The Problem Is…

by | Jan 24, 2024 | Writing with StoryCAD

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So where do you find an entry point for your story? Note that I’m not talking about the impulse that led you to start a story. That could be anything, an incident in the newspaper, a fragment of overheard conversation, a stranger you see on the street. But a character, a scene, or even an incident is not a story. How do you convert any of these things into one, or at least the seed for one?

The short definition for a story, according to SFF author Joe Haldeman, is trouble. Like people, stories are at their best when things are at their worst.

You create problems by devising goals for your story’s characters, motives which propel them to strive for their goals, and opposition to prevent them from reaching their goals. The opposite of leaves the outcome uncertain, which keeps the reader turning pages to find out what happens.

The heart of fiction is drama— a struggle in which the outcome is in doubt. The struggle usually starts with a goal, want, or lacking in a central character, the protagonist. The character acts to satisfy the goal, fulfill the desire, or cure the fault; but is opposed by someone or something, the antagonist. A story problem is the character’s attempt to overcome the opposition and achieve the goal.

A story can (and except for nursery tales, will) have multiple problems. For example, the protagonist’s major conflict may be between himself and another character, but that conflict may be mirrored by an internal ‘Man against Himself’ problem such as lack of confidence. Another example is a subplot, which might not otherwise be connected to your main story arc, but which reveals some character detail or flaw. I think of Robert Parker’s Jesse Stone’s ongoing interaction with his ex wife and his drinking.

Stories usually need closure: a sense of certainty or completeness. In order to achieve closure, the major story problems must be resolved, or you must at least hint at the solutions. The solution to an inner problem, which is concerned with character development, typically relates to the story’s premise and theme. More on this in another post.

In thinking about story problems and how to shape them, one of the most useful tools is to decompose the problem into its constituent parts: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. Debra Dixon’s book Goal, Motivation, & Conflict: The Building Blocks of Good Fiction (Gryphon Books, 1996) goes into this at length. See GMC (No, Not the Truck).

The Goal asks what your character wants, Motivation goes to why he or she wants it, and Conflict examines ‘why not?’, that is, why your protagonist can’t just waltz to his happy ending.

Your story problems and the characters who must deal with them are the essence of your story; the problem can’t exist without the person experiencing it. But in fic on, the opposite is also true: your character won’t come alive on the page unless he or she is placed in a dramatic, which is to say, situation.