Tuesday 9 April 2013

Handling Story Problems

A story is about a character dealing with a problem of some kind.  But is it just any problem?

What makes the task a character faces interesting to the reader?

Is it the risk involved? The difficulty? Does it vary depending on genre?

If Mary decides to start selling cupcakes, it is certainly no easy task running a business in the current financial climate. But will her journey towards financial success be story worthy?

When it comes to problem difficulty, the objective difficulty is not the issue. Climbing a mountain is a very difficult thing to achieve, but if the person undertaking the climb is trained and experienced, then even though effort is required the story doesn’t seem worth telling.

On the other hand, a character who has no training and no experience who has to climb the mountain presents a much more intriguing prospect.

It isn’t the objective difficulty that counts, it’s the specific difficulty for the character. We can test this by using a reverse example.

If Mike has to make a sandwich, a pretty easy task for most people, but in his case his wife is being held at gunpoint and Mike has to make the gunman his favourite sandwich by guesswork, or the wife dies, then Mike’s unique sandwich-making problem makes the scenario interesting where under normal circumstances it wouldn’t be.

Similarly, Mary and her cupcake store wouldn’t be interesting simply because opening a shop is a difficult thing to do in general. But if Mary doesn’t know how to make cupcakes, then her personal problem is what the story is judged on.

There are two things to bear in mind here. First, some problems are more interesting than others. You will have to use your own judgement when it comes to deciding if a character’s abilities (or lack of) are enough to warrant writing about. The way to judge this is easy: do you find it interesting?

The other thing is to make sure the motivations for a character are solid. Why would Mary open a cupcake shop if she can’t make cupcakes? Why would a guy with no training try climbing a mountain?

Once you have a situation your character finds very difficult but is forced to deal with, chances are that‘s a problem worth writing about.
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Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

My character isn't good at dealing with people and yet I keep forcing him into situations where he has to do it. It's kind of fun!

mooderino said...

@Alex - you're mean.

Anonymous said...

Interesting question. I'll have to think n it

Heidi Mannan said...

Great points. I like the making a sandwich at gunpoint idea. And now you have me craving cupcakes!

Simply Sarah said...

Great info! My main character has to lead people to safety but she has a horrible sense of direction. Oh, and I am seriously hungry for a cupcake now...Simply Sarah

Unknown said...

great post, a lot to think about.

Sarah Allen said...

Its nice to break story down into the basics. An interesting character with an interesting problem to solve. Good post!

Sarah Allen
(From Sarah, With Joy)

mooderino said...

@sassy - worth pondering, I think.

@Heidi - I may have cake on the brain (a terrible affliction).

@Sarah - this whole post was just an excuse for me to browse images of cupcakes.

@Wicked - cheers.

mooderino said...

@Sarah - Hopefully with an interesting solution.

Kathy Cannon Wiechman said...

Throw in a cupcake thief, and it ups the stakes. Make him homeless so he's more sympathetic, & the story has legs. Great post!

cleemckenzie said...

You've put your finger on one of my challenges as someone who writes for young readers. The problems have to of interest to the high school and college age readers, then those problems have to be solved using the mindset of the teen. It takes me a lot of time to get the attitude and the teen thought process in my head, then express it so I get the meaning across.

Very interesting post.

mooderino said...

@Kathy - The Great Cupcake Caper, in all good bookshops soon(if there are any left).

Kirsty said...

I'm afraid you lost me at the cupcake picture ;o)

Actually that is a lie - you are right - it's about raising the stakes.

Geoff_Livingston said...

How great is the trial? Is the trial worthwhile or compelling? Great post on character arcs. Thank you!

Krista McLaughlin said...

It's so very important! I read a novel once and in the end, several of the problems weren't resolved and there is no sequel coming. It was frustrating. Handling those problems is vital! :)

And she probably shouldn't open a cupcake shop.

Empty Nest Insider said...

I sometimes feel like I am making sandwiches at gunpoint. Now I have a craving for cupcakes.


Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

yep, character motivation is paramount.

...poor Mike! ;)

mooderino said...

@C. Lee - context makes all the difference.

@Kirsty - never write on an empty stomach.

@Geoff - YVW

@Krista - problems are really the heart of narrative.

@Empty - Sadswiches at Gunpoint is the name of my new band.

@Lynda - but once Mike has hold of that cucumber he can attack!

E. Arroyo said...

I put my character through hell and see how they can dig themselves out. =) Making those cupcakes would be hell for me since I can't cook worth...

John Wiswell said...

Characters having an essential connection to their challenges is vital, you're absolutely right. Beyond just having motivations, it's those that really resonate between character and behavior.

Unknown said...

What a fantastic, thought-provoking post! I don't write a lot of fiction, but if and when I do, I will definitely be keeping this in mind. I especially like the question-- "Do YOU think it's interesting?" Would I want to pay to read the stuff I write? :)

Thanks for this!

Jaimie at Living in the Light
A to Z Ambassador

Beth said...

One thing is for sure, it's only as important to me as it is to Mary.

Matthew MacNish said...

It's situation can be difficult in an interesting way when presented properly. But of course not to everyone.

mooderino said...

@E - we each have our burden.

@John - trying to force an idea into a character's life never works.

@Jaimie - you're welcome.

@Beth - and you can't take it for granted it's obvious how much it matters to Mary.

@Matthew - that's where skill comes into it. Some people can make the most weird things seem relevant to everyone. Wish I had that skill.

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