Every great screenplay character starts with a tough dilemma – a difficult choice between two or more equally undesirable options.
Morals are dictated by communal standards, behaviors and belief systems. Although many cultures support individualism, major deviation from societal mores are frowned upon. Morals are not mathematical equations with a definite correct or incorrect answer. Rather, they are a group of complex social interactions, either between an individual and their environment, or within themselves.
Let’s take a look at the key types of moral dilemmas and how they can test your characters, escalate conflict and create tension:
1) Mitigating Circumstances
Consider the following fictitious film scene. An normally honest man believes stealing from his company (or anybody for that matter) a sin. He needs cash fast. What happens if his daughter is suddenly hospitalized and he can’t afford the medical bills? Is it a crime if he “borrows” the money from his company and pays it back in installments? Is it a crime if nobody finds out? What if he can’t afford to pay it back and is forced to steal it outright? What if his boss is a bastard? These are levels of mitigation that skew our moral perceptions of the said man.
I’m sure film audiences would think differently about him if he had to repay gambling debts or he was blackmailed due to his infidelity being discovered.
Being caught between a rock and a hard place always creates engaging characters. Audiences think about how they would personally handle the circumstances and whether they agree or disagree with the character’s choices.
2) Equal Desires
This is a good one commonly seen in movies. Your main character wants two things equally. For instance, a woman’s daughter’s dance recital is on the same night as her favorite band is on town for one night only. Kids always come first, right? But hey, we’re only human. Recitals happen all the time. You’ve sat through a million of them. But your favorite musician is in town for one night only. And they may not return for a long time, if at all. How does this change your perception of this character? How will you judge her? What if the daughter claims she is fine with her mother skipping one recital.
3) Opposing Desires
We all feel obligated to attend certain family events. What happens if your spouse’s cousin is getting married and you’ve both been invited? You despise the cousin and don’t want to go. But you don’t want to upset your spouse either. Your spouse is close to their cousin and doesn’t realize how much you dislike them.
You know the cousin had a sketchy past that your spouse isn’t aware of. You don’t think your spouse will believe you even if you told them. It will come down to your word against the cousin’s. Do you keep the peace? Do you attend the wedding and avoid the cousin? Do you speak up and risk your relationship with your spouse?
The beauty with this multi-facted dilemma is that it’s more than you keeping the peace. Every outcome is viable. This creates excitement and anticipation.
4) To Stay Silent Or To Speak Up
This is another common movie scenario. A friend catches her best friend being unfaithful. She’s good friends with both her and her best friend’s boyfriend. She decides honesty is the best policy and takes an incriminating photo on her cell phone. What does she do next? Tell the boyfriend?
She mulls over her predicament. Her best friend’s boyfriend will be devastated and her relationship with her best friend will most likely end. It’s a lose-lose-lose situation.
She decides to keep quiet. Then she rationalizes her choice. It’s none of her business. She doesn’t want to ruin their relationship or her friendship with them. Maybe it was a one-off rather than a full-blown affair? Maybe it was more innocent than she imagined?
Or she decides to confront her best friend with the photographic evidence and demand an explanation before she tells the boyfriend. The friend has a plausible explanation. It was a reckless act in the heat of the moment. They were both a little drunk. She feels deeply ashamed and it will never happen again. She loves her boyfriend. She begs her to delete the photo and never mention it again. Everything returns to normal.
Which outcome will make a better movie script? It all depends on the screenwriter.
5) Strength Of Faith
A deeply religious woman finally falls pregnant after several miscarriages. Her prayers have finally been answered. She’s ecstatic. After a few weeks she finds out her unborn child has a rare congenital condition. It is untreatable and her child could never have a normal life. It will be in coma and in constant pain and suffering unless it is heavily medicated. It will never have any quality of life.
The mother must make a rapid choice to terminate the pregnancy. But her faith expressly forbids it. She attends all the pro-life marches, lobbies politicians and pickets Planned Parenthood clinics.
This choice isn’t about picking the lesser of two evils. Will she put her faith ahead of her unborn child which will likely die in their first year of life? Is faith absolute? Her decision is irrevocable. And she must act rapidly. Would having an abortion make her a hypocrite or compassionate?
6) Courage Of Conviction
This relates to a character’s personal belief system. Imagine if a lawyer had to defend a client they knew was guilty of being a war criminal? It would mean a helluva lot of billable hours and career prestige. Being a lawyer means you have to act in the best interests of your client. Sure you could sell out and take the big bucks. But you’ll never sleep well at night ever again. Okay, this isn’t that much of a moral quandary. Does the lawyer do the right thing or not?
What if it was discovered during the trial that the war criminal was his father? What if it was a military leader that saved the lawyer’s family from death? What if it involved the sacrifice of a few bad people to enable many more to survive?
These revelations make the lawyer’s decisions almost impossible.
Use the concept of moral dilemmas to enhance your screenwriting. Especially if the choices your characters make aren’t right or wrong. May the pen be with you.