Wherein lies the power of dilemma in stories? What makes for the best dramatic conflict? The two questions are related.
In his seminal book, Story, Robert McKee reminds us that the choice between good and evil or between right and wrong is not a choice at all. It might generate conflict at the level of the plot between the protagonist and his world, but this conflict is two dimensional.
Conflict Through Dilemma
McKee illustrates the point by asserting that Attila the Hun would never be conflicted about invading, murdering, plundering. It is, after all, why he led his armies across two continents. He has no choice but to act in the way he does. It is only in the eyes of his victims that he is seen as evil.
In order to generate conflict within the character, as well as between him and those who oppose him – to make the conflict three dimensional – the character must experience a dilemma.
In the supernatural romance, Dona Flor and her Two Husbands, Dona faces a choice between a new husband who’s warm, secure, faithful but dull, and her old one who’s exciting, sexy, but dead – although he appears to her in the flesh and as insatiable as ever. She is caught between choosing a boringly safe life versus a mad, macabre, but emotionally exciting one.
“The power of dilemma is most evident at the turning points of a story.”
In my bestselling first novel, Scarab, the protagonist, Jack Wheeler, has to choose between two conflicting scenarios. In a world that has been reset to eliminate the death of the woman he loves, he can declare his love for her once more, but risk the possibility, no matter how remote, of recycling the events that led to her death. Or he can keep his feelings for her a secret and eliminate the risk. His uncertainty makes his choice a hard one, since there is no evidence to suggest that telling her he loves her would endanger her life at all. That is the nature of a dilemma – no clear choice.
Placing your protagonist in a dilemma, then, is a powerful technique that not only drives the plot forward, but makes the character’s actions unpredictable and engrossing.
The power of dilemma escalates the tensions within your protagonist and the other characters, making the story more gripping.
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