What I need to write: A problem

Last week, I started talking about the elements of a story idea I need before I can actually write a book, the first being a character with an arc.

As I noted there, the character isn’t enough, of course. I also need something for that character to be doing! I need an external conflict, a problem the main character has to solve or at least struggle with during the course of the book. And over time, I’ve come to realize that not just any problem is going to do it for me.

The most obvious criteria: The problem must be compelling. I have to find it emotionally engaging. The Way We Fall was written in part because epidemics totally freak me out. Give Up the Ghost started with me being fascinated by the idea of someone who preferred to befriend the dead over the living, and the problem of how they could start living a full life again.

I have to be able to come at the problem from a unique angle. I’d get bored if I felt I was just rehashing ground from books that are already out there. It’s been said every story’s already been told, and there are, for example, many books with killer viruses in them, so I have to be able to find aspects of the conflict to play up or explore that I don’t think have been fully tackled before.

Then there are the less obvious criteria, that may be more specific to me, and that took me a while to figure out.

The problem and the stakes involved need to be concrete. I have lots of great ideas for potential story conflicts, but some, when I start picking them apart to see how they work, turn out to be pretty ephemeral. Why is the fact that this is happening so bad? Who is it actually affecting? How is it affecting them? If the answers are all in abstract concepts (It’s unjust! And… it would make… justice… seem less important?) then I know the idea’s not ready to go yet. The Way We Fall deals with abstract concepts like hope and morality, sure, but it also has a killer virus that’s, y’know, killing people rather frequently. If I can’t give myself more than a vague idea why the problem’s a problem, then my characters aren’t going to have more than a vague idea too, and neither are the readers. And vagueness is rarely compelling.

Which relates closely to the final criteria (that I’ve noticed so far): The main characters must be able to do something about the problem. This might sound obvious, but I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read where the problem is actually too big or too distant for the main characters to really take constructive action, so most of the book revolves around them doing random other actions for unclear reasons while they worry about the problem, until the problem finally comes to them so they can take it on for the climax. It drives me crazy reading a book like that, so there’s no way I’d want to write one.

This criteria is often the one that breaks my heart. I have one particular story idea that I am very fond of and have been playing with for a couple years now, but every time I come back to it, I pretty quickly run up against the wall of–the bad guy is too powerful. There isn’t really any way any person could do anything to stop what he’s doing. Or even to mitigate some of its effects. (Kaelyn in The Way We Fall can’t cure the virus, but she can at least take steps to make sure she and her loved ones don’t catch it and have the supplies they need to make it through the quarantine.)

It was also the criteria that was tripping me up on what might be the next book I write. I had a clear problem, and I knew how the main character was going to solve it in the end, but there didn’t seem to be much for her to do for the whole rest of the book before she got to that point. It was only when an understanding of how she might take action along the way came to me that I knew this book could actually get written.

Of course, that’s going to depend on other factors as well… the rest of which I’ll discuss next week. 🙂

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