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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