Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Writing Tip Wednesday: What's the Problem?

A story is about a person with a problem.

But first it’s about the problem. People have problems, and this person has this problem, because they choose them. You choose a problem by abdicating your responsibility (remember Dumbledore refusing to tell Harry the whole truth about his past? Or Isildur's reluctance to destroy the Ring?). When you resist handling a matter, it persists. Eventually, the longer you don’t handle it, the bigger a crisis it grows into. What you resist, persists, and the story is the details of that.

Most problems are created when someone says, “I can’t handle it,” or “I don’t want to get involved.” A problem is created when you avoid taking responsibility for your part. What you choose to handle, you handle—and those things aren’t problems. What you choose not to handle becomes the problem you get to live with day after day. The longer you refuse to handle a situation, the worse it gets.

The bigger the problem, the bigger the character has to be to solve it.

Sometimes the problem is complex. Sometimes it looks beyond the hero’s capabilities. Sometimes it’s impossible. That’s what makes the situation interesting.

In order to justify telling a story, it should be about the biggest problem the character ever faced. If it’s not, there’s no reason to tell the story. Choose the problem carefully, because your hero will be stuck with it.

There are two kinds of problems: Crises and challenges.

A crisis is a situation that you didn’t choose, but it demands to be handled now. Most crises start out as chores, simple little problems that persist primarily because you didn’t handle them. Eventually it becomes a crisis and you’re trapped—you have to handle it now.

A challenge is a situation that you did choose. The relationship to the task is much more personal than with a crisis, because the hero voluntarily takes it on.

Some of the very best stories combine elements of both crisis and challenge. I think the Harry Potter and Lord of the Ring novels are good examples of this. Harry didn’t choose a situation that has become a crisis, but he eventually chooses the challenge of defeating Voldemort. Frodo didn't choose for Middle Earth to get so out of control, but he does choose to carry the Ring, "though I do not know the way," in order to deal with the problem.

So when you develop your plot and characters, make sure to ask yourself, "What's the problem?"


Vivian said...

Thanks for this post! I'm printing it out now to use in my teen writers group today. We are going to discuss The Girl Who Remembered Horses by Euterpe author Linda Benson.

Katherine Teel said...

Awesome! I love it when Euterpe authors support each other like that! I hope your class enjoys the lesson. :)