Sunday, 21 August 2016

Perfecting First Person POV – Part 2

Part 1 looked at the advantages and disadvantages of First Person POV, and how point of view choice plays an important role, so in Part 2 we’ll look at more common problems and how to master this difficult POV.
Common Problems
One of the most common problems with first person point of view is that writers forget that the narrator cannot possibly know what cannot be seen. Unlike third person, where the narrator can describe lots of things within the scene to create tension and atmosphere, first person doesn’t allow for this. In other words, the hero can’t possibly know that the bad guy is creeping down the hallway towards him because he can’t see him. Nor can he possibly know what is happening outside, or in the next room etc.
The other problem is that first person POV is that the writer falls into the trap of telling rather than showing. This is because first person doesn’t allow other character perspectives or any depth to the descriptions, for example:
I saw the knife glint beneath the light and picked it up.  I heard movement outside the door and I knew I could use it to defend myself from the intruder.
This example resorts to telling the reader, rather than showing them. Writers do this because it’s easier, instead of thinking about how they can structure certain scenes to show rather than tell. Everything that happens in the story happens through one person’s eyes, so writers have to make the effort to show the reader, rather than tell them. Compare it with this example, which shows the reader:
The knife glinted beneath the light and caught my eye, as though to lure. The floorboard creaked, and then the sound of ruffling crept through the dimness; so close to me.
Because first person relies on the present tense, it means all the verb tenses have to be correct in order for the narrative to make sense. But that’s easier said than done – it can be difficult to master even for established writers. It’s so easy to slip tenses, for example:
I looked around, but I couldn’t see him. He has a knack of disappearing if he picks up a scent, and today it seemed he’d found one. I called out to him and heard his bark in response, so I knew he was close. I followed the sounds through the trees and saw him standing over a large bone and wagging his tail.
At first glance, the narrative looks fine, but on closer inspection, the tenses have actually become tangled. The first sentence is past tense, but the second sentence slips to present, then past again, within the same sentence. The third sentence remains past tense.
Tangled tenses are the most common error when writing first person POV and one of the reasons why a full length novel in first person is not recommended for new authors, simply because of the problems with tenses.
I look around, but I couldn’t see him. He has a knack of disappearing if he picks up a scent, and today it seemed he’d found one. I call out to him and hear his bark in response, so I knew he was close. I follow the sounds through the trees and see him standing over a large bone and he wagged his tail.
With this example, the tenses slide from present to past in the first sentence. The second sentence starts as present tense and slips to past. The last sentence slips from present to past.
Writers should take the time to practice with first person POV by writing short stories, which are perfect for first person POV. The more familiar they become with it, the better able they are to spot tense errors. Writers need to be confident that they can write competently in first person POV. If not, the result will be a failure.
If in doubt, avoid using it.
So how should it be done? This past-tense example shows the correct tense and verb positions.
I took the bus home, as usual. The evening had gathered across the sky and accompanied my walk from the main road – full with willows either side – where my house nestled on the right, but halfway down the street, the ochre street light cast shadows across the footpath; I saw three in total.
This has the correct tenses; it shows rather than tells the reader. It has the correct structure to avoid too much use of ‘I’ and it uses other means to employ tension and atmosphere. The tenses in this example remain in the past tense and therefore the narrative stays consistent, even though it’s limited by the first person.
Now here’s the same description, told as present tense.
I take the bus home, as usual. The evening gathers across the sky and accompanies my walk from the main road – full with willows either side – where my house nestles on the right, but halfway down the street, the ochre street light casts shadows across the footpath; I see three in total.
This present tense remains consistent, if a little unwieldy. This is hard to maintain over a full length novel and it’s not that popular among readers or publishers.  
The best way to tackle first person is to be very aware of tenses. Check to make sure that the tense you use remains consistent. Pay close attention to the following:-

  • Early in the first chapter, let the reader know who your main character – your narrator – is. Writers tend to forget to introduce their main character from the outset, leaving readers wondering who the main character is.
    The reader will spend the entire novel in your main character’s head, so it’s important to have a character that is likeable and has a compelling voice and personality to create immediacy.
  • Make use of your protagonist’s inner thoughts to offer the reader a different perspective, but don’t overdo it. Readers don’t need to know the main character’s every thought. Use those thoughts to explore what the other characters might be feeling – use their expressions and actions to show the reader.
  • Structure sentences carefully to avoid excessive use of ‘I’.
  • Use the correct tenses – make sure present tense stays present. If using past tense, ensure it stays past tense. Don’t slip from one to another.
  • Use other characters during dialogue to help establish what the narrator looks like. Alternatively, use the narrator’s direct thoughts.
  • Where possible in your descriptions, show the reader, don’t tell them.
Ask most writers and they’ll tell you how difficult it can be maintaining perfect tense when writing first person, so practice until you get it right.

Next week: Perfecting 3rd Person POV

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Perfecting First Person POV – Part 1

The point of view of your main character will depend on the kind of story you want to tell, and the style you want for it. It’s an important choice to make.

Most stories are told in first person or third person, the most commonly used types. There are other, lesser known types of POV, such as second person, but this one is unwieldy and not at all reader friendly.

Each type has its own merits and shortcomings; each one fits different styles and genres better than the other.  Each one may suit the writer better than the other. This is why choice of viewpoint is so important.

First person point of view is the viewpoint of the main character only; everything is seen through their eyes. It’s quite an intimate POV because everything is done as the main character, which is very different from a third person, which allows the writer to explore more than just the main character. But unlike third person POV, there is no skipping from character to character to gain more insight, perspective and emotions.

There is only one insight, one perspective and one lot of emotions in first person POV.

The main thing you notice with first person is the use of tenses. There are specific tenses associated with first person POV:

First person present tense – e.g. I stand in the doorway and look at John.

First person past tense – e.g. I stood in the doorway and looked at John.

There isn’t much between these two, but writers mix these up constantly, slipping from present to past or vice versa without even realising, so the first thing every writer should understand about first person POV is that it’s not easy to execute, especially by first time writers. Maintaining such a consistency throughout a full length novel is difficult, and even established writers make errors when working in first person.


It’s a useful viewpoint if you want to create a sense of immediacy.  This allows the reader to easily connect with the main characters because the entire story is written from your main character’s viewpoint. It allows the reader to fully immerse in the main character’s world; it’s a unique and close viewpoint.

First person POV suits short stories and novellas better than full length novels, simply because of the difficulty in maintaining consistency with verb tenses over a full length novel.

I stand in the doorway and look at John. He saw me and nodded and I walk over to greet him.

See how easy it is to make this mistake? The above example skips tenses from first person present to first person past, then back to present again.


The main drawback is that it’s very limiting. You are completely stuck in your character’s head for the entirety of the story, so you can’t explore other character’s personal thoughts, emotions or actions in the same way you could with third person POV. And because it’s not possible to explore other characters as deeply as you would third person, characterisations tend to be slightly different and restricted. You are limited to the first person’s actions, thoughts and emotions only.

The other disadvantage is that for full length novels, first person can be grating with the constant ‘I did this, I did that, I went there, I looked at this’ and so on. It’s very limiting structurally, emotionally and descriptively. Writers have to find different ways of structuring the narrative to avoid this constant use.

The reader knows who is narrating, so the need to say ‘I’ can be dispensed most of the time. And of course, descriptive narrative is another way to get around it, for instance, instead of saying ‘I saw the door open to the darkness’, you could write it as: ‘The door opened to the darkness...’

Another disadvantage is that it’s difficult for your narrator to describe him/herself to the reader, without resorting to the ‘character in front of the mirror’ cliché. There are other ways to let the reader imagine what your main character looks and sounds like. Writers do this by using dialogue other characters, with one of them perhaps mentioning the main character’s hair or stubble or scar under the left eye. Hints like this help the reader build up a picture, all without you having to place your character in front that obligatory mirror.

There are other problems, other than the limiting reach of characterisation. Unlike third person, where suspense and tension is an integral part of the narrative build up, it’s not really possible in first person because the reader will only be privy to narrator’s thoughts. They won’t know how character B or C is feeling in tense scene because they are not privy to them. Any tension and atmosphere will only come through your narrator’s eyes. It loses a lot of impact.

The limitations come thick and fast – emotions, tension, perspective and atmosphere are all limited, as is the ability to describe settings without the narrative sounding awkward, for instance:

‘I walked up the stone steps to the ornate ballroom, full with golden chandeliers dripping crystals and an exquisite marble floor that reflected all around it like a beautifully polished mirror...’

This is just ungainly because it’s just too much telling. And the narrator isn’t narrating a documentary. But this is a common problem with first person, yet writers still make this mistake.

Writers have to be smart about how they write, so they have to weave those hints into the narrative or in dialogue, for example:

‘I walked up the steps to the ornate ballroom and saw the golden chandeliers. I made my way across the marble floor. I remember how much it reflected like a beautifully polished mirror...’

There is more to consider in first person in order to get the structure right. Next week we'll look at how this is achieved and how to perfect this POV.

Next week: Perfecting First Person POV – Part 2.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

How to Pace a Novel

When writers talk about the pace of a novel, they are referring not just the ‘speed’ of the story, but also the tempo, since both these factors vary greatly throughout a novel.
The pace of a novel is dictated by the story, so thriller or action stories; for instance, tend to have more pace than romance stories or literary stories. Therefore it stands to reason that action has the effect of speeding up the narrative, while a lack of it gives the effect of slowing it down.
In reality, however, the actual speed of the narrative stays the same, but rather it’s the perception you create that speeds up or slows down the pace.
Why Stories Need Pace
The simple answer to this is variation. By varying the pace of the story, you keep things interesting for the reader and therefore you keep them turning the page.
Normally we refer to how fast or slow the story is when we think about pace, but pacing has more than one function.  It also allows the writer to transition quickly between scenes, to show the elapse of time, to allow the narrative to breathe and to inject tension, emotion and drama in the appropriate places. It also moves the story forward.
Pace is also important to ease back on the intensity of the writing and allow the reader to take stock. They can’t be expected to ride a rollercoaster from chapter 1 to chapter 30 without even so much a pause. Regardless of genre, the story needs to ebb and flow at a different pace at different times. It needs to give the reader the illusion that the narrative is speeding up or slowing down, depending upon what’s happening in any given scene.
How Do You Achieve Pace?
Although the pace is dictated by the story, if you plan your novel with plot, sub plots and key scenes, you should have a fairly good idea of the likely action and dramatic scenes and the more contemplative, softer scenes.
Wherever there is tension, conflict, action, emotion and reflection, pace plays an important role, because it helps the writer express these and shows the reader what they need to see.
The use of shorter scenes and shorter chapters gives the impression that things are moving along, however, the way writers manipulate the illusion of pace is by word choice.
The use of short, sharp words tends to speed up the narrative, as does quick fire dialogue, for instance. Take a look at this example of a faster paced scene:
John kicked hard against Tom, desperate.
Tom stumbled back; stunned for a moment, but then he snapped his arm out and connected with John’s jaw.
John reeled. Senses stung. His muscles tautened against the attack, as though to stave off the pain.
Tom jabbed again, harder.
John slumped to the floor; crumpled.
This is a typical action scene. It’s short, concise and the choice of words pushes it along. Verbs such as kicked, stumbled and snapped seem to speed up the narrative. Of course, it’s not just short and staccato words that help. Short, fragmented sentences also give this illusion.
Now compare this example to a more reflective scene, where the pace is much slower. If your character or the scene itself is reflective, then the narrative will mirror this, as will the reader.
John peered at Tom and mused, as though to anticipate his next move, though he didn’t expect to break through Tom’s concrete defences.
The colour in Tom’s expression changed; the anger that had overwhelmed him minutes ago had gone and now he seemed subdued in the face of what he’d seen on the TV monitor.
Compared to the pace of action scenes, lengthier descriptions and longer words slow the pace of this scene. It’s completely different from the first example. That’s because the choice of words forces the narrative to slow down. And of course, descriptive scenes ‘show’ more rather than action scenes, which tend to ‘tell’ in places, simply because of their brief and concise structure.
There’s nothing like drama to build up the tension and action. Tension in fiction is just like stretching an elastic band tight, then letting it slacken before tightening again. This also means the pace alters accordingly. Tighten the tension and you increase the pace and quicken the action.
Dialogue is also very useful for quickening or slowing the pace of a novel. Often in novels you might see several lines of dialogue with absolutely no description at all. This quickens the pace, for example:
You expect me to believe you,’ Tom said.
‘I expect you to use common sense. I’m telling the truth.’
‘You don’t know what truth is, John.’
‘I know enough.’
‘Doesn’t mean I have to believe you, ‘cos I don’t,’ Tom said.
‘Well, you should...'
Without superfluous narrative, this dialogue speeds along. Now if you compare the same text with slower dialogue, you’ll see that longer words, snippets of description and carefully placed pauses to capture character reactions and emotions enable to the pace to slow down.
Tom’s expression deepened. ‘You expect me to believe you.'
‘I expect you to use common sense. I’m telling the truth,’ John said, his voice pitched.
Tom’s eyes narrowed, clouded by suspicion. ‘You don’t know what truth is, John.’
‘I know enough.’
‘Doesn’t mean I have to believe you, ‘cos I don’t,’ Tom said.
John straightened. ‘Yeah, well, you should...’
By comparison, the structure isn’t so quick fire and instead allows the reader to take in what is happening. The choice of words ensures an unhurried flow. The varying pace allows both narrative and dialogue to speed up and slow down depending on the action happening within the scene.
More descriptive detail within scenes gives the impression that the narrative is measured and doesn’t need to hurry. And longer scenes and chapters will also give the impression of slower narrative.
Pacing a novel is about making the most of your key scenes. Vary the length according to how active or reflective they are, so action  or dramatic scenes will quicken the pace, while more introspective scenes that slow things down for a momentary pause before cranking up the action again. Keep varying the narrative and dialogue until the story reaches its conclusion; the denouement.
No story is static. Therefore the pace of your novel will never be static. Always vary it to keep things moving, and interesting.

Next week: Mastering First Person POV

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Why Plot Flaws Happen – It’s About Problem Solving Part 2

Part 1 looked at the reason why plot holes occur, but how do you go about fixing them?  How do you close those holes, or glue together the edges of narrative where inconsistencies appear? How do you repair all those inconsistencies, without creating even bigger ones?
Solving the Problem
The key here is to identify what the plot hole is in relation to the story and recognise the cause of the problem. If you can understand the cause, then most plot problems are relatively easy to fix. With the cause known, you can then work towards a solution without creating further problems; otherwise you’ll create a ripple effect. And you also have to ensure that it’s a satisfactory and plausible solution.
Most minor plot holes are easy to fix. Usually they need a few lines of explanatory narrative, an addition of a short scene or two or maybe you have a character say something to another character by way of explanation, something that doesn’t sound like contrived exposition.
Complex plot flaws, on the other hand, need more thought and analysis to rectify. This is where writers sometimes have to turn into problem solvers. Sometimes the best way to fix these problems is to write them down and visualise them by using mind maps, simple line sketches or even elaborate flow charts. Everyone is different – it’s whatever works best for you. So if you work better just listing things, then do so. If bubble or mind maps work better, use them. It’s entirely up to you how you work out the solutions.
By putting them down on paper, it makes it easier for writers to analyse the problem and work through ideas, to see where scenes may have to be rewritten, or even cut, or where some scenes need to be added or changed etc.
To summarise:

  • Identify the problem
  • Recognise the cause of problem
  • Find a plausible solution to the problem
  • Does the solution cause a further problem in the story? If so, rethink the solution until it no longer affects the rest of the plot line.
  • Is the solution satisfactory and plausible
Avoid the Problem

It can’t be stressed enough that to avoid tumbling from the invisible path that writers create for themselves, it’s wise to plan out your plot, from start to finish, together with a chapter outline. This should cover key incidents/scenes, subplots, story arc, themes and turning points etc. The idea behind plotting is to make them as water-tight as possible, so anything that seems strange or implausible might cause the plot to wobble.

It’s also important that you make sure you know the characters inside out. Know everything about them. That way, you will know if your hero is blonde and brown eyed, not brown haired and blue eyed, or that the bad guy has a permanent limp because of a car accident (and not one that vanishes halfway through the story).
Enough can’t be said about doing your research. The more information you have, the fewer mistakes you’ll make, and therefore the fewer inconsistencies you’ll create.
The complete read-through of your novel is also important. It allows you to read it like a reader, not a writer. Leave the manuscript for a week or so and then read it through. Some things will jump out at you; things you will notice, such as the background of a character changing halfway through the story, or that a chestnut coloured horse turns into a black one over the course of six chapters.
A more complex one would be that the main character has hidden a box containing something important early on in the story, but towards the end of the novel, there is no mention of the box. What’s happened to it? How will it affect the story, if it’s supposed to be significant? The main character can’t complete his goal without it! You need to find a way of fixing it.
During the read through, make a note of the things that don't seem quite right; the inconsistencies or continuity errors and so on.
Some plot holes that we inevitably create can give us huge headaches because they become complex problems that require a lot of head scratching, backtracking, re-writing and planning in order to fix, without inadvertently creating more plot holes in the process. But analysing them and then working around them does work. Sometimes it takes time, so be patient, don’t rush the process. Think it through carefully, but logically. Everything, eventually, has to make sense.
It’s not unknown for writers to scrap entire chapters or do huge rewrites because of plot holes, so it’s wise to plan as much as you can before you embark on your novel. The more information you have, the less chance of errors.

Next week: Pacing a novel

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Why Plot Flaws Happen – It’s About Problem Solving Part 1

Plot flaws happen for a variety of reasons, and the result can leave writers scratching their heads, trying to figure out a way around some of the huge problems they create, however, it’s how they’re solved that makes the difference.
Plot holes are a by-product of any writing; they appear as inconsistencies or contradictions within the story, as gaps within the narrative, or huge holes that you can’t account for. You can’t avoid them – they happen either because we are not thorough enough, or they happen because of the way the story gradually unravels.
The thing about plot flaws is that they don’t become plot flaws until you actually read the work through in its entirety, because up until then, the obvious won’t become apparent while you’re working on the story. Only when it’s finished and you’ve left it or a reasonable time to come back and do your read through will these problems manifest.
Plot flaws can be gaping chasms or they can be subtle punctures in the fabric of the story. It’s about recognising them, understanding the problem they create and how you deal with them successfully that helps make the finished product flawless.
Dealing with them successfully, of course, depends on how well you spot them and what kind of problems they pose. The best way to spot them is read the work as though you are the reader.
Most plot flaws revolve around the following areas:
Continuity of facts – It’s easy to contradict facts in your writing, like putting the date of a famous event in the wrong time frame, or not getting names right. That means any gaps in your research will show up as plot flaws. Make sure your facts are correct.
Continuity of characters – These are common. For example, your character wears glasses at the beginning of the story but half way through, the glasses have vanished as though he never wore them in the first place. Other instances are when a character appears early in the story and goes off to do something and is never heard from again. What’s the point of that character in the first place?
Continuity of time/setting – For example, the hero goes to his friend’s house in one scene, which is in the middle of the day, but a few paragraphs later, the daytime has inexplicably turned to night. (Movies do this a lot). Or there is the common one of transporting a character from one country to another in the matter of hours, without taking into account the time it takes to arrange the trip, arrange a visa, buy airlines tickets, pack for the trip and so on. It takes more than a few hours.
The other error is that characters in novels that end up in a foreign country without a passport, money or anything else. Did they travel by magic?
Contradictions – These types of flaws arise when the writer simply forgets about things.  For example, you have a character who loves animals, and this is shown, but then somewhere else in the story is seen killing an animal without batting an eye, with no further explanation. Or perhaps you have a character that is a vegetarian, but four chapters later, he is seen eating meat.
Contradictions happen, but you have to keep an eye on your narrative.
Inconsistency – For example, the bad guy, who is very clever and wily, does something explicably stupid to help the hero defeat him. Another one often seen in books is the tough hero, trained in martial arts and used to be in the armed forces suddenly being defeated by a couple of bad guys who are not even half as skilled. (Movies also do this).
Another similar inconsistency is to have a strong female in your story, someone who can stand up for herself, someone fiercely independent, and yet she is suddenly reduced to a dithering heap in the face of danger or when confronted by the bad guy, because of stereotyping and a contrived plot demands it.
Another one is where the hero possesses amazing martial arts skills and can kill with his bare hands, yet seems to forget his has these skills when he’s confronted with the bad guys all through the story. But then at the end, when fighting the villain, he decides to use the very skill he’d not bothered with all through the story.
All these are silly inconsistencies, yet writers continue to fall into this trap. If you don’t spot them, your reader will.
Sometimes plot flaws are not always apparent straight away and are generated whilst writing the story. For instance, you have an important scene that takes place early morning in the winter, with several key characters. You describe the bright yet hazy, wintry sun, the cold air and hint of frost. You write a great the scene, happy with the way it unfolds.
But can you spot the obvious plot flaw?
You cannot possibly have a bright hazy sun so early in the winter. Early mornings are dark. And it gets dark early too, especially if there is daylight saving time in operation. It means you would have to re-write the scene to reflect accuracy and realism and avoid a continuity of setting problem.
Here’s another plot flaw example. Your hero and villain are in a fight as the climax mounts. There’s a struggle as each tries to get the upper hand, but then, from nowhere, your hero pulls out a knife to defeat the villain, but unless you have mentioned the knife in previous scenes, so that the reader picks up on this, then the knife from nowhere will be a contrivance and thus becomes an obvious inconsistency.
Contradictions, flaws and inconsistencies are unavoidable during the writing process, but it’s how we find and fix them that matters, so in Part 2 we’ll look at how to solve the problem of plot flaws.
Next week:  Why Plot Flaws Happen – It’s About Problem Solving Part 2

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Creating Dilemmas and Why They're Necessary in Fiction

When you read a good book, the one recurring thing you find is that, aside from plenty of conflict, the protagonist is always getting into some kind of trouble and yet somehow he or she manages to get out of these close situations.
What you’re reading is the natural escalation of a character’s dilemma. It’s a stable ingredient of any good fiction. In other words, dilemmas, or problems, get worse as the story goes on, up until the action packed or explosive conclusion. As writers, we get to make life pretty bad for our main characters. We do that by setting them up with hard choices. This heightens conflict and tension and keeps the reader turning the page.
We’ve all faced hard choices at some point. If we make one choice, it will create an outcome (which may or may not be desired). If we make the other choice, things could be vastly different. That’s why we’re often damned if we do and damned if we don’t. But that pressure we sometimes feel in real life is also the kind of pressure the characters should feel.
For the very reason we don’t like dilemmas, your characters should experience the confusion and burden that their choices will make. Does the hero save the girl from the clutches of the villain, or does he save the family trapped inside a house that the villain has just set fire to? Whatever the choice, each one has a different outcome.
Almost always, when you make your character faces such decisions, there is a sacrifice, whether that is a personal one, an emotional one, a physical one, an object or a person, a pet or even a principle...whatever it is, it’s something that means a great deal to the protagonist. This produces an undercurrent of conflict and drives the story forward.
Dilemmas come in various guises, but the mains ones you see in fiction tend to be three types – moral dilemmas, personal (or internal) dilemmas and external dilemmas.
Moral Dilemmas
Just like in real life, your characters will hold certain views, beliefs and morals. The kind of people they are will dictate the kind of decisions they make throughout their lives. They will have been taught values and morals by parents and teachers and will have formed their own ideas and principles into adulthood. So when they’re faced with a moral dilemma, the more values a person has, the more the moral dilemma will affect them, for example:
A young teen finds out that her father is having an affair. Does she immediately tell her mother what she knows and risk breaking her mother’s heart, knowing that she might also fall out with her father? Or does she remain silent to protect her mother from the truth and pain and keep the bond with her father?
This is a very common moral dilemma, and when personal dilemmas like this occur – who knows what her decision could be, since it might not be so clear cut – it strengthens the connection from story to reader, because the reader can identify with this. It gives the story a whole new perspective.
Personal Dilemmas
Unlike moral dilemmas that test a character’s values and the way they view the world, personal dilemmas are just that – very personal to the character. For example, does the protagonist reveal he is gay to his devout Christian parents? Or does he stay silent, gripped by fear and inner turmoil because he won’t be able to come to terms with anything?
What if your character’s wife is in terrible pain, bedridden and trapped in her own body? Does the husband give in to pity and place a cushion over her face to end her torment? Or does he carry on nursing her, prolonging her suffering because he thinks it’s the right thing to do?
These are extremely difficult decisions, which give rise to all manner of conflict and tension; just what the reader loves. They will try to guess what your character will do, what decision he or she might make, and that’s why creating dilemmas is so captivating to them.
External Dilemmas
External dilemmas come from external influences that characters can’t control, usually thrown at them by nature. While they may not involve a sense of value or morality, they are still centred on conviction, whatever the choice your character makes.
For instance, your character is hiking in the mountains and bad weather closes in. Your character loses his backpack full of equipment and food. Now he faces a dilemma – does he stay put in the cold and await rescue, which might take hours or days, or does he keep moving to stave off the cold and try to reach safety?
As the writer, you will be able to force the character to make a decision. It might be the right decision or the wrong one, and because it’s not clear just what choice the character might make, it keeps the reader guessing.
By forcing your characters into a corner, they are required to make choices which they won’t want to make, but have to, and that means there will be repercussions because of that choice. That reflects real life – when we make a choice, there is always a consequence, good or bad.
The thing to remember with dilemmas is not to create contrivance, for example, if your hero has very strong belief in justice and high moral values, and he catches his wife committing a crime, he is then faced with a moral dilemma. He will naturally think emotionally with his heart by wanting to protect her from the consequences of her actions. But at the same time he knows she has broken the law and his sense of justice is strong enough to know she must be punished.  The true dilemma here actually belongs to the writer because when a character is defined and characterised by his beliefs and values throughout a story, he cannot then be expected to switch personality to facilitate a favourable outcome. That’s a contrivance.
Choices that are inconsistent with the character’s values, morals and beliefs simply don’t work. The reader won’t fall for it.  Any choices your character makes must be representative of his or her moral values for it to be believable for the reader, without it undermining who they really are. Dilemmas are not easy to get out of, and shouldn’t be. But the behaviours and reactions of your characters must be consistent.
The solution you come up with in order to get your character out of the seemingly impossible must be logical, but not implausible. The reader needs to identify with the problem, understand it and expect the unexpected. Dilemmas start small for your characters and should escalate as the story unfolds. Don’t make their lives easy. They have to confront their problems, their own beliefs and assumptions and they must deal with those choices. They deepen the tension and move the story forward.
To create satisfactory dilemmas, create characters with conviction and a strong sense of moral values, because if they don’t care what happens in the story, then why should the reader?

Next week: Why plot flaws happen.