I came across this concept in a textbook on wellness coaching: people are most likely to change when they’re faced with a disorienting dilemma. Immediately, I shifted gears from my fitness professional role to thinking as a writer. Disorienting. I pictured someone unable to get their bearings, losing their sense of direction, and being forced to look at things differently. Dilemma. A difficult choice. Usually the hardest choices are between two highly desirable but incompatible actions, or between two equally unpleasant actions.
Death Omen, book six in my series, ends with the protagonist, Mae Martin, in a disorienting dilemma in her personal life, a side effect of resolving the mystery. I intended to pick up her story over a year later and get on with the next mystery, after this romantic dilemma had been partially resolved, and after one of the men involved in her difficult decision has been through a serious illness and treatment. I didn’t plan on taking readers through that rough ride with him, or through intertwined the ups and downs of the love story. But a friend who follows the series said over dinner last week that I had enough material for a whole book in exactly the stuff I’d planned to skip over.
She’s right. I’m excited about the setting and the characters in the year-and-a half-later book, and I’ve already completed the first draft, but I had a problem skipping so much, and it nagged at me during that draft. How much backstory did I need to explain the way Mae resolved her dilemma? Should I let readers simply guess some of what happened while she had two men in her life? And was I absolutely sure how it would turn out, if I didn’t tell the story?
Years ago, a critique partner warned me not to coddle my characters. If there’s something painful and hard coming up, put them through it. And I’ve followed that advice—until I almost didn’t. The completed draft has to wait and become book eight. I have to write the “gap story,” putting Mae and the men in her life in the middle of a mystery that challenges all of them, while one the men is sick and while she’s sorting out her choices in love and commitment. It will only make everything they have to do that much harder. I found an instigating event in my “scenes to recycle for unknown stories” file that perfectly sets up the mystery I need to involve all three of them in yet another disorienting dilemma.