Here’s my best interpretation: the hero is fighting the villain, but neither one is really surprising us anymore. The story is locked onto a certain trajectory: there are still lots of exciting things going on, and near-death scrapes, and clever escapes, but these are all obstacles, they aren’t really conflicts. They’re hard to do, but not hard to want to do.
I’ve never stopped struggling with this. Surely, at some point, the hero can finally figure out what to do, right? I realize that the whole story can’t be a straightforward struggle of good vs. evil and still be interesting, but can’t we at least have the players sorted our properly in the final act?
As I’ve redone the 17 stand-alone-story checklists, I’ve focused in on one of the new questions: Does the hero have to face several smaller good-vs.-good or bad-vs.-bad decisions throughout your story. As I’ve been adding these up, I’ve thought about changing to the wording to “Does the hero face at least six tough good-vs.-good or bad-vs.-bad dilemmas spaced out throughout the story” (In screenplay terms, that would be about 15-20 pages.)
The audience wants to play along at home. To a certain extent, watching a hero overcome obstacles is like watching someone else play a videogame, which can be a dreadful experience. When you watch a hero overcome a physical challenge, you might think, “Ooh, I know what I what I would do in that situation,”, but there’s never a satisfying pay-off to that: Either they do what you would have done, and you’re mildly gratified, or they don’t, and you just get frustrated.
What the audience really wants to say is “Ooh, I don’t know what I what I would do in that situation!” Even better is when they follow that up with, “…and I don’t want to know.” That’s when they really start playing along at home.
Let’s look at Alien:
- Answer the distress signal? (Risk our lives to help people we haven’t met?)
- Break quarantine? (Risk all of our lives for one friend’s life?)
- Remove the face-hugger or not? (Risk killing our friend in order to save him?)
- Kill the alien or try to preserve it for the company? (Risk our ability to make a living for personal safety?)
- Blow up the whole ship to kill it? (Destroy everything we’ve done for personal safety)
- Go back for the cat? (Risk my life to save a small creature?)
I briefly posted and then postponed a version of this post a few days ago, but a commenter had already said that saving the cat always annoyed him, because it seemed to contribute to the deaths in future films. To me, that only shows the value of the dilemma: you can never be sure if it was worth it, even years later.
Next time, let’s look at what we can learn about genre structure from looking at the six impossible dilemmas.