How to use a Dilemma
As mentioned, dilemmas are problems, and so the most important thing to know about how to use one is that it needs to create visible tension for those faced with it. It can be as small as deciding what to have for dinner or a matter of life and death, but either way, deciding between the choices posed should be considerably difficult. Audiences should be able to clearly recognize what is at risk, and the possible consequences of both possibilities, whether it is between good things or bad.
Here are some common themes for dilemmas in literature:
- Being in love with two people and having to choose one
- Having to choose one friend over another
- The choice between good or evil
- The choice between right and wrong
- Having to choose between love and family
- Having to choose between loyalty (to someone or something) and what is right
- Following your “head” or your “heart”
- Choosing sides in an argument, when both are reasonable
- Choosing which innocent character(s) to save from danger
Of course, this is just a small selection of possible themes. What’s more, just like it can have many conflicts, a story can have many dilemmas—it isn’t limited to just one! Truly, most conflicts can be posed as a dilemma, if you come up with at least two compelling options for a character.
When to use a Dilemma
A dilemma can be introduced at pretty much any time in a narrative. You may choose to start a story with a dilemma, and spend the whole plot solving it; or, you can use the beginning of your plot build up to a dilemma, and your story could end with its solution. Even further, in a continuing story (like a novel or TV series), you might even end with a dilemma, creating a cliffhanger for the audience and ensuring that they will tune back in to see its resolution.
No matter when you decide use it, always remember that action tends to center around conflict—so, a significant dilemma is often the central part of a work. In fact, you may choose to design your whole story around one major dilemma. But overall, when posing a dilemma, you need to determine the ultimate outcomes of both Choice A and Choice B. Once you do that, you can really determine where you story will go and what will happen to your characters.