Sunday, 6 February 2011

What's the problem?

My particular problem today is that, having switched to an Apple Mac desktop, I now have no idea how to do things like upload new photographs and so on, so I'm spending a lot of time staring at the screen and thinking '????????' and occasionally 'Aaaarrgghhhh'.    But I'm meant to be talking more about a problem in the context of a story, so I'll try and put my computer angst aside for now ... 

I talked last week about finding and developing an idea, which is always the fun part of writing, I think.  But once you’ve got that idea bubbling away, you need to give it a shape.  All stories need some kind of structure.  The most common kind has five stages, as explained by Elizabeth Lyon in her very useful book, Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore (New York, 2008)

1.  A character has a problem
2. Complications arise and conflict intensifies
3. Crises culminate in a climax
4. Problem is resolved
5. Lead character learns something about self or life

So when you’re thinking about how to harness all those wonderful ideas buzzing around in your head and turn them into a story, your first step is to decide: Whose story is it? 

If you’re writing a Harlequin/Mills & Boon romance, you’re going to need a heroine and a hero, which is fine but two lovely, rounded characters aren’t enough on their own.  Every story needs a PROBLEM. 

The problem is central to the story structure, and the harder it is for your main characters to deal with it, the better.

It’s a common misconception that a romance is about how the hero and heroine fall in love and get married.  It’s not.  It’s about why two characters who are powerfully attracted to each other not only won’t say ‘I love you’, but feel that they CAN’T.  In a romance they can get married, they can have great sex, they can save each other from desperate fates, but the story doesn’t end until both of them can say ‘I love you’ and admit that they need each other.

At the same time, we need to know that these two characters are perfect for each other and are meant to be together.  So if we want to keep them apart, we’re going to have to give them a really good reason for believing that a relationship between them could never work. 

We structure a romance by taking two characters (and it doesn’t matter if they’re a man and a woman, two people of the same sex, a werewolf and a vampire), putting them in a situation that forces them together, and giving them a problem that pushes them apart. 

The problem is created by the fact that the hero and the heroine have conflicting GOALS.  These goals need to be  emotional ones, and related to an issue that women all over the world can understand: children, family, security, independence, home, trust … the kind of themes that, as the late and wonderful Blake Snyder said, ‘tap into our common humanity’.    So, a heroine can’t want money just because she wants to buy things, but she might need money to give her security, or to provide for a child, or to support an elderly relative, or to pay hospital bills …  If a hero is driven to succeed, it’s not to buy himself a Porsche, it’s because he needs to be in control of his life. 

(And of course your next question is to ask yourself ‘Why?’ or ‘Why not?’  but we’ll be looking at character and motivation later.)

When you know what your heroine wants, make sure your hero wants the opposite.  If they want the same thing, you’ll have no problem, no tension, and no story.  So if your heroine craves the security of a settled home, give your hero itchy feet and a deep seated fear of commitment (Oh-So-Sensible Secretary).  If he needs control, make her a single mother with a baby who can’t understand rules (Juggling Briefcase & Baby).  

Then put them in a situation that forces them together.  Make it impossible for them to ignore or avoid the problem between them, and make sure neither can walk away.

At its essence, this is what a romance is: establishing an attraction between the hero and heroine, establishing a good reason why they can’t act on it, and then forcing them into a situation where they have to confront the problem that is keeping them apart, and that can only be resolved by both characters changing … but that’s another story (or blog).


  1. You won't regret the Mac decision. Just give it time.

    I'm all for the forced-together situations, especially very creative solutions to that scenario. Though you can't beat a snowed-in Christmas story ...

  2. Thanks, Jessica. Very enlightening and easy to follow and understand.

  3. Ah that is the exact reason I fear the Mac but like Jane said apparently they're so great that you'll never want anything else :)

    Great post Jessica! Thanks!

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  5. Ah, yes, the old 'snowed in at Christmas' situation ... I used to think it was a bit far-fetched, but after all the snow this winter and last, maybe not any more!

    Glad you found the post useful, Nas and Lacey. It's tricky trying to condense a two hour class into a 5 minute post!

    Even trickier on an unfamiliar computer ... but I know Jane is right. I just need to find out how to upload photos and I'll be away ...

  6. As always, your posts are timely and sooooo helpful and I really appreciate you providing us with parts of your course free of charge! I'm just in the process of starting a new story and revising an older one and all those prompts about why the Hero and Heroine are so right for each other but why they CAN'T be together are just perfect. I'm now asking myself if my stories fit this structure and making sure the conflict is 10% external and 90% internal etc. Wonderful, wonderful advice. Thank you so much Jessica!

  7. That was insightful and interesting. Thanks for this, Jessica.

  8. Thanks, Elissa and Ruchita - you're encouraging to keep going with these posts.

    I'm not being original at all, I fear, but sometimes it helps to read something you've read in every other 'how to write' piece put in a different way - or perhaps you're just in the right mood to take it on board. I know I react like that when I read. Blake Snyder's Save the Cat! made lightbulbs pop all over the place for me, but I just can't get into Robert McKee, for instance, although I know many writers think he's brilliant.