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Put Dilemmas in Your Stories for a Compelling Punch


“Put Dilemmas in Your Stories for a Compelling Punch” by Joan Y. Edwards

Dilemmas add more tension and compel higher reader interest. Higher reader interest equals more sales. Go for it. Make sure the conflict right before the crisis  situation is a dilemma. It has to be the most difficult decision a character makes in the whole book. It will either make him or break him. What’s the difference between regular conflicts and dilemmas. I did a little reading. My resources are below the article, as well as interspersed throughout the article.

Conflict is the main problem at the beginning of a novel or story. Conflicts can be predicaments, problems that must be solved to get to the goal. Predicament is a condition or situation, specifically, one that is difficult, unpleasant, embarrassing or even sometimes comical. You can have from six to 12 minor conflicts for the main character after the initial change at the beginning.

The difference between a conflict and a dilemma follows: a conflict is the main problem or the problem you find at the beginning of a piece of literature. The perplexing dilemma is the choice of two solutions to the main problem at the climax of a story. Add conflicts beginning at the start of the story and continually raise the stakes. Make the main character keep losing more and more until he gets to the breaking point, until he can no longer avoid the dilemma situation at the climax.  Before the Crisis according to Peder Hill is that black moment when all is lost and danger is at its highest and the goal cannot be achieved.  (Peder Hill Structure and Plot: Dilemmas for the Crisis http://www.musik-therapie.at/PederHill/Structure&Plot.htm)

The hero or main character can’t put off the decision. It’s either do it now or forever be deemed a failure or be killed. Circumstances trap the main character between two major dilemmas. There are two (di Greek prefix that means two) equally unfavorable choices to solve a problem that he can’t ignore.

It will make it where he can’t keep life the same as it was. As my mother used to say, “Old Usta’s Dead.” Life is not the same and you can’t keep it the same. Dilemmas come when there is a conflict between beliefs and/or values. The strict notion of ‘dilemma’ is when we find ourselves with a challenging situation where the possible outcome leads to two equally unappealing choices.

Dwight V. Swain says in his book, Techniques for the Selling Writer, that crisis in a story is when principle collides with self-interest or a situation where the main character feels compelled to follow one of two conflicting beliefs. The main character defies the rules in order to retain his world as he desires it. As he sees it, he can do it. He can accomplish it above all the odds against it. Dilemmas do not present a clear solution and in most cases are unable to be solved, but have to be managed over time towards a resolution.

During the crisis, the only way to survive is to fight or flee fate of these two dilemmas, these two choices. The main character feels compelled to follow conflicting beliefs. He is between a rock and a hard place. As Calhoun says in Amos and Andy, “If I do this, I get in trouble. If I do that, you get in trouble. If I do this other thing, we both get in trouble.”

Are the stakes high enough for your characters? Will they lose a lot because of the decision they make in the dilemmas presented to them. The following words of Jessica Page Morrell really sank into my writing psyche: Are the stakes high and the consequences for failure dreadful?  If not, I believe you need to edit to make the failure more dreadful and more fearful.

At the following link, Donald Maass gives  “3 Key Stakes that Drive Novels.” http://www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles/by-writing-goal/improve-my-writing/3-key-stakes-that-drive-novels

Here’s more help with building higher tension by heightening the stakes: Jessica Page Morrell. “How to Build Tension to Heighten the Stakes.” http://www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles/by-writing-goal/beat-writers-block/how-to-build-tension-to-heighten-the-stakes

I believe that sooner or later when enough things stack up on the main character, he will have to change his belief. It is no longer true in his mind. Therefore, he can’t live with it any longer. He has to take action.

During this moment, the hero draws upon the new strengths or lessons he’s learned in order to take action and bring the story to a conclusion. Hero defies the rules in order to retain his world as he desires it or to create the world as he wants it. First he makes the decision. Then, he takes the final action to bring the story to its resolution. The climax is the action that brings the story to its resolution. Crisis is a point in a story or drama when a conflict reaches its highest tension and must be resolved. Jeff Kitchen says that you have Dilemma, Crisis, Decision and Action, and Resolution in a movie:  Writing a Great Movie: Key Tools for Screenwriting.  This link shows a good outline of the Three Acts for movies that can also be used for novels.

Goals for the Main Character

1. Try the impossible, not capable of occurring. Do the unattainable. Impossible feats – Accomplishing

a. Christine Green.”Impossible Feats – Accomplishing What Can’t Be Done.” http://www.christinegreen.com/2011/07/impossible-feats-accomplishing-what-cant-be-done/.

b. Dr. Vincent Muli Wa Kituku of Idaho. “Attaining the Unattainable” http://www.kituku.com/article_template.php?id=51

c. Greta Christina. “The Impossible Ideals Men Are Expected to Meet.” http://www.alternet.org/story/151344/wealthy%2C_handsome%2C_strong%2C_and_with_endless_hard-ons%3A_the_impossible_ideals_men_are_expected_to_meet

1)  Break the world’s record.

2) Climb Mount Everest.

3) Win a Car Race even though you run out of gas

4) Live despite a flood, earthquake, forest fire

2. Do the forbidden

a. Girl on a boys baseball team.

b. Man 45, in a golf tournament for 50 years old and older.

3. (My Idea) Do the difficult for this particular individual with their strengths, weaknesses, and emotional beliefs.

 1) Honesty is one of Sara’s most revered traits in herself. She prides herself in being honest. Sara wants the job as feature writer for her hometown newspaper. She does 6 different articles to make it to the status they require. Then they ask her to pose as a spy for the FBI and do a report on the police brutality on Hispanics. Her desires to be the feature writer and her moral integrity are bumped together at the same time. Will she change her mind about being the reporter for this newspaper or will she lie to get her job?

2) Selena’s belief is that men are perfect. Men can do no wrong. Enter life experience. Her husband cheats her out of a land deal. He doesn’t put her name on the deed. She doesn’t find out until the land is sold. He is dead. She doesn’t get the land.

3) Jill wants to go to the dance. To go to the dance she has to take a wheelchair or Use a walker.

4) Ted wants to be on a bowling team. He has to ask his enemy if he can try out for the winning team or be on a team that has the lowest bowling scores in the league.

5)Stanley’s brother got a girl pregnant. Stanley has to choose whether to confront his brother or tell his parents.

6) Susan is in an honors class. She sees her best friend copying notes on his arm. The teacher accuses her of copying his paper when she looks at his arm. She has to choose whether to lose her best friend by telling on him or taking the blame for something she didn’t do.

7. Felix the cat always chases Mice and eats them, however, this mouse has a broken leg. He has a choice to eat him without the chase or chase a different mouse and leave a meal untouched.

Sample Predicaments and Dilemmas from Fairy Tales and Other Tales

1. Britannica.com. Dilemma Tale, also called a Judgment Tale,  typically an African form of short story whose ending is either open to conjecture or is morally ambiguous. The readers (the audience) decides the answers to the questions. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/163532/dilemma-tale

2. Bruno Bettelheim The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales showing right versus wrong or good versus evil.

3. Peder Hill. “Structure and Plot: Dilemmas for the Crisis.” http://www.musik-therapie.at/PederHill/Structure&Plot.htm

4. Valerie Hoy. Samples of Predicaments in Fairy Tales http://www.valeriehoy.info/writing/sample.php?id=26

Please comment with a sample of a dilemmas in a well-known story or one of your own masterpieces. You can also ask questions about dilemmas or pose your own definitions. I’ll choose a person using random.org who leaves a comment before December 11, 2011 to receive a First Page Critique of a Manuscript. I enjoy reading your comments. They fill me with joy and thankfulness.

Celebrating is part of thankfulness and excitement to help you achieve your publication goals.  Develop unwavering faith.

Even with complications and obstacles, the vision of success in your  mind, the excitement of getting it, your thankfulness, and your action toward it will create the reality for you.

Thank you for reading and for subscribing to my blog. Sign up for an email subscription from the left hand
column.

Celebrate You Right Now
Never Give Up
Joan Y. Edwards
http://www.joanyedwards.com

Copyright © 2011 Joan Y. Edwards

Resources I Used for This Article

1. Britannica.com. Dilemma Tale, also called a Judgment Tale,  typically an African form of short story whose ending is either open to conjecture or is morally ambiguous. The readers (the audience) decides the answers to the questions. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/163532/dilemma-tale

2. Bruno Bettelheim The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales showing right versus wrong or good versus evil

3. Christine Green Impossible Feats – Accomplishing What Can’t Be Done http://www.christinegreen.com/2011/07/impossible-feats-accomplishing-what-cant-be-done/.

4. Donald Maass. “3 Key Stakes that Drive Novels.” http://www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles/by-writing-goal/improve-my-writing/3-key-stakes-that-drive-novels

5. Dr. Vincent Muli Wa Kituku of Idaho“Attaining the Unattainable” http://www.kituku.com/article_template.php?id=51

6. Dwight V. Swain. Techniques for the Selling Writer. http://www.amazon.com/Techniques-Selling-Writer-Dwight-Swain/dp/0806111917

7. Educational Leaders.Government.nz. “Problem Solving: Leadership: Dilemmas – Using the Leadership.”

http://www.educationalleaders.govt.nz/Problem-solving/Leadership-dilemmas/Using-the-leadership-dilemmas

8. Greta Christina. “The Impossible Ideals Men Are Expected to Meet.” http://www.alternet.org/story/151344/wealthy%2C_handsome%2C_strong%2C_and_with_endless_hard-ons%3A_the_impossible_ideals_men_are_expected_to_meet

9. Jeff Kitchen. “Writing a Great Movie: Key tools for successful screenwriting.” http://books.google.com/books?id=fL-YT3dAkOIC&pg=PA22&lpg=PA22&dq=dilemma+before+the+crisis+in+a+movie&source=bl&ots=RJSSiuLxZV&sig=_2N0ADWdICsakbYqZRsMZ4ZnD9c&hl=en&ei=_nq4TuuVA4Pe2AWhn_WrBw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&sqi=2&ved=0CB0Q6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=dilemma%20before%20the%20crisis%20in%20a%20movie&f=false

10. Jessica Page Morrell. “How to Build Tension to Heighten the Stakes.” http://www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles/by-writing-goal/beat-writers-block/how-to-build-tension-to-heighten-the-stakes

11. J. Hoke. Fairy Tales Page (Links to Fairy Tales with Pictures and Text). http://www-ma.beth.k12.pa.us/jhoke/jhwebquest/ftales.htm

12. Peder Hill. “Structure and Plot: Dilemmas for the Crisis.” http://www.musik-therapie.at/PederHill/Structure&Plot.htm

13.The Free Dictionary.com. “Dilemma.” http://www.thefreedictionary.com/dilemma

14. Valerie Hoy. Samples of Predicaments in Fairy Tales http://www.valeriehoy.info/writing/sample.php?id=26

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8 Responses

  1. It’s like life. Us ‘oomans just won’t move until the discomfort of staying put outweighs the discomfort of moving.

    Like

    • Dear Widder, What a good analogy! You’re exactly right. It’s human nature to want things just as they are, even if they’re bad, because we’re used to it and we’re comfortable there. You’re right when the discomfort of staying put outweighs the discomfort of moving and taking action, then we’ll move. Cool. Thanks for writing.

      Add Sparkle to Your Life. Be Your Own Magic Wand Play. Laugh. Smile. Joan Y. Edwards http://www.joanyedwards.com

      Like

  2. So is a dilemma a sort of conundrum? It appears so. I’d like to share this quote I found by Katherine Boo, New Yorker, 9 April 2001: “What if all your choices are bad ones?”

    Thanks for always sharing posts that are full of great tips and that give my brain cells a workout.

    Linda A.

    Like

    • Dear Linda, According to the Free Dictionary, conundrum and dilemmas can be synonyms: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/conundrum; however, they also say that conundrums can have no solution. A dilemma has two solutions that neither one is emotionally or otherwise likeable by you in life or your main character in your story. Katherine Boo has it right, a dilemma is when all of your choices are bad. Thanks for sharing the quote and a new way to look at the words conundrum and dilemma. You’re welcome for my posts. I’m glad you believe they are filled with great tips that give your brain cells a workout. I give my brain a workout before I post, so that I had a clear idea of what the subject was about. Researching is fun. Teaching is even more fun that. Sharing my posts is a way for me to teach. Teaching lights me up on the inside. Thanks for reading and posting comments on my blog.

      Never Give Up Go ahead, laugh. Joan Y. Edwards http://www.joanyedwards.com

      Like

  3. I have always thought of conflicts as external circumstances that present themselves to be dealt with and dilemmas as eternal issues that need to be resolved. Thanks for the info on your blog it gave me insight on how to deal with a section of the story that I am writing.

    Juli A.

    Like

    • Dear Juli,
      Thanks a bunch for writing. I’m glad that my description of dilemmas and conflicts helped you. Isn’t it wonderful when you figure out how to deal with a section of a story that’s been giving you trouble!. I’m very proud of you. I kept hearing conflict, dilemma, crisis from different people. I couldn’t tell the difference. I didn’t know what they were talking about. I didn’t understand that they were different. I started reading books, articles, and dictionaries. It makes more sense to me now, too. Now I can take what I learned and use it in my writing, too. Hurray for both of us for getting a clearer vision!

      Write Write Write
      Never Give Up
      Joan Y. Edwards
      http://www.joanyedwards.com

      Like

  4. Great article! I found the following especially helpful:
    Are the stakes high and the consequences for failure dreadful? If not, I believe you need to edit to make the failure more dreadful and more fearful.

    I think i need to tape this to my computer as I rewrite a middle grade work that…well, isn’t working 😉 While my character is faced with a choice to sacrifice a dream and keep his integrity or possibly achieve the dream by sacrificing his integrity, I don’t think the choice is presented to the reader as very dreadful or fearful. I’m not exactly sure how to do this yet, but I feel this gives me at least a better idea of what I need to do to make it a clearer dilemma and a stronger plot.

    Thanks, Joan!

    Like

    • Dear Dorothy,
      I appreciate your writing. Thanks for the compliment. I’m glad that It held an “aha” moment for you. I am honored that you are going to tape my article to your computer as you rewrite your middle grade work. Good luck in finding the right words that make it work. Seems like to be sacrificing his integrity would hurt big time. If this dream is a one time only dream, then it’s possible that it’s a dilemma. Two choices, both are unpleasant. I wrote what I discovered from my research. It’s possible that I don’t have the whole picture. But hopefully, this information leads you to the best middle grade novel you’ve ever written.
      Live Laugh Love
      Never Give Up
      Joan Y. Edwards
      http://www.joanyedwards.com

      Like

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