The Dilemma at the Heart of Your Story

The Dilemma at the Heart of Your Story

“Nothing is more desirable than to be released from an affliction, but nothing is more frightening than to be divested of a crutch.”
-James Baldwin

OK. We want to write something. We have something to say, but we don’t know exactly what it is. It’s just a feeling, or maybe it’s an idea, but it’s alive in us. It won’t go away. Sometimes it’s this thing that’s been knocking around in our head for years, decades even.

To write it down would make it real. What if we don’t get it right? What if it isn’t so damn special? What if it was just a stupid idea to begin with? What would that mean about ourselves? About our existence? The risk is too great.
So we just live with it, like an itch we can’t scratch.

But it doesn’t go away. The thought is, “what if?” What if it is a good idea? What if I wrote this thing and it turned out to be amazing? What if it was what everyone had been waiting for? What if I do have something to say?

Then I’d have to do it again. And what if I failed? What if I only have one in me?
Ahhhhhhh. It never ends. Our mind tortures us. Our ego wants to keep us in the same spot.

But here’s the lie that we tell ourselves. We tell ourselves that we have to solve this riddle before we can begin writing.

We don’t. We just have to acknowledge that this struggle lives within us. I work with writers every day, and the one thing that separates working writers from the ones who are still struggling with resistance is that the latter interpret their fear as evidence that they are not uniquely qualified to tell their story. It doesn’t matter that this is not true. It feels true. And further inquiry feels too uncomfortable to pursue.

What if you got excited about your fears, rather than withdrawing? What if you let them turn you on? What if you threw your ego on the fire and said, “I’m going to write this thing for me, and even if I never show it to anyone, I am going to conquer it once and for all”?

One simple paradigm shift can literally change our life. And here it is: what if we recognized the situation for what it really is—a dilemma.

So many would-be writers spend their lives waiting for their problems to be solved, only to discover that there isn’t one. There’s a dilemma. A dilemma is a problem that cannot be solved without creating another problem. Notice how this mirrors the protagonist in the story you’re writing. If you disagree, keep inquiring, because I promise you this is true in every single story ever written, from Dr. Seuss to Camus.

Problems are solved. Dilemmas are resolved through a shift in perception.
The purpose of story is to help us see things in a new way, through a shift in perception. When we begin to recognize that at the heart of every story is a dilemma, we become emotionally engaged with our characters. Focusing on the plot was actually pulling us away from what our story was about. When we inquire into the nature of the dilemma, our story starts to wake up. We become less concerned with the result and more interested in the process.

The dilemma is the source of our story. Its manifestations are endless. The dilemma takes us out of our limited ideas of who these characters are, and into a world that is messy and dangerous. The dilemma shakes up our fixed ideas on how the plot should go. The dilemma takes us to the heart of the tension in our story. Our characters aren’t “good” or “bad,” they aren’t “right” or “wrong.” They are all simply struggling with various aspects of the same dilemma.

The reader, or the viewer, is always unconsciously wondering what is going to happen next. How are these people going to resolve this seemingly impossible situation? As writers, by understanding that it is not our job to solve our hero’s problem (it’s unsolvable!) but rather, to inquire into the resolution of the dilemma, our story becomes instantly dynamic. Our focus shifts, and we begin to see the story in a whole new way.

Here are some examples of dilemmas.
* I want intimacy, but can’t tell you my secrets.
* I want my abuser to love me.
* I want success, but I can’t risk failure.

Let go of the idea that your hero has a difficult problem. Your hero only thinks he has a problem. He doesn’t! He has a dilemma. He may not know it. It’s likely unconscious to him, at least for (probably) the first two-thirds of the story, but gradually it becomes apparent. As it dawns on him that he is confronting a dilemma, he surrenders the possibility of ever getting what he wants. Why? Because human beings only surrender when they have exhausted all their choices.
It is the paradox of life that in surrendering our desire we become instantly powerful. We have nothing left to lose.

Our hero is reborn, and is able to take action toward giving himself what he needs.
He makes a new choice, proving to the gods that he has earned his “shift in perception.” And through this choice, the dilemma is resolved, and our hero is returned home.

Be curious about the dilemma at the heart of your story. Don’t try and “figure it out.” It’s not a math problem. Inquire into its myriad manifestations and it will reveal to you the plot that has been eluding you.

Please share with me your thoughts on this.