A dilemma is a literary device commonly used to enhance the narrative tension and character development in stories. It refers to a situation where a character is presented with a difficult choice between two or more equally undesirable alternatives, often involving a moral quandary. This device is powerful because it forces characters into a position where they must make a significant decision, revealing their values, priorities, and personality. The outcome of a dilemma can greatly influence the plot’s direction and the character’s journey, making it a critical moment in storytelling.


dɪˈlɛmə or /di-lem-ə/

When Do Writers Use Dilemma Literary Device?

Writers employ the dilemma literary device to delve deep into a character’s core, examining their moral compass and the complexity of their human experience. This device is particularly useful in creating pivotal moments that drive the narrative forward. Writers use dilemmas to:

  1. Enhance conflict: A dilemma inherently creates internal or external conflict, pushing the narrative toward a climax.
  2. Develop characters: How a character resolves a dilemma provides insight into their moral and ethical beliefs, often serving as a character-defining moment.
  3. Engage readers: By presenting a relatable or intense choice, readers become emotionally invested in the outcome, eagerly anticipating the character’s decision.
  4. Explore themes: Dilemmas are effective for exploring complex themes like loyalty, justice, love, and sacrifice, often leaving the reader with thought-provoking questions.

Dilemmas are not just plot devices but are tools that enrich the thematic layers and emotional resonance of a story.

How Should I Use Dilemma Literary Device?

Using the dilemma literary device effectively requires thoughtful consideration of its impact on the story and characters. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind:

  1. Integral to the plot: Ensure that the dilemma is central to the plot, influencing major decisions and affecting the story’s outcome.
  2. Equally challenging options: The choices presented should be equally difficult, with significant consequences no matter the decision.
  3. Authentic to the character: The dilemma should align with the character’s development; their choice should reflect their personality and growth throughout the story.
  4. Build up to the decision: Allow sufficient time to build tension and stakes before the character makes their choice. This buildup will heighten the impact of the resolution.
  5. Reflect on the consequences: Show the repercussions of the decision, how it affects the character internally and alters their external circumstances.

By adhering to these rules, dilemmas can effectively enhance the narrative depth and emotional engagement of a story.

Types of Dilemma

Dilemmas in literature can be broadly categorized into two main types, each presenting unique challenges and insights into the characters’ inner conflicts:

  1. Moral Dilemma: This type involves a choice between two or more actions that have moral implications, making it difficult to decide what is right. The options usually conflict with the character’s personal ethics, societal norms, or both. A moral dilemma tests the character’s principles and often leads to significant personal growth or change.
  2. Practical Dilemma: Unlike moral dilemmas, practical dilemmas involve choices that are more about strategic or practical outcomes rather than ethical considerations. These dilemmas focus on determining the best course of action when faced with multiple options that have various potential benefits or drawbacks.

Each type of dilemma pushes the narrative in different directions, depending on whether the focus is on ethical conflict or practical decision-making.

Dilemma in Literature

Dilemmas have been a staple in literature, providing tension and depth to narratives. Here are some famous examples:

  1. “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare: Hamlet’s dilemma about whether “to be or not to be” is one of the most famous moral quandaries in literature. He struggles with the moral implications of avenging his father’s death.
  2. “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy: The characters face numerous dilemmas throughout their journey in a post-apocalyptic world, including the moral implications of survival at the expense of humanity.
  3. “Sophie’s Choice” by William Styron: Sophie’s heart-wrenching decision in the Nazi concentration camp, where she must choose which of her two children will be killed, is an extreme example of a moral dilemma.

These examples highlight how dilemmas compel characters to confront their deepest fears and values, making for compelling storytelling.

Dilemma in Children’s Books

Children’s books often use dilemmas to teach moral lessons or help young readers understand the complexity of choices. Here are notable examples:

  1. “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein: The boy faces several dilemmas regarding how to interact with the tree, balancing his own needs with the well-being of his friend, the tree.
  2. “Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White: Wilbur the pig faces a dilemma when he learns that he might be slaughtered for meat, while his friend Charlotte, a spider, tries to save him.
  3. “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” by J.K. Rowling: Harry faces the dilemma of going after the sorcerer’s stone to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands, risking his life in the process.

These examples show how dilemmas in children’s literature can be both engaging and educational, helping young readers develop empathy and decision-making skills.

Dilemma in Poetry

Dilemmas in poetry often highlight the poet’s personal struggles or broader existential questions. Here are some famous examples:

  1. “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost: This poem famously presents a practical dilemma about choosing between two paths, symbolizing life’s difficult choices.
  2. “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas: The poet presents a moral and existential dilemma about resisting death and fighting against the inevitable, urging his father to “rage against the dying of the light.”
  3. “Lady Lazarus” by Sylvia Plath: This poem includes a psychological dilemma about life and death, with the speaker wrestling with the desire to end her suffering through suicide versus the instinct to survive.

These poetic expressions use the device of dilemma to convey deep emotional truths and universal human experiences, resonating powerfully with readers.

Dilemma in Songs

Songs often explore the theme of dilemma, capturing the essence of human conflict and emotion. Here are ten famous examples where artists delve into dilemmas through their lyrics:

  1. “Should I Stay or Should I Go” by The Clash: This song directly addresses the dilemma of staying in or leaving a turbulent relationship.
  2. “Two Black Cadillacs” by Carrie Underwood: The song narrates the story of two women, both involved with the same man, facing moral dilemmas after his death.
  3. “Torn” by Natalie Imbruglia: This track explores the emotional dilemma of feeling torn between staying in a broken relationship or leaving.
  4. “Grenade” by Bruno Mars: The singer talks about the dilemma of loving someone deeply without the feeling being reciprocated.
  5. “Someone Like You” by Adele: Adele sings about the pain and dilemma of accepting a past lover moving on while still feeling attached.
  6. “Let It Go” by James Bay: This song discusses the dilemma of whether to fight for a fading relationship or to finally let it go.
  7. “Confessions Part II” by Usher: Usher’s song details his personal dilemma involving infidelity and its consequences.
  8. “Take Me to Church” by Hozier: This song confronts the dilemma of balancing personal freedom and identity with the expectations of organized religion.
  9. “The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers: It covers the philosophical and practical dilemmas faced by a gambler.
  10. “Papa Don’t Preach” by Madonna: The song tells the story of a young woman facing the dilemma of an unplanned pregnancy and seeking acceptance from her father.

These songs effectively use the concept of a dilemma to evoke a range of emotions and provoke thought about personal and societal issues.

Dilemma in Movies

Movies frequently use dilemmas to create tension and drive narratives. Here are some famous examples:

  1. “Sophie’s Choice” (1982): Sophie must choose which of her two children will be sent to their death in a Nazi concentration camp, a harrowing moral dilemma.
  2. “The Dark Knight” (2008): Batman faces numerous dilemmas, including whether to save Harvey Dent or Rachel Dawes, reflecting his ongoing conflict between justice and personal feelings.
  3. “Schindler’s List” (1993): Oskar Schindler faces a series of moral dilemmas about saving as many Jews as possible without alerting the Nazis.
  4. “The Matrix” (1999): Neo must choose whether to take the blue pill and remain in a fabricated reality or take the red pill and learn the harsh truths of the real world.
  5. “Saving Private Ryan” (1998): Captain Miller and his squad face the dilemma of risking their lives to save a single soldier, questioning the value of one life over many.
  6. “Inception” (2010): Dom Cobb struggles with the dilemma of completing his mission to return to his children versus the ethics of invading and altering people’s dreams.
  7. “Frost/Nixon” (2008): Frank Langella’s Nixon faces a dilemma during the revealing interviews with David Frost, balancing self-incrimination with the desire to restore his reputation.
  8. “A Beautiful Mind” (2001): John Nash struggles with the dilemma of distinguishing between his delusions and reality, affecting his relationships and career.
  9. “The Godfather” (1972): Michael Corleone faces several dilemmas about family loyalty versus personal moral codes.
  10. “Gladiator” (2000): Maximus must decide whether to focus on his desire for vengeance against the emperor or the greater good of Rome.

These movies showcase how dilemmas can be pivotal in character development and plot advancement, providing audiences with gripping, thought-provoking experiences.

Famous Movie Line Highlighting Dilemma

“In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun.” – Mary Poppins from Mary Poppins (1964). This line subtly presents the dilemma of balancing duty with pleasure, encapsulating the film’s theme of finding joy in laborious tasks.

YouTube Link of a Movie Clip Demonstrating Dilemma

Watch this clip from “Sophie’s Choice” where Sophie makes her harrowing decision. This scene is a powerful example of a moral dilemma in film.

Dilemma in Advertising

Advertising often employs dilemmas to create memorable campaigns that resonate with viewers. Some notable examples include:

  1. “The Most Interesting Man in the World” – Dos Equis: These commercials present the dilemma of choosing an ordinary beer versus an extraordinary one associated with an intriguing lifestyle.
  2. Apple’s “1984” Super Bowl Commercial: This ad presents the dilemma of conforming to the technology status quo or breaking free with Apple’s innovative products.
  3. “There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s MasterCard.” – MasterCard: This campaign highlights the dilemma between the priceless and the purchasable, effectively promoting the use of MasterCard for the latter.

These campaigns effectively use dilemmas to engage consumers, prompting them to think critically about their choices and the products’ value.

Dilemma Related Literary Devices

Several literary devices are related to or can involve dilemmas, enhancing narrative complexity and depth:

  1. Conflict: The essential component of any dilemma is conflict, often driving the plot and requiring characters to make tough choices.
  2. Antithesis: Using contrasting ideas within close proximity can highlight the stark differences between choices in a dilemma.
  3. Tragic Flaw: This device often leads characters into dilemmas due to their inherent flaws, setting the stage for dramatic decisions and consequences.
  4. Foreshadowing: This can hint at upcoming dilemmas, building suspense and preparing the audience for significant decisions.
  5. Irony: Often, the resolution of a dilemma may result in an ironic situation, where the outcome is contrary to what was intended.

Understanding these devices helps in deepening the appreciation of how dilemmas function within literary and other narrative forms.