I Got 99 Problems

Standard

I’m currently working my way through a book called Hooked: How to write fiction that grabs readers at page one and never lets them go by Les Edgerton. It ostensibly deals only with the opening scene of a book, but of course what it talks about goes further than that. I’m probably going to end up posting a couple of things about its advice, but the one that made me sit up and take notice was the discussion on different types of conflict.

Conflict makes a story. Fine, dandy, we all know that. But there’s several different types of conflict that each story needs. Les Edgerton distinguishes them as follows:

  1. Inciting incident
  2. Initial surface problem
  3. Story-worthy problem

The inciting incident is the event / occasion which changes the protagonists life from stable to conflicted in some way. In the modern fashion of story structure, it’s generally the starting point of the story – the thing that happens to trigger the drama.

The initial surface problem is the trouble that is caused by the inciting incident – the thing that the protagonist must solve. It isn’t the major conflict of the story, although the protagonist may well think it is at the time. Solving this leads to another surface problem, and so on. All of them are usually linked in some way to the major conflict but they aren’t the base problem. They just build up or lead to it.

The story-worthy problem is the major conflict of the story. And this is where Les Edgerton got me reaching for my notebook. Because he doesn’t count anything external as deep enough to rate as the story-worthy problem. He advises liberal use of the question ‘why?’ to identify this. Why is your protagonist driven to do what they’re doing? ‘Because they have to’ is a pretty weak response.

A story-worthy problem always relates more to the inner psychology of the protagonist and has to be big enough to change the protagonist’s world and force him on a journey of change.

EXAMPLE: I originally thought that Mercy’s story-worthy problem was breaking someone out of jail in order to prevent the fall of heaven. Pretty fundamental and dramatic, right? But why would she do that? By dint of digging through that question, I finally worked out what was driving her and thus discovered the real story-worthy problem: she is unconsciously searching for validation after her father chose religion over her. See the difference?

The other point that Edgerton makes is that neither the reader nor the protagonist should be aware of what the real problem is at the start of the story. It’s part of the journey of discovery that they undertake together – the protagonist by acting, and the reader by reading. The writer obviously needs to know, but can’t let on to start with. That’s quite a challenge.

Edgerton explains all this through a fairly extensive example. It may be that putting it in this concise format robs it of some clarity – if so, feel free to request the full example and I’ll post it up later. If this is clear enough, though, I’m not going to bother transcribing several pages of textbook!

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