One of the things I was agonizing about early on was that my current story lacked a solid dilemma. In his book Writing a Great Movie, Jeff Kitchen defines dilemma as “two equally painful choices.”
Two EQUALLY PAINFUL choices.
Say you have to make the choice of losing your girlfriend or being fired from a job that you detest. Not much of a dilemma. They don’t hold equal emotional weight. But what if you had to choose between taking care of your wife as her Alzhiemers grows worse by the day or sending her to a care facility that allows no visiters for the first 30 days… and you’ve never been away from her in your 40 years of marriage?
This happens to be one of the dilemmas in Away From Her. How can the husband not see his wife for 30 days in the twighlight of their years together… but how can he continue to care for her when she can’t even find her way home any more?
A dilemma should make you feel completely stuck until life finally gets to the point where you are forced to make a decision. You can’t sit on the fence forever.
AND, even if you personally think the choice would be easy for you, you have to create your character in such a way that the audience understands how difficult this decision is for him or her.
In my story The Van Goes, mom and son have been living out of a camper van. Originally, she had been forced to live in a camper van out of circumstances and because she was trying to make it as an artist. When it becomes impossible for her 15 year old son to live with her this way, she has to choose: get a real job and apartment or no longer live with her son. It wasn’t compelling enough. Her choice wasn’t enough of a dilemma AND there was no way for us to sympathize with her if she chose to stay in the van.
After I wrote my LOGLINE, I realized that it’s all in the way I present her as a character. I have to create her so that it IS a true dilemma for her. I did this by making living out of the van her CHOICE after her son was born. She’s a hippie, a bit of a renegade, techno-weary, and this is her lifestyle. She knows nothing else, and she wouldn’t fit in…
and neither does her son when he tries to become a normal teenager. But more on that later.
The point is that now, even though I may not agree with her lifestyle choice, I can completely understand how after 15 years of traveling around working odd physical jobs and never owning a cell phone might make it difficult to settle down in one place and fit in to society.