Thursday, February 11, 2010

Of Surface and Story-Worthy Problems

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!

12 comments:

Andrea L. Mack said...

Marcia, thanks for sharing these ideas on developing a meaningful story! I think I start out with a general idea of the story problem, but it takes two or three drafts to refine it and figure out the best way to get there.

Andrea Vlahakis said...

Great post, Marcia. I find it's so important to ask 'why' as you're writing your drafts. It not only helps you to refocus, but it allows you to learn what your character is all about. How often you begin thinking your character is one person, but as you write, they surprise you with their actions.

Marcia said...

Andrea M -- I agree: I start out with a general idea but have to figure a lot out along the way. Fortunately, when I get stuck I seem to have learned it's a warning that I've recently taken a wrong turn and am heading down a blind alley. Whether we get to the real story in one slow draft or several fast ones, for me, discovering and refining along the way works. After that, of course, comes the REAL revision.

Andrea V -- Yes, "why" is so important because everything has to be motivated. It's all about being believable and creating the right emotional nuances and progression. I love when characters surprise me; it means they're coming alive.

Vijaya said...

Great post. Nancy has recommended HOOKED but I haven't read it yet. When I write an exploratory draft, it is peppered with WHY ... and this gets me to the true heart of the story, just like you explained.

When I took the basic ICL course, my teacher (Patricia Calvert) was able to tease out the *real* story from the superficial. The story is really about ...

Marcia said...

I think it's fun to dig out the "real" story. It's interesting that HOOKED is mentioned here and there online right now, since it's not a brand-new book but came out in 2007. My TBR pile is ginormous so I'm still working through the book. (Have a few going at once, as is my wont.) Thanks for stopping by, Vijaya. :)

MaryWitzl said...

While writing my first ms, I definitely worked this out as I wrote. With the second and third ones, I'm trying to get it straight in my mind before I write. I think it's a lot better to know your character's before you write. My problem is when a character's motivations and plans change during the course of the story as she discovers things she didn't know.

Marcia said...

The last year or so, even longer, I've been figuring how all this works best for me. I have to admit -- the first drafts of my published books were all pretty much written without any advance planning. The character and plot unfolded during the draft. Maybe another way to say it is that's the form my planning takes: a draft, and we go from there. Recently, I've experimented with more pre-planning. I've made wonderful notebooks with sections devoted to character, plot, setting, POV, theme, and so forth. There's something about that much planning that saps my energy. The book stalls. I'm going back to what worked before...

Nora MacFarlane said...

Great post, Marcia. When I come up with an idea, I write a logline immediately. That way I have a one sentence statement about my protagonist, their desire, conflict and the antagonist. It helps me stay focused as I write, and it gives me the foundation upon which to build my story. With the foundation in place, I have the freedom to be creative and not get lost along the way.

Vijaya - I ask why a lot too. It not only helps to get to the heart of the story, I think it helps to keep it believable as well.

Marcia said...

Nora, that is such a fantastic idea. This is true focus with maximum freedom allowed. It also gives you a succinct way to describe your book from the start, and even defines what exactly a "book idea" consists of.

Anna said...

Isn't Hooked such a helpful little book? I like how in-depth it is. I've loaned it out to a writer friend, but when I get it back, I plan on rereading.

Marcia said...

It really is, Anna. It bears rereading.

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