Header / Cover Image for 'Writing Tip: start with dilemma'
Header / Cover Image for 'Writing Tip: start with dilemma'

Writing Tip: start with dilemma

This article contains another (brief) “writing tip” that I recently learned and have applied to great success.

Disclaimer: very light spoilers for Wildebyte Arcades book 1!

As I geared up to write my next Wildebyte book, I had a strong plan … and felt nothing. I knew what computer things I wanted to explain. I had some clear goals and obstacles for the Wildebyte to overcome. I had three possible opening chapters.

But it all just felt so … arbitrary? I was reminded of the great divide between “interesting” and “oh, interesting!” The difference between a book that is logical and easy to follow, and a book that actually draws you in and makes you believe something is at stake.

As my mind considered this, and I procrastinated writing, I started work on some other board games. One of them was more of a social party game about creating the best possible dilemma out of the cards on the table.

I also participated in some writing contest, one of which had the “prompt” that it should be about an object presenting moral dilemmas to its owner.

When I was forced to come up with possible “hard dilemmas”, I suddenly stumbled on many, many, many great story seeds.

Nothing special, not entire stories, but seeds that drew me in more than my logical and straightforward opening I had planned for the Wildebyte book.

What’s in a dilemma?

A very simple dilemma would be something like: “Would you rather be blind or be deaf?”

You can also phrase dilemmas as good-bad: “You can see everything that’s happening around the world (GOOD), but you can never hear another sound. (BAD)”

Maybe this is an easy choice for you. I think most people, in our visual-based world, would chose deaf. But that is not the point!

The point is that it’s a potentially hard choice with no clear answer. It’s a dilemma. Some people will accept it, others won’t. Some lean one way, others another way.

See what I see? You can easily turn this into engaging character and story!

Come up with a world or a situation in which this dilemma is naturally posed. Design your plot, at all times, to get scenes posing interesting dilemmas. Questions that make the reader worry about what the protagonist will pick—and ask themselves “what would I pick?”

To keep our examples simple, your opening scene could show the protagonist going into an extremely dangerous fight or a mission. They only have space for one item: safety goggles or safety headphones.

Boom! Within a few pages, you’ve presented a choice that will engage the reader and reveal the character. A choice that, no matter the decision, has consequences that ripple throughout the rest of the story.

I am more motivated to write (or read) a dilemma like that, than a pretty standard setup for another story where Wildebyte has adventures inside a video game.

So that’s the writing tip.

Come up with interesting dilemmas. Either a choice between two things, or getting one good thing at the expense of another good thing. Then structure your plot/character to make these dilemmas happen.

Perhaps that’s the true storytelling skill. Realizing this and being able to flawlessly bend your plots and ideas to create these dilemmas. I am certainly doing this more and more from now on, practicing it and using it to make my stories more interesting.

Dilemmas vs Obstacles

I do think, however, that the dilemmas should be pretty relatable and ordinary. Especially in your first chapter, you do not have the time to explain why some made-up choice in a made-up world matters.

It’s not effective to present a dilemma like “Join the Dragon’s Guild or the Unicorn’s Guild!” when the reader has no clue what these are or how they might relate to their real life.

Instead, a dilemma should directly hit some key aspect of human life that makes it hard to choose. For example:

  • “The protagonist can save the life of their lover, but only by killing somebody protecting the only medicine.”
  • “The protagonist can study magic under the best tutor in the world, but only by completing their grueling ritual.”
  • “The protagonist can get the protection of the most powerful guild in the world, but only if they hand in the leader of the opposing guild—also their best friend.”

Stories are about what people want and then presenting things they have to give up if they want to get there. A good story presents a desire that most humans will share, a way to get it, and the horrifying downsides of pursuing it.

Obstacles to overcome are the usual go-to, but they just seem too … weak to me now. Maybe I’ve read and written too many stories. Maybe it’s a phase. But it just doesn’t engage me enough when a story is about people finding minor annoyances and shoving them out of the way without losing anything. Heck, they fought one beast, and suddenly they have leveled up their magic! Making future obstacles even less engaging!

Of course, there will be calmer chapters. There should be breathers, scenes with more exposition and quiet talk, scenes where the fate of the world does not hang in the balance.

But I feel a good story should be peppered with these dilemmas at a good interval. Maybe that’s what the illustrious term “good pacing” means. And, at the very least, it should start with one to draw people in.

In our effort to give stories a “message” or “deeper meaning”, as well as cool “action” and “concepts”, we often forget that it should most of all be a story. And a story, in my current view, seems a cycle of interesting dilemmas to which different characters will have different answers.

Take the classic example of “good versus bad”. In most of these stories, any obstacle presented is immediately, unanimously viewed as an obstacle by all the good guys. Monster in the way? We shall kill it! We need 7 magical necklaces to get the most powerful sword in existence? Let’s find all seven and combine them, no questions asked!

No matter how diverse their personalities or views may be, most stories never actually introduce a dilemma that shows this. To get a good story, design the plot such that it presents dilemmas that do not have clear-cut answers.

For example,

  • They can only kill the monster by summoning the Werewolf, a wild and uncontrollable character with uncertain loyalties. So now you have the interesting dilemma: “flee the monster and ruin our plans, or summon a helper beast that might just kill us all?”
  • Have them quickly learn that the 7 magical necklaces were divided because they are a danger. So now you have an interesting dilemma: “fight the enemy in a weak state, or risk destroying the world by chasing those necklaces?” Some characters pick one, some the other, and all of it is interesting.

I’m still discovering this. I’m still honing my skill at finding strong dilemmas and getting a story there. But I’ve already seen how they make stories more interesting every time.

  • Give your characters a human, relatable, strong desire.
  • Give them a dilemma, not just an obstacle standing in the way.

Ever notice how many fairy tales start with a witch showing up offering the protagonist exactly what they want on a silver platter? But at a hidden cost? Yeah, starting to feel like that’s simply the nature of how to create a good and memorable story.

Don’t make it hard to get the thing they want. Make it extremely easy on purpose, but attach a consequence.

A practical application

To conclude this article, let’s go back to my Wildebyte struggles. Just to train this muscle, I decided to turn that book into a choose your own adventure novel. To force me to come up with a few interesting dilemmas naturally.

For the opening chapter, I had a first draft that showed off the basic mechanic of the game and two opposing fractions that seemed to hate each other. Yes, it had some mystery and good setup, but was it really interesting? No. Especially not when you read that summary I just gave.

How do we turn that into a dilemma? How do we quickly show a relatable desire, show the easy way, but attach tough consequences?

  • Wildebyte is stuck there because of malicious researchers, using him for their mission without properly building their technology. Wouldn’t that make you angry? The betrayal, the being stuck, the being used. He has a desire to get out and take REVENGE.
  • Alternatively, his memories are scattered across the device. Wouldn’t that make you sad and curious, only remembering fragments of your old life and nothing more? He has a desire to get ANSWERS.
  • Alternatively, he has screwed up most of what he attempted to do, and is now hated and avoided by the entire device. Wouldn’t that make you lonely? He has a desire for COMPANIONSHIP and belonging somewhere.

Hey, those are three desires that we can use for dilemmas ( = choice moments) throughout the book.

In my experience, the rage of wanting to take revenge for injustice is strongest. So I thought about ways to pose a dilemma: provide the opportunity for revenge on a silver platter, but attach a tough consequence.

  • Down there, they find a mysterious figure searching the place.
  • When asked, they attack and then flee, leaving only a shred of evidence behind.
  • This reveals the creature is somehow connected to the researchers: Wildebyte’s desire is clearly stated.
  • As they get ready to chase them, they notice their Lost Memory on the other side: Wildebyte’s competing desire.
  • Now make a choice about which way to go.
  • (This feeds into that original idea of there being two factions inside the game. Each choice leads to another one, of course.)

To me, this is way more interesting. Now I want to know how this continues, hence giving me motivation to write it.

This quote I stumbled upon probably explains it best: “Readers shouldn’t finish your first chapter with understanding, but with the need to find out more.”

The first chapter can vaguely hint at the game being played and the factions: all of that can be further explained in later chapters. The dilemma is the thing that makes readers want to find out.

Hopefully this helps someone. It surely helped me a lot.