Must I Have/Rely Upon A Formal "Story Problem" Statement?

by yarnspinner
(Tucson, AZ)

Question: My character faces a gut-wrenching life or death decision at the climax of my novel. It evolves inexorably through earlier events, along the lines of "his life was always destined to end this way". I'm very comfortable with the string of events, the build-up of the emotional crisis. What troubles me is that I can't wedge the idea into a concise 25-word "story problem" without saying, "John has to decide to sacrifice his life to save someone unworthy" which sounds so trite. Although the plot brings John to that point, his various struggles throughout the bulk of the book (and these are all within the main theme) are almost red herrings - they are great, but lesser when held up to the final lens (which is why I am so confident about the overall scheme). Can a "story problem" have layers as in "John struggles with a lifetime of bad karma then finds he can cap it all off in the end by laying it his life down for an altruistic purpose" or something like that? The climax in my book covers less than a minute's time because it's such a critical event and it just seems unproductive to me to express the main story problem as something that is only relevant to one minute of my character's life, even though it's a very, very critical minute that's informed by everything we've learned about him before. I feel almost as though I got lucky in that my plot/storyline/whatever is ready to go and that maybe or I can kind of skip or downplay this step (not because it's unimportant, but because the way I have my story laid out, there is already tension and an emotional map that will draw my reader through to the end which, I assume, is why you would craft a formal "story problem" in the first place). Is that possible? P.S. I can't take much credit for this luck I'm describing - my dear husband is a genius and has been an enormous help in refining my story ideas.

Answer: First, remember that story theory is there to help you when you get stuck or to help you improve a story that isn't working. You probably should not use it to undermine your confidence in a story that seems to be working. If, as you say, you have a tight plot that builds to an emotional crisis, be glad of that. Perhaps let some people read it whose opinions you trust and see if they also feel the story is strong. If you get consistently negative feedback, then perhaps look at ways to strength the story. Otherwise, remember the old saying, “If something works, don't try to fix it.”

Second, time is not a factor regarding the crisis, or any other signpost or significant event in a story. Some signpost events are expressed as entire sequences that can occupy several chapters. Others may only be a single sentence. All that matters is that the reader appreciates the event, the change that takes place.

Third, technically speaking, John's decision at the climax is how he resolves his inner conflict. It may determine if the story goal is achieved, but it is not the story goal itself.

If you really want to define your story goal, try asking yourself the following questions:

1. Does the story feel like a success or a failure? I don't mean whether it's a success from the main character's point of view, since it sounds like he dies. But does his death seem pointless or is it a kind of victory? Is it a meaningful death? There are many stories where the main character may suffer a personal tragedy but the ending is still deemed happy (we call these comi-tragedies).

2. If you're not sure, ask yourself how the story would feel if the main character made the opposite choice at the crisis. Would the story feel emotionally satisfying? Would it feel like a success or failure, not for the main character, but for the world he occupies?

3. If your story is a tragedy (that is, it feels like failure) then your story goal is probably the thing that didn't happen. What happened instead was the consequence. If your story has a “comic” ending (that is, it feels like victory) then ask your self why. What was achieved/resolved/brought into balance? That will be your story goal.

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