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How can I pinpoint a story's moral dilemma?

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In this answer, Mark Baker makes a statement about story:

All story ideas are basically a variation on one thing. A man (or woman, or child, or small furry animal) has two desires, both of which he (she, it) believes they can achieve, but between which he will eventually be forced to choose... The plot is a device for forcing him into a position in which he must choose between those two desires, for good or ill.

I can immediately think of many cases where this is true:

  • Lord of the Rings: Frodo can keep the ring OR save the world
  • Star Wars: The Last Jedi: Luke can renounce the ways of the Jedi OR use his power to help the resistance
  • The Book of Strange New Things: Peter can fulfill his missionary calling OR save his marriage

But what about stories where this is less obvious? What about ensemble stories where there isn't a main character? What about stories without a climactic moment of choice? What about heist movies?

I'm looking for ways to locate this thread in all of those, so as to better analyze them and understand the thematic undercurrent. Examples would be helpful!

Why should this post be closed?

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4 answers

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Q: What about heist movies?

A: John Dillinger's character in Public Enemies is an excellent case study of a tragedy within a heist movie. Dillinger does not have a moral dilemma of choosing, "Should I do good or do bad?" He has already resolved that by creating his robin-hood persona: stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. Instead, the driving force behind this movie is Dillinger's competing and incompatible desires for woman/passion/love AND money/fame/freedom.

Billie Frechette embodies his desire for woman/passion/love. John isn't interested in family and domesticity; he rejects a farm wife and her son when she pleas, "Take me with you, Mister." Instead, we see him fall in love with Billie, a smart, beautiful, sensuous, loving woman.

Billie is more than his love object. Her agency and self-awareness make her a Cassandra-like figure who reminds John and the audience that "we know how this is going to end." She rejects society's expectations of motherhood and domesticity in favor of passionate love for a man she admires. Billie and John were made for each other. With the benefit of historical hindsight, we know how tragically this is going to end.

Billie's tragedy is that she will unwittingly serve as the bait that leads John to his death. The antagonist of this story, Melvin Purvis, is a coldly homicidal FBI agent. Early on, he sets up the plot by explaining that women are the downfall of most criminals. The story augments this antagonism by alluding to J. Edgar Hoover's penchant for fine young men and portraying an organization that puts duty and logic ahead of love and intimacy.

The rest of the story plays out the colliding paths of these three characters. It ends with Dillinger's being ambushed and killed outside a movie theatre. In the final scene, the special agent (not Purvis) who shot John visits Billie in a women's prison. When she asks him if he's there to see the damage he has caused, the agent replies that, no - he's there to pass along John's final words to her. He says that John's last words were "Tell Billie for me, bye-bye blackbird" -- a reference to the couple's favorite love song.

This final scene declares the winner. It excludes Purvis and allows John to speak from beyond the grave, quoting a lovesong to his grieving lover, Billie.

2 comments

Great analysis. I think something that this points to is that in a tragedy, the protagonist is offered a shot at redemption and refuses it. This means that there is no deflection in the onward course of their fall. The path does not bend the way it does in a heroic story. But the inflection point is still there ... the moment in which the protagonist is invited to turn aside from their destructive path and fails to do so. Mark Baker 2 months ago

Yes, exactly! In this case the point of inflection is when John first sets eyes on Billie in a nightclub and tosses caution to the wind. From there forward, there is no deflection from the trajectory that leaves his body on the sidewalk outside a movie theatre. rolfedh 2 months ago

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I think it is important to note that while there is often one particular moment where the choice is faced and made -- what James Scott Bell calls "the mirror moment", the choice may not necessarily come to a head in such an obvious dramatic way.

Look for it rather in the forms of the opposing forces that tug on a character through the story. This is usually there is episodic stories where there often isn't one climactic moment. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for instance, Buffy is constantly torn between leading a normal life and being a vampire slayer. It's not like by episode 3 of season 1 she had decided, okay, full time slayer it is. That tension runs through every season.

Look at your typical detective show. (I am currently binging Bosch on Prime.) The detective solves crimes by day and had a troubled relationship with his wife (usually ex) and child (usually a vulnerable but precocious teenage daughter) that tugs at his conscience as he devotes every waking hour to his cases and brings back his obsessions and nightmares to his family.

Rather than being brought to a head and resolved, the tension is allowed to simmer, episode after episode, season after season. (Along the way our detective will seek advice from retired colleagues -- invariably alone and estranged from their families -- a reminder to the audience of the tension that underlies our hero's choices.)

Look for these choices not in the moment where they are made, therefore, but in the long simmering tension in which they are present but not made. The actual moment where they are made may not stand out as a great dramatic incident. Sometimes you can only tell by looking back that the decision was in fact made at all.

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How can I pinpoint a story's moral dilemma?

In classic narrative structure, the first act, called "the setup," establishes the setting and characters. Then, it creates the problem.

First, look for the escalating problem that sweeps away the previous normal and puts pressure on the characters in the story. What differentiates the protagonist from the other characters is how they respond to the problem.

Then look for the chasm between the protagonist's past beliefs and the new reality created by the problem. This gap IS the dilemma. It forces the protagonist to make difficult choices and perform actions they would not have taken in the past.

The protagonist's response to the dilemma sets them apart from the other characters. Some stories accentuate this difference by juxtaposing the protagonist with a secondary character, called the foil. The foil's lesser qualities and choices draw attention to the protagonist's exceptional response to the dilemma.

Let's apply this analysis to a well-known story, Star Wars, A New Hope.

  • The setting: Luke is a bored farm boy working on his aunt and uncle's farm, longing for adventure.

  • The escalating problem and pressure: The war between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance comes to Luke's remote corner of the world in the form of two droids on a mission to deliver a secret message. One of the droids escapes, forcing Luke to leave the safety of the farm and meet Obi-Wan Kenobi. Obi-Wan reveals that Luke's father was a fellow Jedi knight and close friend and that he was betrayed and murdered by a student who turned to the dark side of the Force. Obi-Wan bestows his father's lightsaber upon Luke. Luke returns to the farm to finds that imperial stormtroopers have murdered his uncle and aunt. His old life is gone, no turning back. The only question is, "what next?"

  • The dilemma: Luke's dilemma is that he must choose between two possible futures. One, in which he refuses to change and does little of consequence. The other, in which he acknowledges his connection to the Force and accepts the greatness of his destiny.

    Luke resolves this dilemma in steps. His first step is when, during lightsaber training, he puts on a helmet with its blast shield lowered and accepts Obi-Wan's suggestion to reach out with his feelings. He does this and successfully blocks the small blasts of a remote.

    Luke's ultimate step on the path to greatness happens during the attack on the Death Star. Again, he heeds Obi-Wan's ghost voice, which says, "Luke, trust me." Luke turns off the X-wing's targeting scope, feels the Force, and makes the one-in-a-million shot that destroys the Death Star.

  • The foil: Luke doubts himself and struggles to become great, but he never challenges the path that others put in front of him. He is a virtuous, obedient, and almost too predictable rube. To provide tension and contrast, Han Solo plays the foil. He is nearly the inverse of Luke: A greedy, egotistical, violent criminal. When told about the Force, he sneers, "Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid." He is motivated by Imperial credits, not altruism or noble causes.

So, to summarize, you can pinpoint the dilemma by doing the following:

  • Identify the problem in the first act.
  • Recognize the internal struggles it creates for different characters.
  • Spot the protagonist, whose dilemma makes them take action.
  • Look for a possible foil, whose thoughts and actions contrast with the protagonists.

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Good point. You make me think that there is an even more specific point in the heroes journey that highlights the moral dilemma. It is the refusal of the call to adventure. Why does the character feel the call to adventure? There must be come moral imperative behind it. Why then do they initially refuse the call. There must be some moral hazard in accepting the call too. Thus the refusal of the call is a moral juncture in the story, and thus highlights the underlying moral dilemma. Mark Baker about 2 months ago

The two-hour length of commercial movies limits character development. Luke doesn't spend precious screen time in this film rebelling against his destiny or waffling between good and evil: He briefly doubts the connection between himself and the Force and then moves forward. The story counterbalances Luke's "Mary Sue" tendencies by showing us an alternative "bad Luke" in the rogueish character of Han Solo. I wonder if the economy of the foil makes them more prevalent in short-form stories. rolfedh about 2 months ago

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We gabbed about this today in writers' club. One problem with the exercise is you can fit many suppositions, any manner of supposition, to a piece of expression (a novel). (Rose colored glasses and all that.)

Lord of the Rings: Frodo can keep the ring OR save the world

... But... Frodo wanted a quiet life in the shire. He wanted neither of the above that you stated. He didn't want either.

And what of Boromir, or Sauron, of Gandalf? Why was Frodo the main viewpoint protagonist? Why not Sam? Or Smiegel? They each have agency and an arc. You can sort through what you think, for each.

Star Wars: A New Hope: (I changed the prompt): Luke can renounce the ways of the Jedi OR use his power to help the resistance

...Luke's moment of culmination, in both IV and V, is when he relinquishes control. For Luke, it is all about giving up any illusion of control, submitting to the force, that things will work out. (And this is the tension in VII-IX). When he shuts down the tracking scope in IV, when he stops attacking Vader and throws his light saber aside in V, it's about saying "I submit." Submission to the force is the theme in those stories. Not control.

The Book of Strange New Things: (I don't know this one.)

You will never 'locate this thread' in all stories, because not all stories are the same. That's good.

Fairy tales, just-so stories, and so on serve a different purpose. Psalms (in the bible) serves a different purpose.

Genre fiction might benefit from outer/inner goals and conflicts, and I love (and grow through) MBaker's thoughts on this, but i disagree that it is the only way to share human experience through story.

So how do you find the twinned goal in an ensemble piece? In a heist?

Simple. You look ... and do the work to figure out what you think in that piece, for each character. Who do they love? What do they want?

In writers' club, we spent a good deal of time discussing Luke's 'want' today. Simply, we decided it is to join the rebellion. But one person said his truest want is control, within his life. I said it was to prove himself 'as good as Biggs.'

The case can be made for any of these. Luke's 'need' on the other hand is to manifest, to actualize, realize his one-ness with the force, which is to say... to leave to the side any illusion of control in his life.

The force, that's the power and director. Luke needs to submit to it.

Is that useful to consider? No idea. Play with it. Decide for yourself.

Simplified, the thing they (protagonists) need is internal. Love. A person. Self esteem. (for Luke, he needs to relinquish any illusion of control... = internal.) The thing they want is external. Saving the world. Joining the rebellion. Being better than Biggs. Money. Winning the cup.

How do you sort it for a different style of writing? You jot down ideas and see if they help, knowing that storytelling is more nuanced and complicated than a binary modality like this.

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Luke's want is to be a hero. He's a dirt farmer on a dead end world. He's bored. Adventure calls, but he is naive, impatient, and romantic. He wants to rescue a princess. His need is for discipline, which he repeatedly resists -- at considerable cost. He finally submits himself to the discipline of the force and triumphs. In the way of series, though, he had the same problem in the next movie when he flies of to paint the fence with Mr. Miyagi. Mark Baker about 2 months ago

This is the reckless young knight story and it occurs over and over again in literature down through the ages. The theme is romance vs discipline. It is a universal theme. Karate Kid. The Sword in the Stone. Star Wars. Mark Baker about 2 months ago

Lord of the Rings is a meditation on the nature of temptation. Every character of note is tempted in some way, and each responds differently. Tom Bombadil is the prelapsarian figure not tempted by the power of the Ring. (That is why he's important.) Everyone else is either corrupted by it, wise enough to refuse it, or pure enough to resist it (Sam). The moral problem for every character is to resist the glamour of the ring. Mark Baker about 2 months ago

@MarkBaker I'm not sure why you left these comments? You've provided an answer above and presumably can expand there if you have more to say about things. Perhaps these comments are not intended as 'schooling' but ... FWIW they do come across that way. DPT about 2 months ago

@DPT That was not my intention. The extreme character limits for comment for one to be more abrupt that one would like. My apologies. Mark Baker about 2 months ago

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