One of the hooks that drags a reader into a story is a What would you do, if? situation.
Reading fiction enables one to see the world through different eyes. A skilful author makes the reader empathise with the characters—and that can be done whether they’re good or bad. A serial killer with crippling rheumatism is a lot more interesting than a super-fit assassin.
Once the reader is intrigued by the fate of the protagonist they become invested in what happens when a dilemma is dumped into their lap.
The detective hero of the book I’m reading at the moment, Ray Celestin’s The Axeman’s Jazz, which is set in New Orleans in 1919 is hunting a serial killer. His dilemma is that he’s breaking race laws, for he’s hiding a black wife and their two children. He could be fired and prosecuted at any moment. Various police officers and members of the Mafia know about his marriage, so he’s constantly worried.
I gave my Cornish Detective the dilemma of learning that his new lady love was innocently involved in a bank robbery thirty years ago. It’s a cold case now, but she could still be arrested. Does he lose the only chance of romantic happiness he’s had since being widowed eight years ago, by turning her in?
Nora Ephron’s script for When Harry Met Sally contains a dilemma that has sparked debate about friendships between the sexes—can they be free of sexual interest?
I intend to tear at the heartstrings of my readers with my WIP. Art Palmer has been a solitary man since the American Civil War ended two years before, feeling like he’ll never be anything more than a killing machine. His fiancée died of influenza a year before the war started. Arriving at his sister’s ruined plantation, he meets a woman who revives his dormant passion. It will be a mutual love at first sight encounter. Art will feel conflicted, as his grand plan is to travel to the Rocky Mountains to become a fur trapper. Fate will intervene—fate is usually a cruel bitch—fate will decide things for him. He’ll be left with an awful “but what if?” feeling of loss. What a brute I am! 😈
I think it’s important to not get so involved with our characters that they don’t suffer.
Dilemmas propel the action in some great novels. Think of William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, where Sophie had to choose which child to send to the gas chamber.
The moral dilemmas of Rodion Raskolnikov in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment hinge around whether he can compensate the world for murdering an unscrupulous pawnbroker by performing great deeds once he’s free of debt.
In M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans, a childless married couple have to decide whether to claim a baby that washes up in a boat at their lighthouse as their own. The wife has had two miscarriages and one stillbirth.
Of course, the author doesn’t know the answer to a dilemma. What makes a dilemma compelling is that it often involves a choice between right and right. The reader should feel haunted.
Do you have any favourite dilemmas in fiction?
What dilemmas have you given your own characters?