At the heart of every story lies a dilemma from which all tensions and conflicts arise. How do you identify the dilemma in your story? There are two ingredients:
- A powerful desire
- A false belief
If we believe that love will make us complete, we might set out on a search for it. Then we end up misinterpreting each relationship that does not resemble completeness as an absence of love. Or we might seek success because we believe it will bring us joy. But, with each achievement, we find ourselves despairing at the elusiveness of joy. Obviously there is nothing wrong with our characters wanting love, or wanting to be successful. When they make meaning out of these goals, however, they actually create the impossibility of achieving them.
By exploring the meaning that our protagonist makes out of her goal, we begin to get a glimpse of her dilemma. In the end, our protagonist does not rid herself of her desire. But when she reframes the meaning she makes out of that desire, she is no longer ruled by it.
Since the purpose of story is to reveal a transformation, the arc of the story moves from a place of not knowing to knowing. Whether the story illustrates the journey from fear to love, ignorance to wisdom, revenge to forgiveness, denial to acceptance, or some other journey, it is through the protagonist’s false belief that our reader is led to a new understanding. It is not that our protagonist’s belief is incorrect; it is just not the whole story. The protagonist’s false belief is going to be tested through the story, and this will lead him to a new understanding.
For example: in John Grisham’s The Firm, the protagonist, Mitch McDeere believes that money will solve his problems. He takes a well-paying job with a firm that he knows nothing about. Soon he discovers that he is working for the mob and can never get out. It is true that money can solve some of his problems, but until he is willing to lose everything, he is a hostage to this false belief.
We tend to focus on our immediate problem rather than on its underlying cause. Let’s say that our protagonist Bill has a few drinks at the bar, and while driving home he gets a DUI. At this point, he most assuredly has a problem, but underlying his problem may be a dilemma. Perhaps Bill is an alcoholic and wants to get sober but believes that he cannot survive the anxiety of sobriety. Although the problem may be the DUI and its attendant inconveniences, underlying this problem is the false belief that he cannot survive as a sober person. By noticing your character’s desire coupled with his false belief, you can identify the dilemma in your story.