Sunday, September 09, 2007

Writing the Ethical Dilemma

Based on a true story that was based on a lie.” I haven’t seen Resurrecting the Champ so I don't know if it delivers the ethical dilemma it promises but that one line sums up a quagmire of conscience better than any eleven words I could pound out. It's a great line. First it's white ( based on a true story) and then it's black (based on a lie). But from what I've read, the story is supposed to be about shades of gray.

Shades of gray. We amateurs often have a hard time writing convincing moral and ethical dilemmas. The situations feel pale and the stakes unrealistic. The problem? Shades of gray. There's more than one shade of gray in our ethical crayon boxes but many of us new writers use only one shade so our dilemmas are unconvincing, stagnant or downright boring. Dilemmas need hues, tints, and contrast. They're multi-dimensional and there's always more than one perspective or version even if there's seemingly only one solution.

Issues of the conscience are inherently difficult to film because they occur in the heart and soul and mind. This flies in the face of the "films are visual so action is king" rule. You can't film thoughts (unless you get Tom Hanks in the starring role) so you need action to demonstrate a story and portray character. But action is not THE dilemma. We only use action scenes to set up, carry along, demonstrate, complicate, and perpetuate the dilemma.

A note of caution about using gray crayons. Remember how my grandmother used to say that you only show a man a little ankle? While we need to demonstrate the dilemma to the audience VERY CLEARLY, we don't need to give them every nuance and possible retribution of the dilemma. We must give the audience room to feel for themselves. Give them enough information to empathize with the character, feel his dilemma, and feel the full impact of the weight of the situation but there must be some "what if" that the audience can fill in with their personal feelings or knowledge or experience to make it more meaningful for them. I'll come back to this in a minute.

What kinds of ethical dilemmas are we talking about? Let's take lying for example. Everyone has had experience with liars. Liars are occur when three things happen:

  1. a person knows that a fact or circumstance is false, illegal, wrong, or a risk to somebody

  2. that person represents the circumstance as truth, legal, right, or safe

  3. that person allows others to believe the misrepresented information

Ta da! Introducing one of the most frequently confronted ethical issues in the corporate and personal lives of people today. A liar.

This may seem overly simplistic and not enough to build a story around (Liar, Liar anyone?) but remember that the cheese doesn't usually stand alone. When you've got an ethical dilemma going on in a film, there's more to the story. Somebody has a career in trouble, a strained relationship, a broken down business, etc. But let's put it to the test in a business situation.

The fact is that every business environment eventually develops a system of morality and ethics acceptable within itself that may or may not differ from societal standards and that three step "liar litmus test" would fail in many corporate "greater good" scenarios. Not only that, it would be okay! What the??

Basically, the ends justify the means in business. Businesses exist for the end, not the means so if the means are not hurting anyone in the short term and we're doing something beneficial for the corporation, a fudge on the rules (which we all know are bad anyway) or a lie here and there is only going to help our stockholders, readers, public, or whomever it is our corporation is held accountable to. Why not stretch the truth and bend the reality just a little for the benefit of the greater good? Guess what? You're a hero for it! Furthermore, anyone who would OPPOSE such a plan for the greater good is an enemy of the company. Hence the honest person becomes the villain and the liar becomes the savior.

How did I get all that out of a simple lie? Well, it's not just a lie. It's a moral dilemma if the character has a standard of right and wrong in his life and it's an ethical dilemma if the character has a standard of right and wrong in his business dealings.

The important thing is to make sure we identify what our characters' standards are. If we don't establish what a character's moral or ethical standards are in our stories, how can the reader understand the full impact of a dilemma on that character? In Chariots of Fire, a Christian athlete will not compromise his beliefs to achieve his goals. If that concept had not been clearly established in this film, the character could have easily been blurred into a zealous guy who just refused to run on Sunday.

Now, let's go back to what I said earlier about leaving room for the audience to feel something personal. Using Chariots of Fire as an example again, one of the brilliant things about this film is the wiggle room for people of other religions to relate to being asked to do something that contradicts a core belief or risk losing a once in a lifetime an opportunity.

But it's not just about religion. Economic, political, social, religious and cultural forces are competing in our lives and any combination of these forces may lead our characters to feel powerless to oppose them. Going along with group is troublesome. Speaking up may be even more troublesome. Yet, each person must face a mirror every day and weigh the cost to their own personal lives, professional lives, and personal values while balancing whatever their organizational obligations are. As writers, we've got to find a way to convey that feeling of powerlessness without weighing down our stories, robbing the scenes of their action, or turning our screenplays into 120 pages of preachy soliloquies.

By the way, whistleblowing is a cop-out answer. It may sound like the easy way to resolve your corporate issues but come on. If the corporate world was that elementary, somebody could have tattled on Enron from a bottom rung in the early stages, my uncle would have been spared about $4 million in retirement, and who knows how many lives would be changed. Whistleblowing is complex and comes with a set of retributions that may be worse than looking in the mirror and knowing that you're party to something dishonest. Keep that in mind before you make whistleblowing your silver bullet.

Remember, too, that more than one person may be struggling with the same dilemma or even opposite sides of the same ethical dilemma. There may not be a right and wrong. It may be a right and right or a wrong and wrong. Master and Commander uses a powerful "lesser of two evils" dilemma that affects every person on board the ship when Captain Aubrey has to let a sailor drown to keep the whole ship from going under. That's a very dark gray crayon. Time after time, the Captain makes decisions that are neither black nor white, but variations of gray as he breaks a promise to a friend to pursue a nemesis in service to the British Navy and then postpones that service by breaking off chase in order to save that same friend's life.

I'm curious to see whether the ethical dilemma in Resurrecting the Champ is "black and white", "shades of gray", or "one shade of gray". But I've heard the Creative Screenwriting podcast with co-writer Michael Bortman and director Rod Lurie so I'm looking forward to the film. But the podcast got me thinking about the vast array of crayons at our disposal to use in our ethical coloring books. Steel gray. Mousy gray. Iron gray. Pearl gray. There's no need to choose a single shade and stick with it.

Moviegoers aren't afraid to think. Let's give them a kaleidoscope.

No comments: