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?”
The Three Phases of the Dilemma
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.Once 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 Sequel Dilemmas
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:
a. Summary.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.
b. Dramatization.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
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
Tell me your opinion: What is your character’s dilemma in your latest sequel?
Related Posts: Show and Tell
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Why Narrative Isn’t a Bad Thing
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Story by K.M. Weiland