Creating a Dilemma in a Story

Hi! I’m Ms Nellie Lim, a teacher at Lil’ but Mighty, and in my blog post today, I’m going to share with you some tips for creating a dilemma in a story that is not too convoluted and yet engages the reader. Hopefully, by following these recommendations, you will be able to avoid one of the many common pitfalls when it comes to writing a composition – which is to be overly ambitious and have a plot that is overly complicated. First of all, let me explain the two types of problems you can consider having in your story.

For many budding writers, these are always the perennial questions in their heads:

  • During planning, how do I create a problem?
  • Is my problem too simple or too complicated?
  • What can I do to make the problem engaging for my reader?

2 Types of Problem – External and Internal

A problem can arise from different sources. For instance, it could be from an external source, say an argument which the main character witnessed while he was at the mall. It can also be a road accident that the main character saw and thus went to lend a helping hand to the injured victims.

On the other hand, a problem can also arise within the main character himself. This is when he has reached a point whereby he has to make a difficult choice between two options. This is also known as a dilemma. For example, the main character inadvertently witnessed an act of bullying in school and had to decide if he should flee from the scene or stay on to stand up against the bullies.

How to Develop a Dilemma

Let’s now focus on how to create an internal problem for the main character in the story. Take a look at the steps listed below so that you too can go about creating a dilemma in a story that is both realistic and engaging to the reader:

Step #1: State the dilemma that the main character faces

Remember that earlier we talked about the fact that the dilemma is an internal conflict within the main character? Therefore, to show that he is facing this dilemma, we could state clearly that he faces the conflict. We can do this by using such phrases:

Step #2: State the two choices and consequences that come with / the reasons for making each choice

To do this, we can use phrases such as:

And to show the other choice, we could say:

Step #3: State what the main character finally chose to do

Now let’s put all these steps together to craft a dilemma for this scenario:

Before you writing out the dilemma, I always find it useful to list down the two choices that the main character has and the reasons for or consequences that come with each choice. For this scenario, I’ve listed them in the table below:

The final dilemma paragraph should then look something like this:

Can you see from the above example how easy it is to craft a dilemma as a problem of your story?

Useful Tips

Remember that when stating your choices, it is very important to include a perceived consequence that comes with each choice so that the reader can empathise with the main character in your story. In this case, I have highlighted the contradiction in size between the bully Brayden and the victim Caleb (in purple in the extract below) to emphasise how the latter stood no chance of fighting back.

To make it engaging to the reader, you can also opt to add in descriptions to show how pitiful Caleb was (as shown in the highlighted portion in the extract below) so that it is clear why the main character chose to save him despite putting himself in danger. Doing this adds a sense of realism to the problem.

Now that you have learnt the 3 steps to craft a dilemma, I hope you will apply them in your writing, so as to help you craft a problem that is realistic yet engaging for the reader. Now you know how to go about creating a dilemma in a story! Share with us in the comments section if you have other tried and tested ways of writing an effective problem in your stories. Till the next time we meet again, adios!

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Ms. Nellie

As an educator, Ms Nellie believes that every child is unique and learns differently. As such, every classroom experience becomes an opportunity for reflection and spurs the teacher to find different ways to reach out to the child and establish a strong teacher-student relationship which helps to nurture the child holistically. During her free time, Ms Nellie also enjoys reading, watching movies and plays because there’s nothing like a piece of writing coming to life with moving pictures and sounds. A big fan of Dystopian novels and plays, she can always be seen at bookstores with her nose buried in her favourite books.

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