Monday, July 25, 2011

Tip: Dilemma—Morals, Characters, and Problems Meet

One of the greatest tools of a writer in writing meaningful stories is the Dilemma.

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. :)


Miguel said...

Amen to that. You really hit the nail on the head, several times, and drove it deep into the woodwork. Great post; thanks for sharing!

-Blitz/Stone/Mig ;)

Chrisopher said...

Wow. That was a long post. Very well done. Dilemmas are a big problem I'm facing right now. I need to come up with some.


Hannah Joy said...

Oh my, that was wonderful Jake! I love it in books where you see something that you know is SO hard for the character, and you *are* the character. If you can do that to the reader, you are in a good spot.

Marian said...

Thanks for posting this! I don't think you missed anything. You summed it up in "The key to a successful dilemma is that the character will pay a price, no matter what the choice"...which is something many story writers overlook. Right or wrong, either choice is going to hurt--even doing the right thing can break your heart. It's actually something that's been on my mind lately; though I think I tend to use ordinary decisions instead of real dilemmas, in my books. I'll be trying to use more dilemmas from now on. :)

The Director said...

You, my friend, are a Godsend above all Godsends. Good gravy. That was just what I've been needing for all of my writerly life. In other words, thank you.

*shakes head*


You pretty much threw it all out there in perfect order and sense. This is one writerly lesson I shall not soon forget, if EVER. :]

The one thing that came to mind was a favorite character of mine, Horatio Hornblower, who always happens to find a way out no matter the dilemma, as it were. You made me think of him when you said, 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.

My immediate thought was, "Hornblower would find a way to save BOTH of them (and probably gain the upper hand while he was at it)." He's just cool like that.

So, if I were to add anything, it would be that sometimes character (and intelligence and the like) is also shown through the way they can handle a dilemma, by creating a third option, if that makes sense. That also rouses great emotion and excitement. (See: Artemis Fowl, Horatio Hornblower, and the Last of the Jedi series.... I think. Those are at least the things hat come to mind at the present, while I am jet lagged and dizzy and woozy........)

Enough of my opinion. That was amazing Jake. Thank you a million times, and you can be sure my storytelling will be taking a most interesting turn.

(and if time allows, I may be back here later. I must recover from flying in planes all day with ears clogged up and fit to explode in my head first. ;)