What Are the Elements of a Story-Worthy Problem?

Some time ago I was writing about plot and I used the term story-worthy problem. And then a reader asked, “What are the elements of a story-worthy problem?” Well, kids, I had to think about it.

The story-worthy problem. You’ve seen the phrase around, I’m sure, and not just here. I was first exposed to this terminology in Les Edgerton’s delightful book, Hooked (published in 2007 by Writer’s Digest Books). *

There are as many methodologies for writing fiction “as Carter has little liver pills,” my mother used to say when she meant a lot. The elements of good fiction are the same, but different teachers use different terminology (and I, like you, am still a student). I happen to like the story-worthy problem (let’s call it the SWP) because I think it’s a fabulous way to circumscribe the story arc. The SWP is going to drive the protagonist through the plot; it’s going to determine everything he does.

But notice I don’t say the SWP is the plot. It’s not.

In another writing class in another galaxy far, far away, some other editor might talk about the protagonist’s inner journey and outer journey. If those terms click for you, let’s say the SWP is the inner journey and the plot points (Edgerton calls them the surface problems) are the outer journey.

So what are the elements of a story-worthy problem? (My fave dictionary says: element: one of the constituent parts, principles, materials, or traits of anything : one of the relatively simple forms or units that enter variously into a complex substance or thing.) OK, I’ll bite.

The SWP …

• is something the protagonist may not even be aware is an issue for him

• is probably an aspect of characterization, or is revealed as an aspect of characterization

• will change the protagonist when it is solved

• may not be obvious to the protagonist—though it probably is to the reader—until late in the story

• is revealed when the protagonist realizes he has something at stake, something to lose

• will drive internal conflict

• may be the fatal flaw that must be changed

• may be something the protagonist blames on any- and everything else

• makes everything a little more difficult for the protagonist

• is the protagonist’s inner journey

• must seem insurmountable—to the protagonist and the reader

• is not just a reversal of fortune

• involves personal growth, self-sacrifice, reinvention

• won’t allow the protagonist to just forget the whole thing and go home

• is what drives the protagonist to struggle against the antagonist

• probably is one of the story’s themes, and should be echoed throughout the novel

• should be organically linked to the surface/outer problem

• is what the story is really about!

These are all elements of what it takes to create a story-worthy problem. But don’t overthink here. The important thing to remember is the SWP will trouble the protagonist and affect the way he deals with the world around him until he is able to put it behind him.

* I should say also that while the lingo is Mr. Edgerton’s, I’ve elaborated on it here in my own words, so if I’ve departed from his concept, the errors are mine.

 

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15 Comments

  1. Thank you, Nikki… well worth waiting for, and highly interesting. Lots to think about here! The danger (for writers) seems to lie in choosing a problem that can’t live up to all those wonderful manipulations. Such as, “will the football hero take a quiet girl to the prom,” as opposed to, “will the football hero take a quiet girl to the prom, even though her father will not allow her to date football players.”

    As a reader, I have been disappointed at times by the triteness of the main problem an author has chosen, and even grown frustrated when the character gets so worked up about it. However, as a writer… good grief, it’s HARD to come up with all that complicated stuff. So, not only do I appreciate the in-depth look at the subject, but the helpful list of the many things a “story worthy problem” would actually effect. Great food for thought. Yes, indeed.

  2. Ellen Moore says:

    Oooooh! So much lovely food for thought. Thank you X3.

    • Jamie says:

      Thank you for commenting, as always! I’ve just been worrying that comments were falling off, wondering what I can do to encourage people to to comment MORE. I know that’s asking a lot. Time is a harsh mistress, not the moon as is bandied about. :)

  3. Thanks for a delineation of the elements of a story-worthy problem. I’m surprised many times by what an author considers an issue. But, as they say, one’s man’s trash is another man’s treasure! (LOL)

    I always read your posts Jamie, but I often don’t have time to formulate a response. Keep up the good work, it really is helpful, especially to us “newbies!”

    • Jamie says:

      Thank you so much! I don’t expect a comment every time. But I do admit it’s nice to get ’em. :)

  4. Ellen Moore says:

    Another fabulous, clarifying post! Seriously now when can we get all this wonderful information in book form to mark up, dog-ear, sleep with, and generally absorb on a deep level?

    • Jamie says:

      You just made my day. :) And you’re not the first person who’s suggested a book but I don’t think I have enough materia yetl. And everyone and her cat has a How-To book out there; should I compete with that? In a way I almost feel what I say is more trustworthy because I’m not trying to sell anyone a book. If that makes any sense. :)

      In the meantime, were you aware of this page? http://www.jamiechavez.com/for-writers.php

      • Then, again, Jamie, you could come up with a totally unique perspective for one (like through a character’s eyes, or conversation with you as you edit, etc) and we would all snap them up in one of those “learning has never been this fun” crazes. Just saying…

        • Jamie says:

          I am REALLY glad you think this is fun. :) I mean, *I* do, and I’m trying to convey that. I had some guy on Twitter the other day say I was being condescending because I use “kids” a lot. It’s certainly not my intention (to be condescending); I thought I was being humorous and a bit of a smart-aleck, that’s all. (“It’s my vooooice!”) So when you say the blog is fun, I think, “OK, people do get it.” :)

          • Ellen Moore says:

            Yes, Jamie, we get it. We love your voice. Of COURSE you have enough material for a book. I’ve read almost everything on your site, But I’d like to have the material all together in one place. Yes, there are lots of books out there, but they’re not as good as your stuff–not by half. You’re clearer. You give great examples, refer us to other sources. You have so many perspectives because you’re in the industry and you know it from so many angles. There are so many reasons why you’re better, and why you should publish now with what you have. Then there will be another edition or another book. I think Amazon lets you publish in serial form, too. (Worked for Dickens and a few others, didn’t it)?

            I would post a lot more if I could. Time constraints here.

            Anyway, I have shelves full of books that I’ve liked, but it’s all a patchwork. Having you in one place would be so incredibly helpful. It would get as worn as the 1962 Thrall & Hibbard I dog-eared, marked, and slept with. Ah fond memories.

            Think of your book as a favor to the “starving” people. “Do it for the fat lady.” I’m sure you know that sentence from Salinger.

          • jamiechavez says:

            Wow, Ellen — you just made my day. :)

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