If you believe Alan Watts, author of The 90-Day Novel, dilemma is the driving force of any story. But what does that actually mean?
Dilemma is a rhetorical device (the use of language to create effect or meaning) in which the character has to choose between two options, both equally as feasible, with one positioned as the ‘right’ or ‘positive’ choice and the other as the ‘wrong’ or ‘negative’ choice. It’s often the choice between what the character wants and what the character believes (wrongly) to be true.
An example might be:
I want to be true to myself, but I don’t want to disappoint my family.
The desire here is to be true to one’s self, the false belief is that, by being true to yourself, you’ll disappoint your family or lose their love.
I want to travel the world, but I don’t want to miss out on what’s happening at home.
Again, the desire is the ‘I want…” statement and the false belief is the ‘But…’ statement.
For the two novels I’m currently working on, my protagonists’s dilemmas were (for Maggie) “I want to honour my own needs, but I don’t want to let my family down’ and (for Stuart) “I want to be invulnerable so I can’t be hurt” (the desire is to be invulnerable/strong and the false belief is that being vulnerable leads only to pain).
A key point that Watts makes is that a dilemma can’t be solved (unlike a problem). The dilemma is resolved, it’s brought to a conclusion over the course of the story, but there are multiple ways in which the character can achieve this, and it might not be in the way they initially wanted. Thinking in terms of dilemmas brings depth to your work, because there is no clear right or wrong and what one character decides is right for them, another character might never even have considered (which is pretty true of life).
Let’s look at a recent (ish) movie, Disney’s Moana.
Moana’s problem is clear – her world is being killed by the Darkness and it must be stopped. But her dilemma is more complicated and interesting. She wants to follow her heart and leave her island, but she doesn’t want to disappoint her father and abandon her duties to her people. (Desire – to follow her heart, False Belief – that she must be an obedient daughter in order to serve her people) Ultimately, Moana resolves this dilemma by following her heart and bringing a new age of exploration and prosperity to her people.
The idea of a dilemma in literature isn’t new, but, although I haven’t read his book, I like the way Watt explains it.
I feel that thinking in terms of dilemma is adding a new depth to my work, and a different way of framing my work, outside of a problem that must be solved. What do you think? Have thought about your characters’s dilemma before? Is it useful in your work?