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. They have a dilemma.
A dilemma is a problem that you cannot solve 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 can see your story from a wider perspective.
Problems are solved. Dilemmas, however, 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, unresolved situations draw us in. Will George Bailey leave Bedford Falls? Can Dorothy’s dreams come true somewhere over the rainbow? Will Harry Potter triumph over Lord Voldemort?
These questions appear to present a problem and writers can get stuck on that, 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 feel 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. 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.
A dilemma is not a theme, yet, it is the vehicle through which we explore every theme. It provides the ongoing conflict that leads to the protagonist’s surrender of their false belief and, finally, their shift in perception. Dilemmas are visceral. They engage the imagination and create an emotional response. Notice, also, that every single character in the story wants the same thing. This desire manifests itself in very different ways, but it’s there. This is because our characters are all a function of the story, thus they’ll constellate around the dilemma.
The desire to write links with 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.