It covers morals. It fuels plot. It causes problems. It shows character.
Dilemmas are what happen when something goes wrong—and more than the usual wrong—and in order to fix it, the character must make a difficult choice.
And they're powerful.
But merely telling you about it is not enough. Let's examine dilemmas from top to bottom, dissecting them to find out what makes them so strong. And then, we'll use them to our advantage in creating truly meaningful stories.
What makes dilemmas powerful?
It's a hard question. And in order to write powerful dilemmas, we need to know the answer.
There are hard, factual aspects of a dilemma. For instance, here are some.
Dilemmas are powerful because they often show character. You don't tell your reader that a character is heroic. If you do tell your reader, at any point in your story, that your character is heroic (i.e. "He was a heroic guy"), you must cut it. Now.
Your character's character is showed by his or her actions and decisions. You know a character is heroic when he or she sacrifices himself to save others, or if he or she risks his or her life to make a daring rescue.
Dilemmas take it a step further. They go from making ordinary decisions—will he rescue the maiden or slink back to his old life?—to difficult ones. Dilemmas aren't just choices; they're choices between two bad things. Will he die or allow someone else to die? Will he eat cucumber and parsley cake or rotted watermelon?
If you want to show character, go with a dilemma. Choices show your character's character, but dilemmas show their true motives and morals. It's the difference between helping the maiden escape (decision) to dying for her rescue (dilemma; allow the maiden to die or die yourself?). Helping the maiden escape may have ulterior motives, but dying is the greatest price of them all. If a character dies for another, then loyalty and love is truly expressed, much more than in a simple rescue.
There seem to be different brands of character dilemmas. There are normal dilemmas (die or allow her to die), and then there are also temptation dilemmas.
Someone—often the Villain—may offer the character a choice. It's the choice between something bad or something the character wants—at a price.
A great example of this is in the TV show Doctor Who. (I've recently discovered it, and I really like it. But don't worry, no spoilers here.) In the episode "School Reunion", the main character (the Doctor) is given a choice. He can join the bad guys and have a chance to regain what he's lost, but at the price of doing something he thinks is morally wrong. The other alternative is to try and stop them and risk their lives.
Think about it. The only thing stopping him from accepting that choice is the fact that he would have to stand by and accept something morally wrong. Not even doing something wrong, only accepting that it was happening and receiving the reward for this wrongdoing.
And this reveals the character of the Doctor. He cannot, will not stand aside while wrong is being done. It's against his nature, his character. If he sees wrong, he stops it, regardless to the cost.
This is a fantastic element of his character, revealed by a hard dilemma.
So, what else does a dilemma do?
It also moves the plot.
Dilemmas make fascinating reading. They are simply irresistible. What will the character choose? is a powerful question that drives the reader to keep reading. It moves things forward. And that's something you always want in a novel.
If the dilemma can have an impact on the plot and complicate matters, all the better!
Dilemmas often create emotion. Daniel Schwabauer states that the entire purpose of a novel is to create emotion. Novels make us care for characters, and when a character is presented with a dilemma, it makes some sort of emotion. If he or she makes the wrong decision, we feel disappointment, betrayal; such scenes can create a variety of emotion. If he or she makes a right decision, we may feel proud, sorrowed (if the price is too great for the character to bear), etc.
Dilemmas cause your reader to think. There have been many times where I have wondered, "What would I have done in this character's place?" Dilemmas make the events of story move out of one world and into reality, impacting a reader's life.
And if the dilemma sets an example, then perhaps the reader will be encouraged by that.
Take these all together. Dilemmas show character, move the plot, create emotion, and cause you to think. They're powerhouses of story. Alone, like this, they can still be powerful and impactful, but there is one thing that draws all of these aspects of dilemmas together.
Express the Moral
That's the thing that ties a dilemma together and makes it relevant to the reader.
Characters show morals. Plot shows morals. Emotion makes the moral impact you. And morals are the things that cause you to think in dilemmas.
If I had to tell you one thing in this post, it will be this: use dilemmas to express the morals behind the story.
It's hard to do that without doing what others call "preachy". I've had attempts that did turn out preachy, but I kept on going.
Because if you can successfully (and without preaching) express the moral of a story through a dilemma, then you have a truly meaningful scene that will impact the reader. If you can do this throughout your novel, then it will be fantastic.
Often, a novel will have some sort of moral. In The War Horn, my moral is tied up in the symbol of a war horn—freedom and also mercy and justice. The dilemma my character has at the climax uses this symbol to express the morals behind my story in a (hopefully) non-preachy manner.
To Write A Dilemma
I can't give you step-by-step instructions for writing a dilemma. The dilemmas must come from you and your imagination. However, when writing a dilemma, keep these there things in mind.
1) Have your character choose between two bad alternatives in a way that has him or her stay in character.
2) Always make it hard. The key to a successful dilemma is that the character will pay a price, no matter what the choice.
3) Express a moral.
4) Make it relevant and thought-provoking to the reader. Something as heartbreaking as choosing which parent will die (i.e. choosing between Mom and Dad) would cause the reader to wonder which choice s/he would choose.
5) Create emotion.
Along the course of your life, what experience have you had (in life, in writing, in books, or otherwise) with dilemmas? What can we learn from them? Anything I missed that you'd like to note? Like this post? Leave me a comment and we'll talk. :)