Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Dramatic Dilemma: a classic story pattern

Just when I thought I’d heard (or read) every way there is to write a story, North Texas author/writing instructor Shawn Scarber demonstrated a new one at last night’s meeting of the Writers Guild of Texas. And I realized his pattern – the one he terms the dramatic dilemma – is one that lies at the heart of almost every satisfying story.

Casablanca: will they or won't they?
Here’s his bare bones summary: A main character in a desperate situation must choose between two paths and as a result must sacrifice something of great value in order to gain something else of great (or, I’ll add, greater) value.

Sound familiar? It could, as Scarber told his audience, fit into almost any other pattern they’ve learned. Because somewhere in the narrative, any protagonist worth his or her agony will have to make that decision. For better. Or for worse. And he had clips from the perfect movie to illustrate his point – Casablanca.

Oh, yes, we loved it. But lest I lead readers to believe that the dilemma facing Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) in this post’s illustration is whether or not to kiss, (spoiler alert) it’s something completely different.

I’ll provide a slight fleshing out of Scarber’s analysis of the Dramatic Dilemma here, but for more details, see “classes” at his site for downloadable PDFs (minus the film clips). (Although he initially termed this a “recipe”, he later preferred to describe it as a pattern, one that a writer, like a good tailor, can adjust as needed.)

The elements include: a main character, her greatest source of joy, and her greatest source of shame, both of which are controlled by antagonistic forces. Both the joy (in Casablanca, the love affair between Rick and Ilsa) and its shame (Ilsa’s desertion of Rick for another man) are related. The antagonistic forces hold either the keys to the main character’s happiness and/or special knowledge about the character’s shame.

And shame, despite its bad press, “is typically a good tool to use on a character,” Scarber said.

Writers should note that the antagonist isn’t necessarily evil. In Casablanca, it’s not the Nazis keeping Rick and Ilsa apart. It’s her husband, the noble Victor Laslo, who stands between them (as I learned when science fiction editor Lou Anders used the same movie in a writing workshop back in 2011.)

Once the main character’s dilemma is defined (and Scarber insists that the writer should be able to encapsulate this in a short dramatic statement), the dilemma is obvious. But no fair making it a choice between simple good or evil.

“The character must choose between either two very good or two very bad choices,” Scarber explained. “It must be the hero’s decision, made with the full knowledge of what they are sacrificing. . . sometimes it costs them their life.”

So that’s the beginning and the end of the dramatic dilemma. What about the third part of a story – the sometimes dreaded middle?

Don’t fear the middle, Scarber said. “The middle is where all the cool stuff happens.” It’s where the main character experiences life in both the worlds of joy and shame, where the antagonists threaten, where the protagonist confronts both worlds and makes a moral choice between the two, when the characters clearly see their flaws or a truth they’ve denied.

Again, for a fuller presentation of Scarber’s Dramatic Dilemma, see his site. He will also teach a class on beginning creative writing at Wordfest, a free instruction/networking opportunity April 8 at the campus of Tarrant County Community College in Hurst, Texas. It’s free, but register here to secure a spot.