Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Quick take: Story=problem.

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jun• 27•19

Fiction features a problem that needs solving and only the protagonist can solve it. In short stories the problem is often introduced by the inciting incident–an event that triggers or launches what follows. In longer fiction the inciting incident might lead to the problem. This event will disrupt the status quo, demand a response, and set actions in motion. It’s a threat that unbalances the story world and creates dilemmas that must be dealt with. So a simple plot structure is a protagonist struggling to solve an intolerable problem and re-establish order.

No matter when the problem begins (it’s always in Act One) the problem is weighty and vexing,  perhaps insurmountable. If the problem is not immediately personal,  it should become so creating a bond between the protagonist and antagonist.

As you know, in real life problems are sometimes unsolvable and don’t fit neatly into a satisfying narrative arc. Across the globe there are ‘forever’ problems of climate change, financial inequities,immigrants who need homes, corporate greed, and fascism. No shallow fixes will work, though incremental changes can chip away at underlying issues.

Closer to home, you might be dealing with a job that drives you crazy, but you cannot leave;  family members who refuse to reconcile; health or mental health issues that can only be coped with, not cured; or agonizing decisions about caring for elderly family members. In fact, studies have show that depression can be linked to seemingly unsolvable problems.

This is why some people turn to fiction. Where love wins in the end, crimes are solved and justice is served, and friends or families reconcile. But in well-told tales success never comes easy and it always exacts a toll. Often success comes from the protagonist tapping into inner resources he or she hadn’t accessed before.

A few tips: as the story progresses the protagonist formulates a plan. Now the plan can be shaky, untested, or desperate, but readers need a  strategy at work.

Force your character to solve smaller problems along the way to resolving the major story problem. A detective can dig up a much-needed witness or help a vulnerable street kid.

Endow your protagonist with specific, interesting skills and personality attributes that won’t waver and make him or her suited to the task.

Create a protagonist who is somehow lacking in something he or she needs for happiness or fulfillment. Burden him or her with emotional baggage and needs, personal demons or addictions, then toss in cast members and subplots that distract, undermine, or hinder.

Understand how the problem makes the protagonist feel in each scene: hesitant, unaware, outgunned, overwhelmed, weak, unqualified, terrified.

Setbacks and surprises should be baked into the plot.  Oh, and the protagonist should fail, fall on his face at least a few times along the way to the climax. Because your job as the master manipulator is to blindside, torment, and thwart your characters. Again and again so the outcome is in question.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

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