My manager, like many Hollywood types, doesn’t communicate very clearly. Once he was quickly summing up the problems he had with one of my scripts. When we got to the third act, he said “It’s very exciting, but after a certain point it all runs downhill.” I asked him to explain but he couldn’t, since he considered the point self-evident. I thought he was crazy. Was he saying that I didn’t have enough conflict? There’s no way: it was an over-the-top one-man-against-an-army-of-crazies finale. How does that roll downhill?
I think that now, years later, I’ve finally figured out what he was saying. My hero didn’t run out of exterior conflict (or motivation, for that matter, which also sometimes happens). My hero had run out of dilemma. There were still a lot of bad guys to be defeated, but there were no more internal tension caused by those actions.
Once I figured this out, it was an easy fix: I had to send my good guy into the final confrontation still seeking the temptation the bad guy had offered. I had to push the good guy’s final rejection of that temptation as late as possible, right at the heart of the climax. The hero’s dilemma should be exacerbated by the conflict, and vice versa, until the last moment, when the resolution of the dilemma and the resolution of the conflict should happen at about the same time.
This means that the dilemma can’t be “should I fight back or not?” That’s the dilemma in Bruce Lee’s first movie The Big Boss (Originally released in the west at Fists of Fury) Lee’s fans have to sit there and suffer the whole time while Lee refuses to fight. Then he finally caves and the final half hour is spectacular, but it’s also inert because the dilemma is over. This movie gets it exactly wrong: its dilemma and conflict are mutually exclusive.Die Hard is very tidy: Willis wins his wife back by shooting the bad guy dead, but not every concept lends itself towards wrapping up the dilemma and the conflict at the same moment. Many comedies, like Date Night wrap up the dilemma (the marriage problems, in this instance) in a quiet scene after the climax. In movies like Rear Window, we see that the underlying dilemma (the different interests of Kelly and Stewart) has not been resolved at all, though the climax brought about a temporary truce. These are both fine.
The dilemma can continue past the climax, but it can’t end very far before it, or else everything will roll downhill.