The story-worthy problem: an all-encompassing problem that can only be solved by the protagonist.
A story is about a problem. The beginning of your book explains who it is about. The middle of the book explains why it is about your protagonist, and not someone else. The ending reveals what he does to resolve the story-worthy problem.
The story-worthy problem vs. surface problems
The difference between a surface problem and a story-worthy problem is easy to tell. If you can picture a problem in a mental photograph, it’s not a story worthy problem. Can you imagine world peace in one picture? No, but you can photograph hugging soldiers of opposite armies.
The story-worthy problem hurts the protagonist
What you do, is who you are. What you say you do, is who you think you are. The bigger the problem is, the bigger the person has to be, to be capable of resolving it. Your protagonist is the one experiencing the problem. Why? Because you, the writer, has designed him for it. How your protagonist addresses the problem, shows the reader who he is.
In every situation, you must ask the protagonist why this moment is important to him. Where does it hurt him? Why does it hurt him? What will make the pain worse? What will make the pain stop? As a writer it is your job to hurt your protagonist and then continue to hurt him more and more. In fact, you should hurt him in as many ways as possible. Because if he doesn’t get hurt, why should anyone care? When you hurt him, you reveal his emotional core.
The writer’s perspective
You should know the main problem through and through from page one till the final sentence. To find the biggest problem for your protagonist to face, ask yourself `why´ until you are sick of asking yourself why you´re asking yourself why. Why is this thing so important to him? Why does he want this? Why won’t he walk away? Go as deep as you dare to go and then take the stairs further down. Dig in the darkest corners of your mind to uncover powerful truths that normally stay hidden. Once the main problem is introduced to the protagonist, nothing can take precedence over it.
Use the problem and theme as a lens through which you determine what the (plot) events will be. These three elements work together to create a story and give it focus. They tell readers what it’s about and how to interpret the events and to anticipate where it’s all heading (crucial for readers).
The character’s (and reader’s) perspective
At the start of your story, the protagonist cannot recognize the story-worthy problem just yet. The issues he struggles with already seem like a massive deal to him. He may sense more trouble is ahead, but he won’t truly know the main problem until he is well into resolving the surface problems. It is the struggle to resolve these, that teach him what he’s truly after and what his real problem is. The reader will realise this at the same time the protagonist does.
Solving the story-worthy problem
The story-worthy problem is reflected by surface problems. Surface problems are representations of the main problem and must be solved alongside the story-worthy problem. By connecting the main problem to the surface problems, your story will exist on two levels. Every solution to a surface problem should contribute to solving the main problem. However, a solution to a surface problem should never be capable of solving the main problem.
The hero’s discovery of the nature of the problem must put him up against the biggest test of all, himself. The story accounts of how he started out like this and ended up like that. His problems are huge and his solutions are like solving a puzzle box. The more he achieves to solve, the more complicated the problems turns out to be. Solving part of the problem reveals hidden parts of the problem. Nothing is easy. The problem unravels into all its component problems. Transformation occurs within the protagonist because every alternative has been tried and failed, all other options are exhausted, the self surrenders and surprises itself by reinventing itself.
Requirements of a story-worthy problem
- cannot be solved with solutions to surface problems
- nothing can take precedence over solving it
- only the protagonist can solve it
- it is all-encompassing
- it must be solved
Cron, L. (2012) Wired for story: the writer’s guide to using brain science to hook readers from the very first sentence.
Edgerton, L. (2007) Hooked: Write fiction that grabs readers at page one & never lets them go.