Einstein says, “You cannot solve a problem at the same level of consciousness that created the problem.” Writers often get stuck because they believe it’s their job to figure out a solution to their protagonist’s dramatic problem. It’s not. Here’s why.
Your protagonist doesn’t have a problem. She has a dilemma.
A dilemma is a problem that cannot be solved without creating another problem. When you approach your story as if your protagonist is struggling with a problem, you tend to want to figure out a way to fix it, which short-circuits the work. By inquiring into the dilemma, you see your story from a wider perspective.
Problems are solved.
Dilemmas are resolved through a shift in perception.
Perhaps your story began as a premise, a character, or a single idea, but underlying this initial impulse was a subconscious quest for resolution. The creative impulse seeks to make order from chaos, to contextualize a series of events with the intention of making new meaning from them. As storytellers, we’re drawn to unresolved situations: Will George Bailey leave Bedford Falls? Will Dorothy’s dreams come true somewhere over the rainbow? Will Harry Potter triumph over Lord Voldemort?
These questions appear to present a problem but they are actually providing a context through which we can explore a resolution to a dilemma. If Jimmy Stewart did leave Bedford Falls at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, we would be disappointed because he would not have learned that his life is already wonderful. Similarly, if Dorothy’s dreams did come true somewhere over the rainbow, we would miss the point, and if Harry Potter simply destroyed Lord Voldemort and that was the end of it, there would be no context for the theme, which is that good and evil must coexist.
The desire to write is connected to the desire to resolve something you seek to understand. By noticing the central dilemma in your story, you will see where it exists in your life. By exploring its resolution in your life, you will find its resolution in your story.
Join me LIVE, August 17th through 20th, for my 4-Day Outline Your Story workshop, where we will do a deep dive into process and unlock your story within. This workshop is open to novelists, screenwriters, and memoirists, and is appropriate for writers at all levels. Early registration ends Monday, August 10th, at midnight.
I look forward to working with you soon.
Your fellow writer,