Lessons Learned: What’s the Problem?

I’m still discussing the basics I learned that made finishing a short story a week for 52 weeks possible. As a reminder, the 7 Point Formula for Fiction begins with a Character in a Setting with a Problem.

Without a problem there is no story. It sounds simple. Just give the character a problem, the more interesting and dramatic the better. Right? No.

This tripped me up so much I eventually had to dissect a bunch of short stories to figure out what I was doing wrong. I had several misconceptions that screwed my attempts at story so badly that I ended up starting about ten stories for every one I finished. Let me explain.

First, the problem that begins the story doesn’t have to be the problem the character faces by the end. It just needs to be a problem that the character is driven to solve. And you have to believe that the character will actually want to solve that problem.

The problem has to be in the way of the character achieving something of value to them. Kris Rusch uses an example of a character solving the initial problem of a pebble in her shoe as the first problem. it doesn’t get more minor than that. Of course the problem has to stand in the way of something truly important.

I’ll get into this more tomorrow but the problem has to build throughout the story. So if the story starts with a woman bleeding out from a bullet, the problems have to escalate from there. Starting with too big of a problem was a mistake I made.

The major problem the character eventually faces needs to be small enough in scope that a character can solve it in a short story but important enough that it is a life-changing event for the character. One of my revelations when I was dissecting short stories was that short story time is limited. Your character has just a few hours of “on-screen” time to get to the climax and solve the problem. One mistake I kept making was to create problems too large to be solved by one or two people in about two hours in a limited number of settings.

Mary Robinette Kowal says that for every setting, you need to add an additional 750 words of story. Every additional character adds 500-1000 words. I kept coming up with plots requiring a half-dozen settings and a team of characters. Can’t be done in a short story. That’s novel territory.  Here’s her infographic on the topic:


Eventually I figured out that if I sternly limit my settings to just one setting for the story, I wind up with two or three settings by the end and that would work. (I found all sorts of mind tricks as I went through this process.) These days when I first have an idea for a short story I ask can this be accomplished in a short story, or is it too big for that medium? Solving this one issue before starting to write shortened the amount of time it takes me to write a short story from about a week to about two days.

When should the problem appear? Advice on this varies, but fundamentally readers have to find the problem quickly or they get bored. Of course this depends on the genre. Military SF readers want a faster start than readers of pastoral family dramas. Dean recommends that the problem appear by the end of the first 400 words of character and setting. Mary Robinette Kowal recommends that setting, genre, character, and problem all be defined in the first few sentences.

Finally, and this is probably obvious to everyone except me when I started, the problem has to be solved by the protagonist. When I first started writing short stories my protagonist observed everyone else acting. But that’s not the act of a protagonist. Protagonists act. So one question I added to my mental toolkit was, is this a problem my protagonist can solve or do I need someone else to be the protagonist? Or do I need a different problem?

Next time I’ll go over the problems I had with the middles of stories.

Be well, friends! And stay well.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. I’ll give you one more I learned after multiple personal rejections for short stories. Curiously, the problem showed up because of the depth class. But in your first paragraph, there should be a hint of the problem to come. Just something that connects later, and it could be pretty small.

    1. That sounds great! How are you doing that? (And btw, I love your comments here. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting.)

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