In the writing community, a crisis (also known as a “dilemma”) happens when a character has to choose between two opposing things. And he can’t have both.
Shawn Coyne, author and creator of The Story Grid, breaks crises down into two types:
a. The Best Bad Choice
The character has to choose between two negative options.
Ex. Katniss Everdeen has to either kill Peeta, or risk killing herself.
b. Irreconcilable Goods
The character has to choose between two positive options.
Ex. A protagonist has to choose between the job of her dreams, or the man of her dreams.
While the categories are helpful when teaching and talking about crises, in many stories, the options may not be obviously “good” or “bad.” For example, in The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins gets called on an adventure. He has two options: Refuse and continue to live his predictable life, which invites a sort of personal stagnation, or accept and risk danger and death, which include gaining personal experience and growth. From the audience’s perspective, we may say that going on the adventure is the best, and obvious choice, but that isn’t how it looks to the character. Each option has both negative and positive stakes tied to them: Stay safe and alive, but somewhat stagnant, or risk danger and death, and grow through experience.
While traditionally crises are talked about with pairs of options, it’s technically possible to have more than two things to choose from—the keys are that the choice needs to be difficult, irreconcilable, and hard—if not impossible—to reverse (at least not without significant ramifications). It’s also possible that in some crises, not making a choice is an option, but for that to work, it needs strong stakes.
The crisis is a moment where we lay out current stakes and the directions the story could go, depending on what the character chooses. This reinforces the character’s agency, and what the character selects will reveal a lot about him or her. In fact, a crisis is one of the most effective ways to reveal true character.
When Katniss chooses to risk killing herself over simply killing Peeta, it reveals that, when it gets down to it, she’s more willing to sacrifice herself in an effort to protect the innocent, than others to benefit herself. In contrast, President Snow and the Capitol repeatedly pick the opposite. When a character chooses her dream job over her dream man, it shows she values her career more than her romantic relationships. And when Bilbo accepts Gandalf’s invitation, it reveals he’d ultimately rather risk danger and death to experience adventure.
A crisis helps indicate a character’s true belief system. It’s easy to proclaim we will do something when there are no stakes or competing choices. I might insist repeatedly that I always tell the truth . . . but if telling the truth could get me fired, leaving my family with little to eat, I face a difficult decision. Do I value honesty or food more? To dig a little deeper, we may ask why I value one over the other, or how I came to value one over the other.
Crises can also be very effective in character arcs. If you are writing about a protagonist who changes because of the story, you may use a crisis at the beginning of the story to reveal what the character initially values. For example, I may show our protagonist choosing her work over her boyfriend. At the end, you may choose a similar crisis to show how the character now believes differently. Our protagonist chooses the man of her dreams over the job of her dreams. If you are writing a steadfast (also known as a flat-arc) protagonist, you will show how the protagonist ultimately chooses the same option, despite the added pressure of the climax. Katniss initially chooses to risk sacrificing herself to protect Prim. Regardless of what the Games have tempted her to do, she ultimately makes the same choice to try to protect Peeta.
Because crises emphasize agency, they also put responsibility on the protagonist. When he chooses an option, he’s also choosing its ramifications. If Katniss killed Peeta, she’d have to live with that, but she’d be safe. Because she didn’t, she puts herself, family, and ultimately all of the districts at risk. She now has to deal with the consequences of that.
Crises can be a great way to create internal conflict and also plant seeds of doubt and regret, as the character may be haunted by her choices and the accountability they bring.
Using crises will strengthen any story, particularly by revealing character.
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September C. Fawkes is a freelance editor, writing instructor, and award-winning writing tip blogger. She has edited for award-winning and best-selling authors as well as beginning writers. Her blog won the Writer’s Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers Award, Query Letter’s Top Writing Blog Award and has over 500 writing tips. She offers a live online writing course, “The Triarchy Method,” where she personally guides 10 students through developing their best books by focusing on the “bones” of story.