Structuring Your Story’s Scenes, Pt. 9: Options for Dilemmas in a Sequel

Structuring Your Story’s Scenes, Pt. 9: Options for Dilemmas in a Sequel

If the first part of your sequel*—the reaction—appeals to your readers’ emotions, the second part is all about the intellect. Once your character’s first-blush emotional response to the previous scene’s disaster has passed, he will have to get down to the all-important business of thinking about what he’s going to do next. The previous disaster has left him in quite a pickle. It was a catastrophic declaration; the dilemma, in response, presents a question, “What do I do now?”

Arguably, no other component within the scene/sequel structure is more important for establishing realism and fending off suspension of disbelief. When you show your protagonist’s intellectual response and his thought pattern as he considers many (and rejects most) solutions, what you’re really doing is convincing readers your protagonist is a thinking human being and, more importantly, that your plot is based upon a pattern of logic instead of arbitrary events.

Your dilemma may take up anywhere from half a sentence to several chapters in your story. Whatever its length, this is an opportunity to really let your readers sweat it out with your character. They’ll be able to see the mess he’s in and, as he sorts through options, they’ll also realize he doesn’t have many good escape routes. Handled skillfully, a good dilemma can heighten tension, make characters more sympathetic, and, most importantly, keep readers turning those pages.

The Three Phases of the Dilemma

The dilemma is composed of three (that magic number once again!) different phases:

1. Review.

The protagonist will look back on the disaster and consider the missteps that allowed it to happen. This phase is often intertwined with the previous reaction section of the sequel. Its length will largely depend on its proximity to the disaster and the pace you wish to set. Sometimes a lengthy recap of the disaster may be repetitious. If readers have just experienced the disaster, they’ll hardly need a blow-by-blow recount so soon. However, if the sequel has been separated from the previous scene by a chapter or more (as might be the case if one or more alternating POVs occur in between), a recap will be valuable both in refreshing the readers’ memories and in grounding the character’s reaction.

2. Analyze.

Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding StoryOnce your character has progressed past his initial emotional reaction, he will have to take a deep breath, put on the ol’ thinking cap, and start considering the specifics of his problem. The dilemma will always present a question, the gist of which is, “How in thunderation do I get out of this mess?” But don’t settle for generalities. Figure out your character’s specific problem/question and make clear it enough that readers could verbalize it themselves if they had to. Your dilemma’s question should be as specific as, “How do I get out of this snake pit?” or “How do I get Joey to forgive me for lying to him?” or “How can I find money to buy groceries?”

3. Plan.

Once your character has sufficiently analyzed the problem, he will move into the planning phase—which will then segue right into the next section of the sequel, the decision (which we’ll be discussing next week). This phase can occur instantaneously if your character hits upon the right plan right away, or it can occur over the course of several chapters. Your character might experiment with several options, only to cross them off his list of possibilities when they lead him to dead-ends.

Options for SequelDilemmas

The dilemma section is usually very straightforward. There are only a handful of variations on how it can play out, although the dilemma itself can manifest in countless different ways. Your dilemma will be presented either implicitly or explicitly:

1. Implicit.

Sometimes readers will understand the dilemma well enough that it won’t have to be spelled out. Instead, to keep the pace fast, the character will move directly from reaction to decision.

2. Explicit.

More often, you will want to take the time to flesh out the dilemma. This might require only a sentence or two, or you may dramatize it at length, using one of two approaches:


More often than not, a solid round of internal narrative will be enough to allow the character to consider his options and explain them to readers.


Some dilemmas will call for a more detailed examination. Your character may need to explore the dilemma over an extended period of time, either by talking to other characters or experimenting with solutions. Instead of playing out the options in his head and rejecting those that will not work, he can instead act out the options. He will run into a series of dead-ends until the appropriate (and, possibly, only) course of action presents itself.

Questions to Ask About Your Sequel Dilemmas

Don’t let your dilemma pass without asking yourself these questions:

1. Is the dilemma directly influenced by the disaster at the end of the previous scene?

2. Can the dilemma be stated in specific language (instead of just a general “what should I do now?”)?

3. Is the dilemma clear to readers, either through explicit examples or through the context?

4. Does the amount of time you spend on the dilemma match its importance within the plot?

5. If you’ve chosen to include a lengthy review section, does it avoid repetition?

Sequel Dilemmas in Action

As always, let’s take a peek at how sequeldilemmas manifest in successful books and movies:

Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen: In Chapter 2, after the Bennet women have finished reacting to the news that Mr. Bennet has called upon the eligible Mr. Bingley, the sequel immediately segues into their (rather pleasurable) dilemma of how to capitalize upon the situation. Specifically, they need to figure out, “How soon can they ask Mr. Bingley to dinner?” The dilemma section is very brief, taking up only a sentence at the end of the chapter.

It’s a Wonderful Life directed by Frank Capra: After Clarence has revealed his mission to George, only to have George brush him off, his dilemma is, “How to convince George his life is worth living?” He tries, ineffectually, to explain to George the disadvantages of suicide. When George responds by wishing he had never been born, Clarence comes up with a new idea, which he “discusses” with Joseph.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card: Ender’s dilemma has been clear throughout the chapter that follows his fatal confrontation with the bully Stilson. But when he wakes up the next morning, at the beginning of Chapter 4, the dilemma comes to a specific head: “How can he avoid going to school and facing the repercussions of his fight with Stilson?” The dilemma is
stated in the chapter’s opening lines, then backed up through Ender’s interaction with his family in the following page of dialogue.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World directed by Peter Weir: After the ship has recovered from the immediate effects of their encounter with the French privateer Acheron, Captain Aubrey gathers his officers in his quarters to discuss their options. The dilemma section begins with a recap of the battle, during which the men discuss the Acheron’s advantages and the methods she used to sneak up on the Surprise. The dilemma itself is evident from the context, “How do we recover and where do we go now?”

A strong dilemma section will drive home to readers that your characters are realistic, thinking human beings. Just as importantly, it will also provide a solid bridge between the previous scene’s disaster and the following scene’s goal.

*For the purposes of this series, “Scene” with a capital S will refer to the scene in general (which can include in its definition the sequel). I’ll use a small s and italicize scene and sequel to refer to the two different types of Scenes.

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