Three Dirty Birds Perched on the Horns of a Dilemma

Three Dirty Birds, back chirping up your Tweet (and blog) stream. Today we’re talking about Story Trumps Structure, and what Mr. James says about putting your characters on the horns of a dilemma.

Zoe: This was another chapter where all of my notes had to do with my story instead of thoughts on what he was saying.

Kate: Haha, me too! I think I know better how to clarify Glyn’s problems now.

Ana: I liked this chapter, even though I felt that he took a lot of words to get his point across. I liked what he said about finding the third way. Basically when I’m plotting I just try to make things as bad as possible / as impossible to resolve as I can, and only then I let myself worry about how the hell my MCs are going to get out of that mess. I’m always a bit nervous about it, but I mostly manage to find some way out that I hadn’t anticipated.

Kate: That’s been pretty typical through the entire book–good info, buried in a lot of words. I thought it was good that he pointed out that you have to force the character to choose between two things that are very important to him or her, things that create an impossible dichotomy for the character. That the issue doesn’t come from outside the character, but from inside. (and then we get into foreshadowing, and characterization, and setting up the reader’s belief in ‘this is how this character would react’.)

Ana: It reminded me of something I read in another writing book, I’m not sure which one, but it said that readers want to see characters struggle with choices that they wouldn’t want to be forced to make themselves.

Zoe: The third way thing is going to keep me up for a month. I was thinking about my WIP as I read it, and in that, the main character is faced with a hard choice at the end that looks like an easy choice—it’s almost a “damn the costs” kind of choice, so the reader’s expecting him to do that, and of course (because foreshadowing) he doesn’t. And now I’m wracking my brain: is there a third way??? *sigh* (But also this chapter helped me clarify some things that get the main character to this choice, and to his eventual difficult decision.)

Ana: I think having hard choices where the reader can’t anticipate what the outcome is going to be helps raise a book above the mediocre nothing-special status.

Kate: It’s what makes the book stay in the reader’s mind after they’re done.

Ana: Because as a reader, you wonder what you would have done in an impossible situation like that.

Zoe: Yes, especially when all the options have huge stakes.

Kate: Coming up with stakes is, I think, one of the places that beginning writers don’t always get quite right. And I think it comes down to liking your characters a lot, but not enough to give them truly challenging character arcs. Or liking them too much to cause them that much pain. Once you’ve nurtured your little streak of sadism, your stakes will get much higher. If you aren’t crying with your character, the stakes aren’t high enough.

Ana: Or in other words, stop being an overprotective parent and let your characters grow up.

Zoe: 😀 Also, especially in romance, you have the opportunity to put your characters through a real wringer…knowing that in the end it’ll come out okay. So do it! Give them real, honest-to-goodness challenges—not “miscommunication” and whatnot.

Kate: I just finished a book that had tremendous potential, but every time things got a little tense, the author solved the problem for the characters. Why? I bought it to watch the characters grow through suffering. And everything was so easy, the only reason I finished it was because I was snarking about it to the other two Dirty Birds.

Zoe: (That’s what we do in our spare time, read at each other.)

Ana: (You mean we’re having educated discussions about books, analyzing their finer points.)

Kate: If you want to call it that…(this is why I never apply to be a reviewer on any of those sites–once the floodgates open, i’m afraid of what will happen)

So, Mr. James had some good ideas about how to create dilemmas and how to force the issue, though I found his ideas on letting genre influence your dilemma a little restrictive and not particularly creative.

Zoe: Which is what we’ve come to expect….

Ana: Also, cheating does often not make a good dilemma in romance…

Kate: No. It can be a pinch in your plot, to make your character uncomfortable and set the stage for other decisions, but it certainly isn’t a dilemma. He cheats, you kick his ass to the curb, end of story. How is that a dilemma?

Zoe: But but but True Love!

Kate: Twoo Wuv, you mean? (I think I really need to rewatch The Princess Bride). Anyone who cheats isn’t your true love. (I tend to file them under Waste of Space)

Zoe: Right—the dilemma there is “Do I live without this asshole who cheated on me, or do I live with someone who has no respect for me but, hey, the sex?” I don’t know. It’s overused and underwhelming.

Kate: And very rarely ever a good plot for a story. I certainly don’t respect the character any more for taking the cheater back. Which kind of reduced the stakes for me, because at that point I don’t really care if he gets his happy ending.

Zoe: Right, because he’s getting it with someone who doesn’t deserve to share it with him.

Ana: So to sum it up, if you put cheating into your romance you have to anticipate strong reader reactions (which may or may not be what you want them to be.)

Kate: The little summary on the second last page was nice, though I’m not sure I totally agree with how he put it. I do like the idea of turning expectations on their heads as a way to create a dilemma, though it’s something I tend to do for the entire story. Making characters give up one thing they value for something else they value should be a standard. It shows character growth, or even just who they are at the core of themselves. Making a character draw the line on something is a better dilemma than cheating, even in romance.

Zoe: I was thinking about how dilemmas work through the entire story as I read the chapter. I have a few sticky notes filled with the various dilemmas my characters face in my WIP, because it’s not just One Thing At the End. There are choices all along the way. (How else would they get into trouble?)

Ana: I’m guessing without those choices throughout you wouldn’t have a lot of tension. It’s funny he doesn’t point that out, since he loves tension.

Kate: I suspect he feels that he’s covered that already in an earlier chapter. Has anyone else noticed how he seems to link certain chapters, then other ones are left out of the loop, even though the connection seems obvious to you?

Zoe: (Sometimes the connection doesn’t seem obvious to me. Like the next chapter…)

Kate: Hoo boy…

About the author: Kate Lowell

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