Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A Lesson on Story Worthy Problems and Latest Update on Amazon

Hi folks,

I received the following question from one of the writers in the Skype class I co-teach with Jenny Milchman for the New York Writer's Workshop this afternoon and thought perhaps the answer I gave may be of some value to a few folks. Without further ado, here's Todd's question and my reply:


I was reading your comments on Stephen's work and a question occurred to me.

You described the story-worthy problem as the "spine" of the novel. I know I overdid it with the eyes stuff in my last attempt, but how often should the writer be reminding the reader of the SWP after the inciting incident? I'm guessing it's not nearly as much as the character's surface desire. When I was in inciting incident hell you referred me to Allan Leverone's novel PASKAGANKEE, and it was extremely helpful seeing how the SWP (redemption for guilt) was just hinted at in the beginning, but the character's surface desire (to find the killer) was always on the page in some form or another. As surface problem and SWP are joined at the hip, does the character remind the reader of the SWP simply by striving to solve the surface problem, or should there be some more direct attention called to the SWP so the "spine" of the novel is always visible.



Great question, Todd! The answer is pretty simple. The story-worthy problem shouldn't be evident to the protagonist until almost literally, the final scene. It's really what the final epiphany is all about. It takes the entire struggle to resolve the surface problem to reveal to the protagonist what his or her "real" problem is. In T&L, this is crystal-clear. Up until the moment where they're at the edge of the Grand Canyon, Thelma's been focused on her surface problem. Now, the surface problem has grown into a much bigger beast by that time... but it's still a surface problem (meaning still somewhat superficial). Look at how it’s evolved.
1. Surface problem begins with Thelma wanting to escape her husband Darryl’s small-minded tyranny. At this point, she thinks that’ll take the weekend. She’ll defy him, go on the weekend camping trip with Louise and come back. She probably hasn’t even thought much about what will happen when she returns. Probably has a kind of fuzzy image that she’ll get back, they’ll hae a major knock-down fight, and the marriage will go on. Or not. She does know the relationship will have changed and for the better. She’s taken a big step by defying him and she knows the dynamics have been changed forever. Is that in the script? Nope. But, I’m in intelligent human being and that’s a fairly solid conclusion and one the author (Callie Khouri) most likely was aware of—after all, she wrote the story for smart people.
2. But, emboldened by her new-found courage, she takes it a step further and wheedles Louise into stopping for a drink. The day before the inciting incident there’s no way she could have and the stakes are raised by her new-found freedom in drinking.
3. Further emboldened by deciding to drink and the rewards (freedom she hasn’t experienced before) and almost giddy with having fun, she takes it another step forward and dances and flirts with Harlan. Another step toward raising the size of the problem and the stakes.
4. Her flirting actions and unaccustomed drinking lead to going out to the parking lot with Harlan and his attempted rape. See how every single step keeps increasing the size of her surface problem.
5. When Louise shoots and kills Harlan, the stakes are raised in a HUGE way. And, they’re raised as an organic consequence of her attempts to gain her freedom. But, it’s still the same surface problem. Just a few extra elements added. Now, besides escaping Darryl’s dominance, she has other men trying to enslave her (by capturing her and sending her to jail).
I won’t go through all the subsequent plot steps here, but do you see how each action she takes to resolve her surface problem keep increasing the size and scope of the same problem? Every single step is organic, meaning it is birthed by her latest action (failed) to resolve the surface problem. When they decide to escape to Mexico, it’s still the same form and same problem (albeit bigger) that it was when she began.

And, all the way up to the final scene, she doesn’t realize what her story-worthy problem is. It’s only when she’s cornered at the Grand Canyon, and it’s only when the full import of what she’s gone through, finally hits her with the full realization of what her real problem really is. It’s Darryl… but it’s far, far more than just Darryl. It’s Harlan, it’s the state trooper, it’s J.T., it’s the tanker driver, it’s even the antagonist Hal who only wants to save her and Louise, that’s her much, much deeper psychological problem. Her story-worthy problem is that she’s a total prisoner in a totally male-dominated world. But, she can’t achieve that final realization until she goes through everything she did to resolve her surface problem. So, the protagonist cannot know what her story-worthy problem is until the final scene. It’s that final scene that, with a good writer, that both the surface and the story-worthy problem are simultaneously resolved. They’re really one and the same.
This doesn’t happen in all stories. Only in stories by the best writers. Lesser writers don’t plan well enough or just aren’t talented enough to make that happen. Which is why we see epilogues and crappola like that. From writers who aren’t as good or talented as Khouri. But, why use those writers for models when we have the best available?
The protagonist can’t possibly know what the story-worthy problem is until that final scene. Once she knows it, she has to resolve it. And, once the story’s resolved—it’s over.
But, the author needs to know what the surface problem is, and he/she absolutely and irrevocably has to know what the story-worthy problem is. If he doesn’t, how on earth is he going to create a plot that leads his character to that point? The answer is, he can’t.
And, you’ll run into people who say they never outline and claim they never know how their story will turn out. The so-called “pantsers.” They’ll even quote people like Hemingway, who claimed he never outlined. Only, he did. Except Ernie’s outlines were 80,000 to 100,000 words long and not the 15-20 word version I ask you guys to create. And, he didn’t call what he did an outline. He called them Draft #1, Draft #2, Draft #8 and so on.
Creating a story isn’t writing down real life. It has to be better than real life. It also has to make sense and life doesn’t. Stories are kind of hard to do if you don’t plan it out. Just throw a character out there and follow ‘em around—see where they go and what they do. One can do that, but I strongly suspect that’s a writer who writes lots of “drafts.”

Hope this answers your question, Todd. Actually, I’d like to use this for a blog post. Is that okay with you? (He gave his permission.)

Blue skies,
P.S.  JUST LIKE THAT is kicking butt! Here’s the latest rankings:

·  Amazon Best Sellers Rank:

 #15 Free in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Free in Kindle Store)

Thanks to everyone who glommed onto a copy. Please let your friends know about the freebie and see if it might hit Number Uno!


kennyGene said...

Les, absolutely one of the best blog spots you've shared. I'm cutting and pasting this in my'how-to- book (for my benefit). Even though I'm writing real life, this makes so much sense and makes memoir writing more understandable. Thanks! Kenn

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Kenn!

Roland D. Yeomans said...

Kenny is right. This was one of your best posts. You are obviously a great teacher. I'm glad your book is doing so well on Amazon, Roland

Robin B. said...

Les, as usual, you are the best! I'm printing this one out.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic post and example (not least because it's one of my favourite films). Thank you very much :-)

Anonymous said...

(I know I'm repeating myself...)

Great post, Les! Thank you for sharing this lesson with your blog readers (and thanks to your student Todd for asking the question).

It's helpful to read an outline like this one. Makes the instruction more clear.

I did not draft an outline when I started my WIP. I learned my lesson and went back and wrote one. From now on, that's how I operate.

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Roland, Robin, Hayley, and Tracy. If anyone's interested in my form of outline (it consists of 15-20 words) just email me at butchedgerton at comcast dot net and I'll be happy to send you a handout that explains it in full. It's nothing like that Roman numeral, comp I, plot point by point outline. And, it works for all forms--short story, novel, screenplay.

Alice said...

Congrats Les and your book is now at #1 on the literary fiction. Throwing confetti.

Too bad I have a nook.

Janet Fox said...

Excellent post, Les. Brain is churning now. Thanks.