Thursday, February 2, 2012

Finding Your Story Worth Problem

I got all off schedule this week. Sorry. :) Since I didn't post Wednesday, I'm putting up Friday's post a day early.

I've been reading this book...
Find on Goodreads
I highly recommend it. One of the things that really hit me this first read through is the story worthy problem. In the past I thought about conflict, tension, the problems that come up, etc, but I never thought about the one deep seeded problem that drives the whole story.

It's there in Sendek, but I never named it. And never naming it explains why I still feel like something is missing or not quite working. Let's take a closer look.

Story-worthy problem vs surface problems.
A story-worthy problem always relates more to the inner psychology of the protagonist and has to be big enough, dramatic enough, to change the protagonist's world and force him on a journey of change. Surface problems, on the other hand, are more like bad situations that reflect the actual story-worthy problem, but that aren't sufficient on their own to sustain and entire story. ~Les Edgerton, Chapter 3.
In another spot in the book it mentions how the protagonists thinks they know what the main problem is, but they are almost always wrong--just missing the real thing. Their journey leads them and the reader to the story-worthy problem.

Using those two things, let me give you an example from Sendek.

Talia thinks her problem is that she's going to die a horrible death at the hands of the Draguman if she can't convince someone they exist, are coming, and the people of Sendek need to prepare to fight.

That is a great bit of conflict. It builds tension throughout the story, but in the end it isn't the story-worthy problem.

The deeper psychological issue is that when Talia's family died, she stopped living. Her real problem is learning to live again by letting others into her life. Be willing to hurt again in order to feel love.
But she doesn't recognize that until the very end. In the meantime there are lots of surface problems that move her closer to realizing that story-worthy problem. Her reaction to each surface problem has an effect on whether she is a success or a failure at the story-worthy problem.
Every problem--story-worthy and surface--has its own corresponding resolution or goal, so the resolution of a surface problem shouldn't also be the resolution to the story-worthy problem. Instead, the resolution of the surface problem should contribute to the resolution of the story-worthy problem. ~Les Edgerton, Chapter 3.
Maybe this is all old news to you guys, but this is going to make my current and future WIPs 100 times better. In knowing the difference between the problems I can plan/plot/outline better and keep the end goal straight in my head. Each surface problem can be crafted to better define and guide my character to reaching the ultimate goal.

Finally, Edgerton talks about digging deep to find this story-worthy goal. Deep into our own selves. Let loose your own personal demons and you will find the stuff of greatness. If you are emotional about the problem, it will come through your writing.

That means you have to let yourself out of the box.


  1. I love this - it's such a great way to look at the issue. I have a reader I argue this point with a bit, because she's more about the external conflict than the internal.

    BTW - what you have above about Sendek - that's your pitch/query. I think it's the best brief description I've seen of your book. Work it around a little so the two thoughts flow together, and I personally think you're on the right track ^_^

    1. How about this:

      Talia fears a horrible death at the hands of scaled aliens if she can't convince someone they exist, are coming, and that the people of Sendek need to prepare to fight. But she can’t do it alone. When her family died, Talia stopped living and now she has to learn how to let others back into her life or die alone.

      I feel like there should be an Or there, but don't necessarily like this one. Suggestions?

    2. Perhaps switching it around a bit:

      When her family died, Talia closed herself off to the world, afraid of the pain of loving and losing again. But a terror far worse threatens her world of Sendek. Scaled aliens are on their way to attack. As the only one who knows this truth, she must open her heart to open her people's eyes so they may prepare for the fight to come. Or die trying.

      Not very good...sorry, but I hope you see what I mean :-)

  2. I never thought about it from that angle. Fortunately, I think I followed that guideline in both of my books.

  3. 'Hooked' is one of the books I regard as essential to a writer.
    Great choice.

  4. I'm glad you found Edgerton's book. It's wonderful. The surface and story-worthy problem distinction is really powerful, isn't it? I also love how he makes the idea of inciting incident so understandable too.

    1. It definitely makes getting that first chapter in the right place a lot easier.

  5. I really like Hooked. It mostly deals with the beginning but if a writer gets that set up properly, it makes all the difference.

  6. Love this. I've been struggling with my story worthy problem for a while, and I feel this will help me name it. Might have to add this book to my goodreads list.

    <3 Gina Blechman

  7. This was a really great book, and helped me to figure out how to make that first chapter really compelling. It also helped me understand why a reader is hooked by certain revelations. Often I do something, but don't know the why behind it. Now I know! :)

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  8. Story-worthy problem. Interesting.

    I'm going to have to read that book.


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