If you only take one idea away from this mini-series on the 3 most important elements of plot, it should be this: make your characters choose.
In the last lesson, we talked about the inciting incident, which is the situation that begins the story, that comes out of nowhere and creates a problem that the characters have to spend the rest of the story trying to solve.
The inciting incident begins the sequence of progressively more complicated events known as the rising action. But what’s the point of the rising action? Where are all those events leading for the characters in your story?
They’re leading to the plot element we’re focusing on in this lesson: the dilemma.
The dilemma is the center of every story, a moment where the main character has to make an impossible choice.
In Romeo and Juliet, should Romeo join Juliet in the afterlife by ending his life, should Romeo continue live in a world without Juliet?
In Frozen, should Anna save herself and allow her sister to be killed, or should she save her sister, sacrificing herself in the process?
In Star Wars, after Luke Skywalker’s first torpedo doesn’t hit, should he fly off and save himself and his ship, or should he trust the force and try one more time risking getting shot down and killed.
Or in every romantic comedy ever, should the hero or heroine get over their personal issues and declare their love in some dramatic way and risk rejection, or should they refuse to change and risk losing the love of their life.
These are edge of your seat, glued to the page moments. The reader is desperate to find out the answer to these questions.
And that’s the power of the dilemma. It creates the drama. Dilemma is the heart of the story. You can even make the argument that it is the reason people read, because as humans we want to know how other people act in desperate situations.
And by the way, the most important principle of characterization is that your main character must make choices, they must choose, even if they fail, they have to take action. If they don’t, if they’re just passively being led through the story, then they aren’t a protagonist, they aren’t a character your readers will want to follow. Which is just one more reason that the dilemma is so important, because it is the big moment in which the character makes a choice.
So how about your story? Does it have a dilemma? A moment, usually near the end, where the character has to make an impossible choice?
Here’s the formula to compose a dilemma: a choice plus the consequence of making that choice vs. another choice followed by its consequence.
Use this formula to figure out what your story’s dilemma is. And if it doesn’t have a dilemma, then you need to add one, because without it, your story will be missing something.
One last thing before I let you get back to work on your story.
Just as your story as a whole needs to have a dilemma, so does every scene in your story. Scenes are the building blocks of your story, and if you want to write better scenes, make sure that each one has some kind of dilemma in it. Just doing this one thing will totally transform your writing.
Now, people always say, “But Joe. If I have one dilemma per scene, that would be a lot of dilemmas. I can’t think of that many choices.”
And what I respond with is, yes! That is a lot of dilemmas! Because like we talked about, dilemma is what creates the drama in a story. It’s what characterizes your protagonist. It might even be why people read. So by making sure each scene has a dilemma, you make sure that each scene is moving, that it has enough drama to keep people reading, and also that your character is taking action and proving themselves to be someone worth following.
Now, that doesn’t mean every scene needs to have a life changing choice. In some scenes, the dilemma might be a choice about whether to respond to an insult or stay quiet, or it might be whether to flirt and risk humiliation or not and miss out on making a connection with someone. Whatever it is, every scene should have a dilemma because this is the engine of drama in your story.
So that’s the dilemma. Today, spend some time thinking through your story’s dilemma today. Maybe even look for the dilemma in some of your favorite stories. Then, stay tuned for our upcoming lesson on the next essential plot element, the climax.
See you soon!