Spanning the Dilemma

In my previous post, I compared the component known as dilemma to the arching span of a bridge. I may not be using the precise architectural term, but by span I mean what visually lifts your eye across the stream or chasm–whatever the bridge is crossing.

Emotion is a foundation pillar. It stands rooted. It doesn’t move. As long as the character is in a purely emotional state, the story is on “pause.” It doesn’t continue.

Dilemma, by contrast, is motion forward. We don’t want to stall a story indefinitely. Dilemma gets the character going again. Not right away and not all at once, but it’s progress.

Therefore, dilemma is the second element that goes into a sequel. It follows emotion. It doesn’t precede it.

That’s because people react emotionally first. When their feelings start to calm down, then they can think.

Dilemma is all about thinking through the problem at hand.

Writing principle: Dilemma is the logic of your plot.


Didn’t I hammer logic in my last post? I hope not. My point was that logic has no place in character emotion. That doesn’t mean that logic has no place in your story. Of course it does!

Dilemma is part of that connection between the dots of plot events. We get a character stirred up emotionally so that person will take action. But we have to devise stories that make sense and show reasonable amounts of cause and effect.

We don’t want the protagonist pausing in the middle of stirring scene action to reason through the problem. So it’s saved until the scene is over and until the viewpoint character has had a chance to vent some steam.

Because once the raging disappointment and heartbreak following a scene setback fade, our character can think. More importantly, our character should think.

Here’s where Wally Writer can shoehorn plausibility and rationale into the story. No matter how improbable the plot truly is, it can be made to seem reasonable–or at least understandable–by adding the dilemma component to character reaction.

Dilemma is where Polly Protagonist dries her tears a little and starts considering what she will do next.

She does this under two criteria:

1) What is she going to do next based on what’s just happened in the story, and

2) What is she going to do next in terms of her overall story goal?

Writing tip: When you’re plotting, always remember where you’re going.

Keep in mind the following points:

*What has your character just gone through?

*What has your character gone through in the story up to this point?

*How has any of that altered the goal or motivations of the character?

*What new plans will your character make as a result?

Writing principle: when you write dilemma you are working out your plot for yourself while making it seem that the character is formulating a new plan.

Formulating a plan means the protagonist is now ready psychologically to look forward to what he or she will try next in achieving the story goal.

Emotion and Dilemma dovetail together. Each–in its own way–supports the progression of the protagonist from disappointment to new determination.

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