Saturday, October 30, 2010

How High Are the Stakes? Building Better Conflict and Dilemma into Your Book

Dilemma is the problem your book solves, whether it is how to plant a bonsai garden or who killed the victim in a murder mystery. Dilemma, also known as the dramatic arc, forms the path of your reader’s journey through your book. Without strong dilemma, there’s no story.

One of my students, Chris, was writing the story of her grandmother’s life, but she wasn’t happy
with the slow pace of her book. When we studied Chris’s storyboard, there were many lovely moments; however, few of them showed conflict. Her grandmother lived an interesting life, which she had written about in family letters, but something was missing—the dilemma that drives a story. It all seemed too perfect, Chris told me.

I suggested she make a collage of her grandmother’s life, from what she knew about her. Her grandmother died when Chris was nine, but she’d been Chris’s primary caretaker until then. Chris went through the letters again and old family photos. Then she put these documents aside and turned to her intuition.

She gathered a stack of magazines and spent an hour tearing out any images that spoke to her of her grandmother’s life. Then she arranged them on a large sheet of paper. This is when the central dilemma began to reveal itself.

For some reason Chris pasted a beautiful garden next to a car accident, then a fallen bird near a sunny kitchen. Why the opposing images? She tried to recall conversations about her grandmother’s past, before her marriage. Were there secrets she didn’t know about?

Chris decided to call up an elderly aunt and interview her. Chris learned that her grandmother had an illegitimate child when she was very young, and that child was given up for adoption. This explained the persistent sadness Chris always felt from her grandmother, and the disjointed collage images suddenly made sense. Chris now knew the central dilemma of her grandmother’s story and how she could write her book around it.

External and Internal Dilemma
Most dilemmas arise from external circumstances thrust upon a person. An external dilemma nearly always lead to an internal dilemma, and if you have both, it strengthens the book even more. Chris’s grandmother was forced to give up her baby—an external dilemma. Her life-long feelings of guilt were her internal dilemma. Together, they created a life of unresolved conflict always festering beneath all the gardening, cooking, and bird-watching.

Where does dilemma in books come from? External dilemma comes from circumstance forced upon someone or a choice that person makes that affects her life. External dilemma comes from outer change, not outer stasis. To write your book’s external dilemma demands that you, the writer, look at what might be missing. What’s happened to your narrator or characters, either beyond their control or because of a choice they made in the past? Chris’s grandmother’s external dilemma was giving up her child. It led to an internal dilemma—the secrets she carried caused her life to always feel off kilter, and this is what Chris discovered as she made her collage.

Internal dilemma can also be the instigating force in a book’s action. For instance, say a character desires something he can’t have without breaking the law or hurting someone else. This is an internal dilemma. He can try to live with this unmet desire but it messes up his life. In literature, the internal power of an unmet desire usually forces action, which creates external dilemma so the plot moves forward.

Each player on the stage of your book must have something they desire. The greater the desire or goal, the more momentum it creates and the more likely it will drive the person to do something risky. This leads to a dilemma, and on it goes in good stories.

Holding your characters or narrator in stasis does not a story make. But writing dilemma can sometimes be downright uncomfortable to write. It requires us to tolerate risk, deal with conflict—even if it’s only on the page.

It requires us to face our own fears.

This Week's Writing Exercise
1. Make a list of potential conflicts that could be brought out in your book. What kinds of trouble could people get themselves into? If you’re writing fiction or memoir, list desires and difficulties for each of your main characters. For nonfiction, make a list of possible problems that readers might encounter and how your book solves or addresses them.

2. Pick one problem and write about it. See if you can create a scene where the person faces this problem.

3. Now spend a few minutes with your writing notebook. Ask yourself how the conflict writing felt—did you notice anything in your own body as you wrote? Tense shoulders? Headache? Put those sensations into your characters.


  1. This is just what I need! I've been writing scenes and character sketches but have been struggling to find a central dilemma (internal and external) to tie it all together. Thank you for your advice and writing exercise.

  2. I'm so glad it's helpful. Thanks for visiting!

  3. Thanks, Mary! This was exactly what I needed. I had the external dilemma covered for my main character, but realized something was still missing in my YA novel. She was the victim of a circumstance beyond her control, but I had not tied it to an internal dilemma. Now, I've got it! Just in time for NaNoWriMo! Thanks!

  4. Thank you, Athena! Good luck with your character, and nanowrimo.

  5. This was so helpful! I stumbled onto your site by way of Rach Writes. I was just contemplating what my chap. 1 needs in my WIP by way of conflict. there is some .... but it's not enough... it doesn't define what's really at stake in the rest of the story.
    Reading this post just now just rang the bell in my head. I've got it. I know what it is. SO thank you!

  6. Thanks for visiting, PK! Glad you stumbled on the site.