Structuring Your Story’s Scenes, Pt. 9: Options for Dilemmas in a Scene 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 characters’ first-blush emotional responses to the previous scene’s disaster has passed, they will have to get down to the all-important business of thinking about what they’re going to do next. The previous disaster has left them 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 characters’ intellectual responses and thought patterns as they consider many (and reject most) solutions, what you’re really doing is convincing readers your characters are thinking human beings 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 readers sweat it out with your characters. Readers will be able to see the mess your characters are in and, as your characters sort through options, readers will also realize the characters may not have many good escape routes. Handled skillfully, a good dilemma can heighten tension, make characters more sympathetic, and, most importantly, keep readers turning pages.

The Three Phases of the Dilemma

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

1. Review

The characters 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 readers’ memories and in grounding the characters’ reaction.

2. Analyze

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Once your characters have progressed past their initial emotional reactions, they will have to take a deep breath, put on the ol’ thinking cap, and start considering the specifics of their problem. The dilemma will always present a question, the gist of which is, “How do I get out of this mess?”

Don’t settle for generalities. Figure out your characters’ 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 characters have sufficiently analyzed the problem, they will move into the planning phase—which will then segue right into the next section of the sequelthe decision (discussed in the next post). This phase can occur instantaneously if your characters hit upon the right plan right away, or it can occur over the course of several chapters. Your characters might experiment with several options, only to cross them off the list of possibilities when they lead to dead-ends.

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Options for Sequel Dilemmas

The dilemma section is usually straightforward. There are only a handful of variations on how it can play out, although the moment itself can be dramatized in countless different ways.

Your dilemma will be presented either implicitly or explicitly:

1. Implicit

Sometimes readers will understand the dilemma well enough it won’t have to be spelled out. Instead, to keep the pace fast, the characters will move directly from reaction to decision with no explanation.

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

A solid round of internal narrative will be often enough to allow the narrating character to consider the options and explain them to readers.

b. Dramatization

Some dilemmas will call for a more detailed examination. Your characters 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 internally and rejecting those that will not work, characters can instead act out the options. In this case, characters 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 sequel dilemmas 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.

The first chapter of Pride & Prejudice ends with a one-sentence exploration of the Bennet girls’ dilemma: how to get eligible neighbor Mr. Bingley to come to dinner. (Pride & Prejudice (2005), Focus Features.)

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.

In It’s a Wonderful Life, angel Clarence’s dilemma is how to convince George that his suicide attempt was not his best option. (It’s a Wonderful Life (1947), Liberty Films.)

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. 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?” 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.

In the book Ender’s Game, the entire sequence lasts for several chapters. The dilemma comes in Chapter 4 when Ender is faced with the consequences of killing the bully Stilson. (Ender’s Game (2013), Lionsgate.)

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World directed by Peter Weir: After the ship has recovered from the immediate effects of its 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?”

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World shows its characters at the captain’s table, going over their dilemma of how to react to the attack on the ship. (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), Miramax Films.)

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 what will become the subsequent 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.

Stay tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about Options for Decisions in a Sequel.

Complete Series:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What is your characters dilemma in your latest scene sequel? Tell me in the comments!

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K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. This is practically an overview of my story arc. Hope that’s okay.

  2. You mean the review/analyze/plan structure? As long there’s some action leading up to a climax, you should be fine.

  3. I never really thought of dilemma in terms of scene/sequel. But, reviewing one of my last sequels, my MC’s worried they’ll catch the serial killer before he kills again, in time for her to revive the last murder victim, and whether putting herself out there as a target was the brightest idea… Lot on her plate!

  4. I’ve have not gotten to the sequel yet, right now I’m struggling just to plot the day by day schedule. Usually I plot out the whole day, and then figure out the scenes and sequels then.D:

  5. @Liberty: Sounds like a perfect sequel dilemma.

    @Sarah: Interesting approach. Is the daily structure important to your story (I’m imagining something along the lines of 24)?

  6. Yea basically events and sequels are based on the hour out of twenty four.

    I think this will be easier after I’ve figured out the characters primary struggle. For example a young boy who loves to read ghost stories, is struggling to let go of his books to board an evacuation ship. And so the segments would be separated into hourly growth.

  7. Once we know what our characters want – and what’s keeping them from getting it on a soul-deep level – the rest of the story usually falls into place much easier.

  8. Its almost goes beyond simply knowing what they want, but rather how to compress it to a short tangible piece. Such as: A young boy struggles with a school friendship.

    Its important I ground the plot within the real world, even if its in a far flung science fiction locale. The tricky thing is figuring out scenes and sequels that are character driven. (It used to be easier when I wrote more.)

  9. Like anything, writing is one of those things that comes easier with practice. The more we do it, the more habitual even the tougher techniques become.

  10. Phil McClimon says

    Because of disparate world views, a father and daughter have an estranged relationship. He is a career military man and she possesses a compassionate and holistic worldview. When the zombie apocalypse hits, her father becomes the only option for refuge. As she travels across country to get to him, the things she has to do awaken her to the knowledge that the job her father had demanded that he be the way he was, and that his hardness is helping her survive. (Scene). The (sequel) to this is when she gets to his location and it is already overrun and she has to “kill ” her own father who is now a zombie. The lack of refuge and the inability to reconcile to her father sends her into a tailspin. (Dilemma) Those survivors that she has led through the story will rally her to pick up the pieces.

  11. Ouch. Nice way to up the stakes on the personal moral dilemma.

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