I've been studying Hooked, by Les Edgerton, which deals with how to "write fiction that grabs readers at page one and never lets them go," according to its subtitle/cover blurb. I enjoy books about writing that discuss familiar aspects of fiction using a slightly different approach and vocabulary than I've seen before, I think because such books link up with the understanding I already have and expand it. At ICL, we talk a lot about outer and inner conflict, the outer being some sort of jam the character has to get himself out of, or goal he must take action to achieve; and the inner being an emotional struggle of some kind, whether it be insecurity, fear, loneliness, a rocky relationship, an identity crisis, or what-have-you. You might say that the outer conflict is about what the character wants, and the inner conflict gets to the bottom of why he wants it. In Hooked, Edgerton talks about the surface problem(s) and the story-worthy problem.
Surface problems, of which there can be any number, are outward problems to be solved, many of them growing out of previous ones in a cause-and-effect relationship. The story-worthy problem is a deeper psychological issue whose importance and meaning become clearer to both protagonist and reader as the story goes on; it's what the book is "really about." To find the story-worthy problem, it's helpful to examine your surface problems and ask "why" questions. Maybe Becca sorely wants to win the presidency of the sixth grade, but her opponent is more popular, she flubbed her speech, her campaign manager is home with the flu, and someone tore down all her "Bec for Chief Exec" posters. Simply tackling all the surface problems that come with running for office won't make a story. But if we ask why Becca wants to be class president, we might think for a moment and say, "Well, she wants to be important among her peers." Okay, but why? "Well, because she doesn't feel important at home." Now we're getting somewhere. Maybe Becca's father is the mayor and her mother's on the school board and her college-age brother is president of the Young Democrats and his parents are sure he'll be governor some day, at the very least. And along comes little Becca, so much younger, so much shier, and never a part of the dinner-table political discussions. Her story-worthy problem is to find a connection to her family. If she wins the class election she'll prove she's a part of them, and if she loses -- well, what kind of statement will that make in this family of political winners?
I notice several things about the story-worthy problem. First, it raises the stakes by revealing why the MC has to solve the surface problem. Second, it infuses the story with emotional content. My favorite quote thus far from Hooked is this: "Emotion is the chief coin in the trade of writers." How true! Third, identifying the story-worthy problem is a huge help with writing the story's ending, because the whole story is about coming to some kind of terms with this problem. Fourth, as in the example with Becca above, finding the story-worthy problem can help create character. And fifth, writers don't necessarily know the story-worthy problem during the first couple of drafts. While Edgerton talks about the importance of knowing this problem from the outset so that all the surface problems illuminate it and are linked to it, I've heard enough writers say "I didn't really get what the book was about till the third draft" that I think the best and truest story-worthy problems often have to come up from our subconscious as we write. I know that discovering as I go is what works best for me.
How about you? Can you think of any other functions of the story-worthy problem? Do you know what that problem is at the start of your story, or do you discover it en route, or have you done both? Do tell!