When your story lacks a problem
If you’re an avid reader you’ve probably found yourself halfway through a book or even approaching the end without any idea where the story’s going.
The cause could be that the story doesn’t have a main problem (or a strong enough problem).
Imagine how Star Wars would have played out if we weren’t shown early on that R2D2 contained the plans to the Death Star. Luke would have blundered from event to event before finally stumbling upon the Rebel base. “Oh! So that’s why the Empire was chasing me…”
In Star Wars, the problem was the Empire’s control and use of the Death Star. The stolen plans were the solution – revealed during the opening battle. The basic structure surrounding the problem in Star Wars was:
- plans revealed
- empire hunts for plans
- plans lead to death star’s destruction.
This simple story problem provides clarity and focus for the entire movie.
Take a look at almost anything that’s been successful; books movies, whatever – there’s usually a very simple or obvious story problem driving the overarching story. For example:
- Die hard: a group of thieves (terrorists) take over the Nakatomi Plaza building – big problem for the people caught in the building.
- The Matrix: the machines use the matrix to enslave humanity – big problem for humanity.
- Any romance: the inability of the main characters to get together.
- Any murder mystery: the likelihood a murderer will get away with the crime (and/or do it again).
All these story problems are revealed or hinted at early on. That doesn’t mean you need to reveal your secrets early on, just the problem (or a part of it).
So if one main problem is good, two must be better, right? Not necessarily.
Two main problems
Give a story two equally important problems and you may end up with something like the movie ‘Hancock’. Hancock’s two main problems are solved in turn:
- The first main problem is Hancock’s attitude – he’s an alcoholic superhero and his own worst enemy. To solve the problem he needs to change his attitude. He tackles the issue with the help of a new friend. That problem gets solved half way through the movie, at which point the movie requires a brand new problem.
- The second main problem reveals another character with superpowers like Hancock’s. The redemption story then turns into an origin story; he needs to solve the mystery of his origins. It’s a very different story and a very different problem.
This means Hancock is a story that doesn’t know what it’s trying to be or do. It has an identity crisis.
Structurally, Hancock works like it’s the first two episodes in a television series shown back-to-back. While there’s a through-line focused around an antagonist that appears in both halves of the movie, the antagonist’s purpose isn’t an overarching problem.
Therefore, unless viewers love both stories and they’re willing to ignore their expectations about how a story normally works, they’re going to be disappointed.
Your story can have any number of problems needing solutions, but each problem needs to contribute to the overarching storyline and its associated main problem. Story problems can’t be tackled in isolation; that’s what episodic drama is all about (TV shows, standalone books in a series, web series, etc., and even then there’s usually an overarching problem uniting all the parts).
In the case of Hancock the overarching problem probably should have been ‘figure out your origins or lose your superpowers’. If that meant he’d be forced to change his attitude in order to figure out his origins, then perfect. They would build on each other.
Similarly, our dryad story has several potential problems the protagonist needs to solve:
- Who is Rose? Is it a story about identity?
- Who’s after her and how does she stop them?
- Can Rose save her daughter (does she need to save her daughter to gain enough confidence to achieve something even greater)?
- Is the main problem the need to save (or free) the dryads from extinction or slavery?
- Does Rose need to save the world?
Let’s go with all of the above points contributing to the major problem: ‘save the world’.
Although Rose will need to solve all sub-problems before she can save the world, each problem must contribute something to her journey – confidence, knowledge, etc. Exactly how that plays out is debatable, but let’s run with it.
How do you figure out your own story’s problem ?
To find your story problem, think ‘end-game’ rather than ‘start of story’.
Your protagonist probably won’t even know there’s a problem at the beginning of the story, but your readers will need some hints.
So… as soon as possible, find a way to tip your readers off that there’s a problem worth their attention (have a princess put some plans in a droid/send agents to kill Trinity – or maybe just blow something up, that always works). And then build on it.
Do you know what your story problem is? Let me know in the comments.