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Dancing to the Tune of a Dilemma
An exploration of the Dilemma structure
Imagine a bull charging straight towards you.
You stand there, facing it down.
You grasp the bull by the horns, and push back against it.
When you’re ‘caught in the horns of a dilemma’, where do you go? Where do you turn?
The Dilemma structure is one of four open-ended story structures which feature in my book, Story and Structure: A complete guide. All of these open-ended story structures involve a story spinner engaging their audience - be that a single story seeker, or a group of them - and bringing the story to a close collectively. The other three open-ended structures are the Open-Ended Ki-Shō-Ten-Ketsu structure, the Koan structure, and the Riddle structure. None of these three, however, involves a story spinner posing a paradoxical dilemma to their story seeker(s) for the latter to solve, which is what makes the Dilemma structure unique.
In a story which unfolded in a three-part series of articles I wrote for Writing Magazine, a character appeared in my imagination in response to a call for inspiration. That character, as it turned out, posed a dilemma for me, which came as a complete surprise. I wasn’t expecting him to do so. At all.
The Dilemma structure is found in West African culture (a key resource is Bascom’s book on dilemma tales), but it’s found in other contexts as well: in the Trinidadian Calypso song Wife and Mother by Lord Kitchener, for instance, and in the story cycle from India known as The King and the Corpse.
The structure, as I describe it in Story and Structure is as follows:
Bascom gives several examples in his work. Here’s a Wolof version of a ‘river-crossing’ dilemma tale:
Three youths came to a huge river. The first split the water with his sword and reached the other bank with dry feet. The second unrolled a band of cloth and made a bridge on which he crossed over. The third shot arrow after arrow, each striking the other so that they formed a wooden bridge over the river. Which is the most cunning?
One assumes that one day (step 1), a group of youths (step 2) have a problem (step 3) which means they need to go on a journey (step 4) to reach a particular destination in order to solve their problem. They’re fine until they come up against the river. They’re puzzled. They don’t know what to do (step 5). Their story lines loop back to step 3 once more here. Faced with the problem of how to cross (step 3b), each one finds an individual way to get to the other side of the river. Each one chooses a different way of doing so (step 4b). When they get to the other side, they meet face to face once more (step 5b) and get to wondering which of them was the most cunning (step 6b). As they can’t work it out, the story spinner presents the story seekers with the dilemma and gets them to solve it, and the story structure continues to unfold from step 7 onwards.
Told this way, this particular story has a satisfying triple iteration of the ‘Huh?!’ type of event symbolised by the double barb step (step 6). In the first instance, they come up against the dilemma of how to get across the river - a task which must, in the context of the story, seem impossible to do. In the second, they come up against the dilemma of how to determine which of their inspired solutions is the ‘most cunning’. In the third, the dilemma, unresolved within the story, is passed over to the story seekers to solve. When they eventually come up with a satisfactory solution, we get a fourth and final ‘Ah!’ type double barb event. Marie-Louise von Franz describes this type of pattern as a ‘1-2-3-Bang!’ sequence of events, something I note and elaborate on in Story and Structure.
Critics might object to my treatment on the grounds of it being ‘imposed’ on the narrative given, or on the grounds of the narrative being adapted to fit the shape of the Dilemma structure. And yet, the basic events are there. Step 2 could be seen to symbolise the youths at the bank of the river. Given the specific reference to ‘dry feet’ in the first youth’s case, and to bridges that span the river in the other two cases, it would seem reasonable to see the youths’ actions as solutions to the problem of not wanting to get their feet wet, perhaps. In this condensed interpretation, step 5 could represent a new meeting - a meeting between the story spinner and the story seekers, with the rest of the structure unfolding from there.
Perhaps there are different interpretations, which probably follow other story structures I’ve outlined. I’ll leave that up to you to work out for yourself. Let me know what you find when you land on the other side.
There are 18 story structures outlined in Story and Structure. The Dilemma structure is just one of them. Find out more at leonconrad.com/writer.