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How do I create an impossible choice for my protagonist? I want to place him in a painful dilemma, and I'm having trouble making the choice feel truly impossible.

For example, I'm writing a scene where store owner Ed learns of an upcoming sting operation at his store. Ed is friends with both the cop running the operation, and the customer who's the intended target, so I thought that could be developed into a good flashpoint, torn between two friends and dangerous circumstances.

The problem is, it's not really that awful a situation. He has an easy option -- alerting the customer and canceling the drug deal -- that may be unpleasant (e.g. his cop friend is embarrassed in front of his captain; the drugs stay on the streets), but is still much better than the worst-case scenario -- a friend going to jail, and his store made famous as a location for drug dealings.

How do I take a scenario that's unpleasant, but has a good answer, and turn it into a really awful, painful, sadistic decision the protagonist has to make?

  • 1
    Shawn: Cool question! I've rewritten a little -- we're a Q&A site, so we avoid "Help me come up with a specific plot twist"-type question, that only applies to your particular piece. Instead, we focus on questions helpful to lots of writers. I've re-focused so that your particular story is an example of more general principles of creating a hard choice. I hope I've kept all your original intention; please let me know, or edit, if I missed something important! – Standback Feb 2 '17 at 12:37
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Few realistic choices are that hard in themselves. What makes them hard is history.

Does Spiderman save Mary Jane or a bus load of schoolkids?

Easy, save the school kids. The needs of the many, etc.

But wait, Spiderman is in love with MJ.

Yeah, but still, 30 kids on that bus...

But wait, Peter Parker has been in love with MJ for years. He has pined for her as she has dated bullies with fast cars. Finally after years of pain and waiting he has won her over.

And now the decision is much harder to make, is felt much more deeply, both by that character and by the reader.

All effects in fiction are created by the right setup, not by how you tell it in the moment, but by everything that has gone before that brings the protagonist to this moment of truth. Reflect on just how long the movie spent on setting up Peter loves MJ before putting him on that bridge with the bus in one hand and MJ in the other. It is all about setting up just how gut wrenching that moment is going to be for him.

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Increase the stakes.

Neither outcome is really that bad.

Siding with the cop: Drug dealer going to jail? But he is a criminal, so he had it coming. Shop known as dealing location? Will keep him in the public conscience for about a week, then business as usual. Personal consequences for Ed? Dealer doesn't need to know that Ed cooperated with the police, so there are none. Dealer might swear vengeance, but is in prison for at least a few years, so plenty of time to worry about that.

Siding with the drug dealer: Slight embarrassment, but the cop will get another chance to bust the dealer. Personal consequences for Ed? Cop doesn't need to know it was Ed's fault.

To increase the stakes in this situation:

  • Increase the stakes for Ed.
    • Design the circumstances to make it impossible for either side to not realize that Ed is at fault. If Ed sides with the dealer, he himself has to face legal charges for aiding a criminal. If Ed sides with the cop, he risks getting murdered by a drug cartel.
    • Ramp up the closeness between Ed and the two characters. Sell to the audience that he has a very close (more than friends) personal relation with both.
    • Maybe Ed is a poster-child for some movement against drugs and him being associated with drug dealers would destroy that? Maybe Ed also has a criminal career and being known as a snitch would harm his underworld reputation?
  • Build up both cop and dealer as sympathetic characters who have high stakes in the outcome of this situation.
    • For the cop you need some explanation why he must succeed in this sting operation or suffer far more serious consequences than just getting yelled at by the chief. The consequences for him must be at least as bad as spending a few years in prison.
    • The seriousness of consequences for the drug dealer are clear (prison), but you need to sell that character to the audience as someone who really doesn't deserve that. Find some morally justified explanation why he has to deal drugs or why he must not go to prison.
  • Make the whole situation of having a conflict between cop and dealer worse. Maybe there is some reason why these two characters must get along well with each other? Them being pitted against each other due to their "professional conflicts of interest" is bad, no matter who of them wins.
  • "Dealer doesn't need to know that Ed cooperated with the police, so there are none." I'm just wondering if it's after hours then Ed will be present and the dealer will know Ed allowed the cops in to sort the deal. – Stephen Feb 2 '17 at 16:49
  • I realize that if Ed warns the dealer, it will expose the cop's identity to him. A blown cover could be fatal if the dealer can't keep it secret. And if Ed asks the cop not to do the sting at the store, they just might move it elsewhere and arrest the dealer anyway. How's that? – Shawn V. Wilson Feb 20 '17 at 6:23
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The toughest dilemmas I have faced are the ones where I spin my wheels, going around and around because of doubt. So you have to set it up in such a way that there is no satisfactory choice.

The common approach to the situation you described in your pre-edit question is for Ed to be highly motivated for the sting operation to take place, in order to catch someone Ed truly loathes; but at the last minute he discovers that his younger brother or childhood friend is going to go down with the big bad guy if the sting operation proceeds as planned.

Or you could have the police officer getting credit for the sting operation be a hypocrite who will personally benefit. This would give you some Chandleresque bitterness.

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