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 problem. It’s not. Here’s why.
Our protagonist doesn’t have a problem. He has a dilemma.
A dilemma is a problem that cannot be solved without creating another problem. When we approach our story as if our protagonist is struggling with a problem, we tend to want to figure out a way to fix it, which short-circuits our work. By inquiring into the dilemma, we see our story from a wider perspective.
Problems are solved. Dilemmas are resolved through a shift in perception.
Perhaps our 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 we seek to understand. By noticing the central dilemma in our story, we see where it exists in our life. By exploring its resolution in our life, we find its resolution in our story.
Here are some examples of dilemmas:
– I want intimacy, but I don’t want to reveal myself.
– I want to have faith, but I don’t trust God.
– I want to be forgiven, but I don’t want to confess.
– I want love, but I don’t want to commit
If we believe that love should complete us, we might misinterpret each relationship that does not complete us as an absence of love. Or we might seek success believing it will bring us joy, and with each achievement we despair at the elusiveness of joy. Obviously there is nothing wrong with desiring love or success, but when we believe that our salvation lies in their attainment we actually create the impossibility of achieving these goals. By exploring the meaning our protagonist makes out of his goal, we begin to glimpse his dilemma.
Notice how dilemmas are visceral. They engage the imagination and demand an emotional experience.
There are two key ingredients to any dilemma: 1) A powerful desire. 2) A false belief.
To be human is to struggle with a dilemma. We spend our lives trying to solve our problems. What makes writers brave is that we are curious about what lies beyond the apparent problem to the underlying pattern. By exploring the nature of our protagonist’s dilemma our story often opens up in unexpected ways.