Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Problem Solver

Writers solve problems all the time. Heck, rule #1 of good writing is to create good conflicts and then solve them. We read (and write) fiction for the express purpose of seeing how the hero will deal with the conflict, solve the problem and (we hope) live happily ever after.

Think of Sherlock Holmes. Where would he be without a problem to solve? The nuns in The Sound of Music have an entire song dealing with the question: “How Do You Solve a Problem like Maria?” Setting our characters up and then solving their problems are what writers do.

Non-fiction writers, of course, deal with real-life problems and their solutions. How do we lower the crime rate?…clean up pollution?…feed the hungry? Readers of non-fiction expect facts and figures, fair expectations and clear, do-able solutions. They expect the authors to dig deep into the root causes and provide more than just a band-aid solution. They want to know what needs to be done and how much it’s going to cost them.

Many non-fiction pieces are written in a straightforward manner, first defining the problem and then stating the proposed solution. Not all, of course. Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” takes a different tack entirely. Swift advocates for a solution he knows will shock people, explaining with careful, logical reasoning how the exploding population of Ireland can be controlled by the simple solution of eating the children. Continue reading, however, and his sarcasm becomes clear as he rounds to his real solutions (rent control, decent wages, respect for the workers). The structure of his piece creates his argument almost as much as his words.

So how can fiction writers translate these other elements into their writing? It all comes back to that problem we gave to our heroes and heroines.

Short stories are easiest because they have only one protagonist (usually) and therefore, one conflict. You should be able to summarize the problem in a single sentence: Montressor needs to get revenge on Fortunato (Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado”); Walter Mitty enjoys his fantasy life more than his reality (“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” by James Thurber); Maisie grapples with her grief (“I Stay a Little Longer” by Diana Allandale).

Because the problem is singular, the solution is often fairly straightforward as well. SPOILER ALERT: Montressor kills Fortunato, Mitty chooses to remain in his fantasy world, Maisie learns that life moves on. Even Sherlock Holmes, with his twisted path of clue-gathering, still goes from a simple problem (someone’s life is in danger) to a simple solution (catching the bad guy).

The skill of the author comes first, in creating the problem and second, in moving the characters to the final solution in a believable fashion readers can understand and relate to.

So one might think that novellas and novels, because they are longer works, have more complicated conflicts and hence, more complicated solutions. You’d be wrong. Take the longest novels or epics you can think of. Ram needs to get Sita back (single protagonist, single conflict); Frodo needs to destroy the ring at the same time Aragorn must finally accept his heritage (two protagonists each with his own conflict). Harry must destroy Voldemort (again, single protagonist, single conflict throughout all seven books).

Keep in mind, in longer works there are several smaller conflicts introduced along the way (Ram losing the trail and having to make friends to help him out; Gollum, who’s a conflict all by himself, Harry has to pass his final exams). Each of those smaller problems, however, serves the larger one. They are simply roadblocks thrown up to determine just how much the protagonist really wants to reach the solution of his problem.

Note, btw, that readers often know the solution in advance. We know Sherlock will catch the killer, that Ram and Sita will find each other, that the nuns will figure out what to do with Maria and that Harry will prevail over Voldemort. Again, this is where the author’s skill comes in: crafting those roadblocks, those mini-conflicts that keep us reading far longer into the night than we intended.


NOTE: This activity can be done with either a story you’re considering (for you plotters) or one you’ve finished and are now editing (you pantsers!)

Make a chart with five columns. Put the name of the character in Column A and his/her problem in Column B. In the fourth column (Column D), put the solution (see below).

I did not forget Column C. This is where the bulk of the story resides. Are there roadblocks? How are they solved? How does each one move your story forward (and if it doesn’t, then cut it. Be ruthless. Keep only what makes your story stronger).

Lastly, label the fifth (Column E): Motivation. Why is it important for the character to solve his/her problem? Why should your readers care? 

Fill in the chart for all the major characters in your story. Where do their motivations overlap, or better yet, clash? What kinds of tension can you build as you move your characters from Column A to Column D?

Column A                   Column B              Column C             Column D              Column E
Character name        his/her problem        the roadblocks          the solution              motivation

Have some fun with this! It's a good exercise for those of you who plot first and its a great exercise for those of you who are pantsers and need to make sure you haven't left any holes.

Remember, I offer these workshops for free, but I do accept donations. If you're finding them useful, put a penny in the pot?


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