Using a Dilemma to drive your story
Example. Our hero’s brother needs a life or death operation that costs serious money. But all of our hero’s cash is earmarked to finally turn his barely surviving business into a success, and to make a down payment on a new home, thus saving his marriage and removing his kids from a dangerous neighbourhood.
Example. Do you remember that true story where a young man was trapped by the arm in a rock fall in a remote part of US desert and having done everything he could to escape over 5 days, had to decide whether to simply wait until someone found him – which might never happen since nobody knew where he was – or cut off his own arm – and he might bleed to death. Aron Ralston chose the later.
Example. Many marriage of convenience stories or moral dilemmas – Charles Dickens loved them -such as where the pretty heroine innocent has to marry the repellant man to save her sister/aged parent/child from destitution or prison or some other terrible fate. Today it would be the unmarried mother who needs what this man can offer her. Or the person who has to lie in court to save someone they love.
Two equally unacceptable alternatives – two equally [very] painful choices.
Neither option is good, because each is at odds with the other.
One good central dilemma can be the ENGINE driving the drama.
Once your protagonist is trapped in it, the dilemma can build in intensity until the crisis point forces decision and action – no matter how much the heroine wants to put off making that decision, it has to be done. One way or the other. The dilemma is finally resolved at the point of resolution.
I have come to this point through an excellent book on Screenwriting – ‘Writing a Great Movie‘ by Jeff Kitchen*. Working through this book has given me excellent insights into how I can polish my current WIP thriller and build the conflict.
Up to this point I had not recognised the fact that my thriller has at least four key dilemmas which drive my heroine, some from her backstory and motivation, some from the plot and action line of the story.
Pulling out the thread of each dilemma has helped me build the scenes which set-up the alternatives she has to choose from and build the conflict as the action progresses.