It occurred to me last night as I was doing a little story planning that fiction writers should be the world’s greatest problem solvers. A large part of our job as we entertain readers is to keep conflicts and complications coming. We pour the troubles on, heaping them upon our valiant characters all in the name of testing them, proving them, and ultimately showing that they are, indeed, deserving of the happy ending we have planned. At least, that’s how it goes in romance.
Or, I should say, that’s how it’s supposed to go.
I was laughing at myself a bit as I pondered all the fictional problems I’ve dumped on characters over the years. I was taught early on that we should always ask “How can I make this worse?” In other words, don’t merely have the little boy lost in the woods…make it worse by adding in a thunderstorm. Worse still, have the sheriff and his men turn back because of the storm. And don’t just show the worried father. Make him suffer. Let him find the little boy ‘s shoes…and not just anywhere! Put those shoes beside the old creek.
Get the idea?
By the way, if you’ve happened to read Summertime, you’ll recognize this part of the storyline.
The problem with problems, though, is that after we’ve made the situation as difficult as it can possibly be, we have to figure out how to fix everything again. It’s not easy.
I recall a dramatic short-story I attempted to write many, many years ago. I had the beautiful woman running from her abusive boyfriend. I had the boyfriend half-crazed from hallucinations. I had his brother bravely rescuing the woman. I had the remote wilderness setting, the little cabin, and, of course, I had to have another storm. I had a raging rivers, too. Muddy roads.
The only thing I didn’t have was a way out. I did such a good job of putting them into an impossible situation that I never could find a way to save them. As far as I know, they’re still stuck in that little cabin, waiting for me to help them. Sorry, characters. It’s not going to happen.
What makes problem-solving especially tricky in fiction — beside all the obstacles we’ve stacked up — is that only certain legitimate solutions will work. Readers have rules. We have to find real answers, not have our characters suddenly and miraculously saved by a convenient plot device, such as the well-known deus ex machina.
Deus ex machina: The term has evolved to mean a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability or object. Depending on how it is done, it can be intended to move the story forward when the writer has “painted himself into a corner” and sees no other way out…
Another problem with problem-solving is that, doggone it, the answers have to make sense. Sometimes that sure throws a wrench in the works. That happened back in my early story-telling days when I tried plotting a novel about a big, lovable fellow who just happened to have a problem with alcoholism. This has been so many years ago, I don’t remember the details, but I know at one point in the story, he stole a lot of money…from his boss. Yeah, I was trying to make the situation as bad as I could.
But then, I had to fix everything. Oh, I thought I was so clever. He went to his boss. He confessed. His kind-hearted boss, of course, told him “OK, it was wrong, but just pay me back, and I won’t fire you.”
Yeah, right. Like that’s really going to happen.
Hey, it was a long, long time ago! And, no, I never finished that novel.
I’d like to think I’ve learned a bit over the years, and I hope that the knowledge I’ve gained is reflected in the stories I write, the problems I throw at my characters, and the strengths I give them to draw upon as they work their way through tough, but believable situations in order to arrive at logical, satisfactory conclusions.
Yes, writers do indeed deal with a problems on a daily basis. We make them. We solve them. We’ve got an answer to everything. At least in fiction. Somehow, the problem-solving techniques we use in our stories don’t seem to work quite so well in real life. A pity, isn’t it.
What’s YOUR problem?
No, I won’t offer to solve your problems. I won’t even put forth any advice. I’ll be busy today trying to straighten the twisted pathways I’ve created for the characters in my current WIP. Wish me luck!