Writing Tip – Turning Up the Heat Part 3: The Impossible Dilemma

WritingHintsPhotoIn previous weeks I have been discussing turning up the heat in your story as a way to build toward the climactic event. Here are more ways to make the action sizzle.

  1. Impossible Dilemmas 
  2. Double Jeopardy
  3. The Black Moment
  4. The Point of No Return
  5. All Factors Culminate at Once

Today I will focus on the “Impossible Dilemma.” Such an event occurs when the protagonist is faced with two or more choices. Each choice is crucial , and any single choice will cause great harm if the other choices are not accomplished. To the protagonist, it seems impossible to choose more than one option.

In speculative fiction (fantasy, science fiction, etc), the antagonist sometimes sets up this dilemma intentionally in order to break the protagonist’s strength. If one of his loves is destroyed, then he will despair or doubt himself, making him more vulnerable to future attacks.

The antagonist might also use the choice to lure a new ally. In theory, the protagonist will choose against someone, and that person will then be open to the antagonist’s lure. “You see, the hero doesn’t really love you. He would have let you die, but I saved you. That proves that I have been telling you the truth all along.”

Such a dilemma forces the protagonist to dig deep into his soul and decide what is most important to him. It will reveal his strengths and expose his weaknesses. It can also show his ingenuity as he tries to come up with a way to foil the dilemma by mitigating the choice, that is, by finding a way to solve the dilemma and bring about the desired results for both choices.

Sometimes the hero can solve the dilemma and foil the antagonist’s plans. Sometimes he chooses one over the other and has to face the consequences, and the author can decide how to bring those about. Maybe the consequences are tragic, and that’s just part of a difficult journey. Maybe the blow is softened because the protagonist’s character qualities are admired by another powerful force in the story. Maybe  the person he chose to save can be an amazing new ally who can do something to reverse the effects of the tragedy of the choice not taken.

These decisions by the author can be many and varied. The dilemma itself is what matters. Make the dilemma truly terrible for the protagonist, something that will be worse than any possible nightmare, and make it seem that there is no way out.

Often the best dilemmas come about without an intentional plan by the antagonist. Pay the kidnapper’s ransom, or call the police? Negotiate with the terrorists, or attack their hideout? Go away to school and pursue a career, or stay home and take care of an ailing mother, perhaps for years? These down-to-earth dilemmas happen all the time, so put your protagonist square in the midst of such heart-rending choices. Make the character sweat, squirm, and weep over the options, and your readers will commiserate on a deep emotional level.

In Reapers, I created a dilemma by attacking Phoenix’s vulnerability point, Misty, the love of his younger days before becoming a Reaper. I foreshadowed this vulnerability early in the story and reminded readers of it from time to time in order to keep the thought fresh. As the story progressed, I introduced a new person for Phoenix to care for so that she could be the other choice in the dilemma.

Alex set the sonic gun at the back of Misty’s head. “Feel free to converse, but don’t take another step closer.”

“Misty!” I extended my arms, but they were way too short. “Are you hurt?”

A sob contorted her face. Tears flowed. As she shook, her lips formed the first part of my real name, but she sucked it back and cried out, “Phoenix! Oh, Phoenix, I missed you so much!”

“I missed you, too!” I tightened a fist and shook it at Alex. “Let her go! She’s innocent! She hasn’t done anything to deserve—”

“Oh, shut up, Phoenix. I know that.” Alex pressed the barrel against Misty’s head, bending her neck forward. “This is unveiled, unbridled brute force. If I can get you to kill Shanghai, you’ll be mine forever, but I doubt that you yet know yourself the way I know you. You hand over slavish chains in a way you don’t yet comprehend.”

She nodded at the line of guards. “Four of you hold him. Don’t underestimate his strength.” Peter and three guards stalked toward me. I readied my fists and leaped at Alex. Peter grabbed my arm and jerked me backwards into the foursome’s clutches. As I struggled to get free, he twisted my elbow with incredible strength. Pain rocketed to my brain, sending blinding flashes across my eyes.

“Stop it,” Peter growled, “or I’ll break your arm.”

I swallowed through my dry throat. How could I save Misty when I couldn’t even budge?

“Now, Phoenix …” Alex’s smile thinned out. “Who will live and who will die?”

“No. Don’t. Please.” Tears blurred my vision. “Let’s make another deal. Any deal. We can negotiate. Please, just don’t kill Misty. She’s got nothing to do with this. She’s inno—”

“Stop begging!” Alex shouted. “You know what I want, and I won’t negotiate. Either Misty or Shanghai will die. It’s up to you. You have five seconds to decide.”

Please post any questions or comments.

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10 replies

  1. The most awful scene of the Reapers story.

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  2. Well now I won’t be able to focus on anything today cause I will be wondering what happens. AAAAH

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  3. Thank you so much for taking time to post these writing tips. They are really helping in my writing.

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