Monday, 25 March 2013

A Good Solution Needs A Good Problem



For a character’s story to be interesting, they have to do interesting things.

Activities and pastimes we enjoy depend on our personal preferences. A writer’s passion can make a subject matter more accessible, but you need more than that to engage a reader fully, regardless of their personal preferences.

The tale of Jack Jackson who went surfing for the weekend and had a really fun time catching awesome waves is only going to be of interest to Jack Jackson and people who are really, really into surfing. And who can also read.

When it comes to stories, interesting means something different.

In order to make a story interesting for the reader you have to create a situation where a character wants something they can’t have, and then see what they come up with to get it.

What they want can be a pot of gold or to get out of a haunted house alive, the only requirement is that it isn’t easy to obtain.

Once you know that, putting ridiculous obstacles in the character’s way is the easy part. Providing entertaining and satisfying solutions is where things can get unstuck.

The danger is that because the writer has the ability to make anything happen at any time there’s always a way out of any situation for the character. Or cheating as it’s also known.

On the other hand, if you do set your character’s an interesting challenge, you then have to fulfil the expectation that they’ll be able to able to meet it. If Johnny is the smartest boy in the world, you then have to write him in a way that proves it.  And if the princess demands the prince give her a gift that shows he loves her most in the world, then you have to come up with a gift that satisfies both the princess and the reader.

It’s obviously far easier to rely on perseverance than inspiration. The knight defeats the dragon by fighting as hard as he can. The man climbs the mountain by gritting his teeth and refusing to give up.

But coming up with a solution isn’t enough, it has to be a solution worth reading about.  And the only way to do that is to paint yourself into a corner. You have to take away all the easy answers, the obvious answers, the answers that are within reach, and then see what you can come up with.

If the knight is fighting a dragon whose hide is invulnerable to weapons and its flame can burn through any metal, then what?

Of course, then the problem becomes the writer’s. How do you defeat the undefeatable?

This is where reading comes in useful. Not for finding solutions you can ‘borrow’ (although that is definitely one option) but because when you read a story where the problem seems insurmountable, and then it gets surmounted (is that a word?) your mind opens up to the possibilities of not only how to solve problems but also how to present them so that they seem unsolvable when they aren’t.

Because that power the writer has to make anything happen, that works for the question as well as the answer. Once an idea starts to form in your mind, it doesn’t have to be perfect. You can adapt the scenario to fit it better.

If it occurs to me that my knight might not want to kill the dragon and instead make a deal with it, then I can go back and make dragons in this world intelligent and capable of understanding speech. As far as the reader will be concerned that was always the case. They don’t get to see earlier drafts.

It can be a bit scary trusting your brain to come up with something useful, especially if you’ve been thinking about it for a while and nothing seems to be happening. But all the best ideas are annoyingly shy and withdrawn. And sometimes you will fail and have to think of another approach. But sometimes you will succeed (most of the time in fact), and because you made it so tough for yourself, the solution will be all the more impressive for it.
If you fond this post in some way useful, please give it a retweet. Cheers.

25 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That's right, we can always go back to set up our solution.

mooderino said...

@Alex - writers are so sneaky.

Rachel said...

Things can always be changed, made better. Writers can literally write about whatever they want, no matter how ridiculous or awesome it may be. A good writer can make a reader completely fall into the story and try to solve the problem along with the character, while going through all of the same emotions.

mooderino said...

@Rachel - it's important to remember just how powerful being a writer is.

Melissa Bradley said...

I have trouble sometimes coming up with good solutions that don't sound like cheating. It takes me forever and many drafts to create a good resolution. I've also done ones that were for now endings.

mshatch said...

I love when I have one of those lightbulb moments when I come up with the perfect solution to a problem. It's so satisfying.

Diane Carlisle said...

I wrote a post recently about objectives because of this very thing. I've been reading articles where readers are disappointed in the outcomes of a story. I think the problem might stem from the fact the objective is not clearly defined.

I love obstacles! That's what makes me keep reading. But, the story must have an objective and that objective has to be satisfied when I put down the book or close a chapter. That's just me. :D

Charmaine Clancy said...

You're spot on, interesting must include a good problem, or as referenced in Serenity, the word means: 'Oh god, oh god, we're all going to die.'

I find playing Dungeons and Dragons is a great way for coming up with alternative solutions to situations.

LD Masterson said...

Oh good. I'm not the only one who backs into my best ideas.

Donna Hole said...

I go back and re-write a lot. I get an idea, and run with it, and later my characters don't quite work it out the way I had planned. But I like rewriting better than the first draft.

......dhole

mooderino said...

@Melissa - I think the difficulty is a good indicator you're doing something right.

@MS - usually it comes after I've given up on coming up with anything, and then ping!

@Diane - a clearly defined objective that's easily obtained won't work, so it must be more than the objective, I think. Although it does help to know what the character's are doing all this for.

@Charmaine - Many problems can be solved with a twenty sided die.

@LD - and the readers never even suspect...

@Donna - first drafts tend to be very gruelling for me. I find rewrites are much more fun.

Michael Offutt, S.F.A. said...

Where on earth did you get that picture of the shark about to swallow that surfer? That thing is HUGE...like prehistoric Megalodon huge.

I've kind of discovered this little tidbit on my own. People who don't like hockey have found reading some of the hockey stuff I put into my first published works a little slow. I don't think there's really all that much of it (and I love hockey) so of course, it's difficult for me to see why others don't like reading about it. But then again, ya can't please everyone.

For what it's worth, the hockey scenes are an integral part of the plot.

mooderino said...

@Michael - I think it's perfectly fine to have hockey or any other pointless activity involving hitting small object with sticks if it pleases you. My only point is that you can't count on your fascination with it transferring to others. So you'll need something more. I don't think you have any problem there.

Jamie Gibbs said...

The beauty of revisions and second drafts is we can make massive changes to our fundamental story if we want, and the readers are none the wiser :) Sound advice.

Jamie

Jay Noel said...

That's why I always start out with the ending (or solution) and then go back and design the problem. I don't like it when solutions seem to come out of nowhere, but I do love the unexpected. The challenge has to be really difficult, otherwise the reader will be bored.

mooderino said...

@Jamie - cheers.

@Jay - a well made solution can really lift a whole story, I think.

Mark Koopmans said...

The morre complicated the situation for the mc, the more I enjoy the story:)

mooderino said...

@Mark - Welcome. If you like complicated, you've come to the right place.

nutschell said...

I think this is where the power of a great rewrite comes in. if we write ourselves into a dead end, we could always go back and change the story :D
Nutschell
www.thewritingnut.com

mooderino said...

@nutschell - writers have a whole host of hidden powers at their disposal.

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

Yes, this is what it takes to write great scenes. I think it's also a great way for a lowly writer like myself to live precariously through the protagonist. I can live with the thought of a quiet existence because I live such exotic adventures through my stories. Retweeted!

mooderino said...

@Joylene - thanks for the retweet!

Rusty Webb said...

There was this one time when I was writing a story and my protag was written into a corner that I couldn't get out of... so I killed him. It kinda ruined the story I was trying to tell, but in what was an otherwise forgettable tale, I felt that story arc was very powerful. I'll be using it again in something else.

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Michael Di Gesu said...

As always a well written post. We must as writers come up with exciting scenarios for our readers, if not, we lose them.

Creating the perfect balance is challenging for a writer but a necessary one....

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