uncle die from Alzheimer’s, and it was a long, drawn-out, awful process that I would never wish on anyone. I try to treat the subject respectfully and to not dodge its unpleasant aspects.

Related Articles