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Using the Power of Dilemma to Build Emotional Conflict

Posted on Posted in Editing and Revision

Choices, choices, choices.


In A DILEMMA. A choice has to be made between two equally bad – or two equally good- alternatives.

Example. Many marriage of convenience stories or moral dilemmas have exactly this kind of dilemma.

Charles Dickens loved them -such as where the pretty heroine innocent has to marry the repellent man to save her sister/aged parent/child from destitution or prison or some other terrible fate.

Today it would be the unmarried mother who needs what this man can offer her. Or the person who agrees to pretend to a fiancée or girlfriend to save someone or something they care about.

For example, in the movie ‘The Proposal’ Ryan Reynolds is persuaded to pretend to be Sandra Bullock’s fiancé so that he can keep his job and she can avoid being deported back to Canada.

One good central dilemma can drive both the conflict and the energy in a romance.

The power of this dilemma can build in intensity until her hero and heroine is forced into a situation when they have to make that crucial decision and decide which of the equally bad or wonderful options to accept. One way or the other, this dilemma is finally resolved at the point of resolution.

When I am revising a romance I always challenge myself to create the most powerful emotional conflict I can, using dilemma and deep internal motivation before submitting. For example;

  • Have I revealed his and her backstory through a moment of great emotional tension, rather than just telling it as narrative?
  • Have I used exposition as ammunition?
  • What are the complications within the relationship which are making it difficult for this couple to be together?
  • Why do they feel that they cannot be together? Or cannot be?
  • How will they get around this?
  • Does each scene have an emotional turning point, and not just a plot turning point, to move the story AND the relationship forward, while telling the reader something new about that character?
  • Have I created believable and gripping obstacles to the romance what will keep the reader turning the pages and staying awake to read what happens next? Is the pacing right to keep the readers interested?
  • What does my heroine want – passionately?
  • What is stopping her from having it?
  • How is my heroine unique and still relevant to the modern woman and what her aspirations are in the world?
  • What does my hero want – passionately?
  • What is stopping him from having it?
  • What beliefs and values (both good and bad) has the hero learned throughout his life and how do they impact his relationship with the heroine?
  • Which of his beliefs and values will he have to change as he battles both inner demons and outside conflicts, as he continues to grow toward a resolution that has him living happily ever after with the heroine?
  • What is my hero’s some inner torment?
  • Does he act against his nature for the sake of the heroine? For example, if he’s a man who would rather fight and die than run and hide, force him to run and hide in order to protect the heroine.
  • Is he vulnerable? What is his weakness? Make him aware of it, and of the moment that he puts himself at risk. For example, if he’s vowed never to experience the pain of rejection again, make him realize that he’s falling in love with the heroine. He knows that he risks being hurt again, but he’s helpless to stop what he feels.
  • Have I created a real and believable struggle for my couple, that will end in an emotional catharsis for them – and a reader- when they commit at the end?

In my first novel for the Romance Line ‘Always the Bridesmaid’, my heroine Amy must decide whether to give her long-standing goal of adopting a child, and a future with a wonderful man, Jared, who has just come into her life.

Always the Bridesmaid
Always the Bridesmaid

In that heart-wrenching scene when they declare their love, that precious moment is marred by the revelation that Jared does not want children, adopted or otherwise.

Both alternatives are equally desirable, but each is at odds with the other –forcing poor Amy to make the ultimate choice.

Powerful emotions, deep choices. That is the power of the dilemma. And readers love them!





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