: Don’t solve story problems too quickly

As humans, we’re genetically wired to solve problems. When we see a fellow human struggling with something, we want to help. We set our brains to work and come up with a solution for them—whether they want our help or not. But humans have always functioned in groups, so it’s easy to see why this trait is hardwired into our DNA.

 Unfortunately for writers, it’s problems—unsolved, intractable problems—that make a novel interesting and suspenseful. In fact, the most basic element of all story suspense is the question: Will the protagonist succeed in solving the problem? This is why one of the biggest beginner mistakes writers make is to introduce a story problem…and promptly solve it. Then they introduce another story problem and promptly solve that, repeat throughout the book.

This is understandable, because writers are very closely involved with their protagonists. The human desire to solve this nice person’s problem and get them out of trouble can be almost overwhelming. But rescuing your protagonist is a fatal story mistake, because the moment the story problem is solved, the reader breathes a huge sigh of relief…and is ready to put the book down and go do something else. Once you’ve solved the hero’s problems, there’s no reason for the reader to keep reading.

Fortunately, there are several ways to guard against the temptation to rescue your hero too quickly.

First, you must choose a central problem that’s so big, and so hard to solve, that it will take a whole novel to do it. This may be tougher for seat-of-the-pants writers than it is for outliners, but whether you do it before or after your first draft, you have to figure out the main problem your protagonist is solving in this novel. And you must make sure it’s big enough, and complex enough that he can’t solve it easily. You can’t fake-escalate the problem’s difficulty, either. If a story problem can be solved simply, by the protagonist doing something that’s rational or smart, the reader will soon start wondering, “Why don’t they just do this?” Then the reader (or at least, this is how it works if I’m the reader) concludes that the protagonist is an idiot, and puts the book down. This is particularly true when the whole problem can be solved by sitting down with another character for five minutes of rational conversation. And often, when this is the case, the novel’s resolution is the protagonist doing just that! This leaves the reader wondering why the protagonist didn’t sit down for his chat in the second chapter. (And if I’m the reader, throwing the book across the room.)

The central problem of your novel has to be so complicated that it doesn’t have a simple, obvious solution—that solution has to be hard enough to figure out and accomplish that even a smart, rational, resolute hero has to spend a whole novel working on it. The author also has to figure out a how to solve that difficult problem, which can take quite a bit of brainstorming. But if you come up with a big enough story problem, you’re about half way to a really good plot.

On the way to resolution, you will also create a series of lesser, rolling problems. By “rolling” I mean that before you resolve one problem, you need to have another problem well-launched and engaging the reader. If the protagonist is now struggling with B and C, then you can go ahead and wrap up A. Wrapping up A, and later B and C once you’ve launched problems E, F and G, is how your protagonist makes progress toward solving the central problem without ending suspense in your story. The more problems you can keep active and pressing, the more interesting and suspenseful your plot will be.

Some of these problems can also be sub-plots, and you can resolve some sub-plots early. But while sub-plot problems make great additions to the complexity of your main story problem, they cannot take the place of the central story problem. When your main story problem is resolved, this is the climax of your novel and the story’s over. The reader will only give you a chapter, two or three at most, to wrap up any lingering sub-plots. And frankly, your climax will be stronger if major subplots are resolved either as part of the climax, or as part of the lead in to the climax. In fact, the more problems you resolve as part of your climax, the more powerful you climax will be.

As an example, we’ll mock up a “Let’s Put on a Show” story: Plucky Heroine’s favorite teacher is about to lose her house because of her husband’s medical bills. “I’m a great singer,” Plucky says. “And my best friend’s a great dancer, and Bobby plays….” No! You’re making it way too easy! You’re already solving all the problems.

Unfortunately, Plucky’s a math whiz, not a performer of any kind. But she runs the numbers, and a show—a big show—is the only way to raise the amount of money the teacher needs in time. Even more unfortunately, Plucky’s geek clique has been at war with the artsy kids ever since they convinced the school to give as much money to the chess, math and spelling clubs as they give to the drama club and glee club. The artsy kids hate them, and they’re not crazy about Plucky’s favorite (math) teacher either. So Plucky has to earn the artsy kids’ cooperation by convincing the geek kids to give the money that would fund their own clubs back to the artsy kids. Doing that costs Plucky her boyfriend, since he’s a chess player who has a shot at the regionals. Several other friends are mad at her too.

Plucky also needs a venue for the show, but the only place in town with a piano on a stage is owned by the town piano teacher, with whom Plucky has a history. In fact, Plucky is the only kid in town the piano teacher ever failed with, and the teacher has never forgiven her—she claims that Plucky didn’t try. This is true, but Plucky hates piano. However, she cares more about her teacher, so she goes to the Piano Nazi and asks for the venue. Piano Nazi tells her she’ll allow the kids to use the venue only if Plucky performs a song in the show, on the piano. So Plucky sets out to actually learn a song on the piano…and it’s just has hard and horrible as she remembers.

The kid who runs the drama club says they’ll only perform if Plucky gives him the answers for a math test he can’t pass—she’s a the math teacher’s pet, after all. Plucky steals the test, figures out the answers, and gives them to him. Unfortunately, he’s not smart enough to get some of the problems wrong, so he’s accused of cheating and promptly names Plucky as the person who gave him the answers. The math teacher is bitterly disappointed in Plucky, and she’s given after-school detention for a month, which will make it almost impossible for her to put the show together, rehearse the acts, print the tickets, sell the tickets…

At this point, it’s OK when The leader of the glee club comes forward and agrees that she’ll ask…no, she’ll permit the members of her club to perform. Plucky has to persuade them individually…

As the rehearsals go on, Plucky has to win back her geek friends to help run the show, but they create feuds with the artsy kids. She also discovers that you need a city permit to put on a “public meeting” of over fifty people, which uses all the money they had in their prop and costume budget, and, and, and…

But you see how even the simple obstacle of poor Plucky being a non-performer makes the story more interesting right from the start? And why, once you’ve engaged the reader with multiple other problems, the suspense doesn’t end when Plucky clears the first hurdle and gets her performers?

The dark moment before the climax is when the piano teacher reviews Plucky’s playing and tells her, sadly, that it’s not good enough. Plucky can’t have the venue if she can’t play just one musical number—the woman’s reputation hinges on being able to teach anyone to play piano, and the whole town is looking to see if she can make good on that boast. By now the geeks and the artsy kids are pulling together, more or less as team. Plucky has let everyone down because all she can play is chopsticks—and she can only play that by thinking of it as math, just like she thinks of chess as math… She then has a brilliant idea, but she has to get her still-furious boyfriend to work with the leader of the glee club, designing a musical number about singing chess pieces set to chopsticks! In the triumphant climax, boyfriend and Plucky sit side by side at the piano…

OK, this isn’t serious. But note how several problems came together to be resolved in the dark moment and the climax?

If you’re a writer who’s inclined to be nice to his protagonist—and many are—you may be cringing at the idea of making your poor heroine suffer this much. Well…tough. The thing that makes your protagonist into a hero is that they suffer. That they tackle intractable problems, and push through with whatever it takes to solve them. That’s what courage is, and that’s what glues the reader to your heroine’s side, rooting for her to win.

When you come down to it, the author is the protagonist’s real enemy. We’re the ones who make the villains do those horrible things. We create flat tires on rainy nights to keep the heroine from reaching an important meeting, and the sexy hunk who steals the hero’s girl. So stop being so nice, embrace your inner bad guy, and throw some real problems at your protagonist. Then keep him from solving them until it’s almost too late. This will force your protagonist to become the best he can be…and your story will be the best it can be, too.

Winter 2015