Good Books Are About Problems

Good books, good stories, are about problems not solutions.

Good Books Are About Problems

This is something I tell my students, my ghostwriting clients, my contributors on The Write Practice. I say this again and again because people rarely realize it.

You think stories are about solutions, about things going right for your character, but the reality is great stories are filled with things going wrong: a parent dies, a crush delivers a rejection, a friend picks a fight, an enemy returns.

If you really look at the stories you love most, you’ll probably find that eighty to ninety out of each hundred pages are filled with problems. Only ten or twenty of every hundred pages is filled with solutions.

Problems Create Focus

The same is true for nonfiction, especially nonfiction of the self-help variety. You think nonfiction is supposed to be about solutions to life’s problems. But great nonfiction writers—and especially great copywriters—know the best way to get people to pay attention to the solution is by describing the problem in excruciating detail.

So writers, stop being so easy on your characters. Instead, follow the century old advice,

In the first act get your principal character up a tree; in the second act, throw stones at him; in the third, get him down gracefully.

Good books are about problems, not solutions. Solutions don’t come until the end. The rest is filled with one problem after another.

Problems Are Your Job

This is your discipline as a writer. Be a collector of stones. Learn how to aim them well.

When you’re feeling like you want to rescue your character, to keep him or her comfortable, instead, do the opposite. Make whatever discomfort your character had feel like a blessing compared to the pain he or she is about to experience.

Now, go get throwing.

Have you ever focused more on the problems rather than the solutions? How did it go? Let me know in the comments.

PRACTICE

Write a scene in which a character has stones thrown at him or her, figurative or otherwise.

Write for fifteen minutes. When your time is up, post your practice in the comments section. And if you post, please be sure to give feedback to your fellow writers.

Happy writing stone throwing.

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

  • Sanfak

    Wow that’s truly the best advice i have ever seen or read from someone regarding story writing…..i must say you are a genius…..as a genius makes difficult things look easy….. and now as i remember all the great works i have read i realize they have done the same as you said. Build destroy and rebuild your character.
    I am not a writer yet but i aspire n hope to be in future…..if ever I would ,i will remember this.

    • rosie

      Hey! Stop calling yourself an “aspiring writer”–that just makes you doubt yourself. You are a writer: you’ve got to believe it. If you work at making your writing better, there’s no doubt you’ll be able to publish a novel or blog post or whatever it is you want to write. The first step to becoming a writer is calling yourself one.

      • I agree with Rosie. As Whoopie Goldberg said in the movie Sister Act

        (hope I can name the movie it was a good one.) If you get up in the morning and sing your a singer, if you wake up and paint you are a painter, if you get up and write you are a writer. It’s all a matter of perception.

      • Sanfak

        I agree with you Rosie. …. your words made me believe i m a writer……the problem is my busy life schedule which hardly allows me to write…..hopefully in the future I would start writing when my kids grow up….thanks again for your encouraging words.

        • KatSteve

          Annnd notice how the i has changed to I 🙂

    • Thanks Sanfak. Now, go write something!

  • Madani

    Hi, Joe
    The old adage says ‘Life is not a bed of roses’.
    Misery everywhere, violence, the world is in ebullition. These days I am thinking of writing a book in which God( for whom believe in God) punishes the mankind by withdrawing intelligence for the man to give it to the animals.
    A great solution, don’t you think?

    • Problems, like pain, are universal. They have always been with us. What defines you (and your characters) is how you deal with them. Don’t sell out humanity (or yourself) yet. We still have a lot of solutions to come up with.

  • Annie

    A stabbing pain in her arm followed by a sudden blow to the head told her that she was losing the fight. Spots began to form in her vision and she stumbled as she attempted to escape her assailant. A deep breath in revealed a whole host of new problems, as more than three of her ribs screamed out in protest each time she took in oxygen. Her last thought before blacking out was ‘why me?’.

    A voice calling her name roused her pain ridden and sore body. Eleanor, Eleanor, Eleanor, came the persistent voice of someone trying to wake up a student who was sleeping in class. Rubbing her eyes with scarred, reddened hands, Eleanor found herself in a stone chamber. Nothing adorned the walls and the only price of furniture was a hanging stone slab that served as her bed, chair, and only source of entertainment. Unable to find the source the noise she had been woken up by, Eleanor sat up and was assaulted by an avalanche of pain. Groaning, she attempted to stand up, but found that her legs would not support her slim body. So, she sunk back down, utterly defeated, and set about trying to find a way out of her prison.

    Nothing. That is what Eleanor found on her search for an escape. Zilch, zero, nada. Since her legs couldn’t keep up with her need to move, Eleanor had resorted to alternating between crawling and hobbling. The result was no escape and a pair of badly scraped up knees, not to mention twice as much pain as before. And, because things just had to get worse, it was then that Eleanor realized she hadn’t eaten for at least two days, depending on how long she had been unconscious for. Stomach growling, she collapsed on the stone bed and fell into a fitful sleep.

    • Vincent

      Nice

    • KatSteve

      Defintitely want to know how she is going get out of THIS.

  • I’m determined

    What am I going to do? I’m trapped here. Might as well be in
    a prison – at least, I’d get fed, and not merely scraps, while he gorges his
    fill. What if I cook earlier, so that the meal is ready, and I can eat before
    he arrives home/ No, not the whole meal; if he thinks I’ve fed, then he’ll fly
    into a rage. And not where the children can see. They’ll only tell him. Tell
    his mother that their Mum’s gobbling food before she even sets the table.

    How did I get into this fix? I’ve always tried to be caring
    and kind, to be what he wants of me. The same as with my parents, only that
    didn’t get me anywhere, either, did it? Can’t help but feel that what my
    parents, my siblings, what my husband really wants of me is a punching bag. Not
    a wife. Not someone to love and cherish.

    He’s gone to see the bank manager. I shudder at the thought
    of his return. Bunched fists again, for sure. His view of the business world is
    so out of tune with the financial world out there. There’s not enough fuel in
    the car to get me anywhere, the children will probably refuse to work in with
    me, to get ready. And if we did leave, the daughter would phone or write to her
    Dad, tell him where we are, and he’ll come with his rifles. Shoot the lot of
    us. Shoot me because I cleared off and left him. Shoot the children – including
    the daughter who loves him so much – because he never wanted the bother of
    children.

    Children who take my attention away from caring for him.

    • KatSteve

      YIKES. That was good and scary.

  • Vincent

    No grammar – rough 15 minutes

    Stones Cast –

    Hey, Mike what’s this I hear the FBI came and took all your companies
    computers away last week.

    You heard right Jack, they swarmed my place like it was a
    crack house, swat team, had a couple of my secretaries on the ground for
    calling 911 because they didn’t put the phones down fast enough for them.

    What was it all about?

    Remember that redheaded girl Tanya that was Robbie’s
    assistant up to about 3 months ago?

    Yeah, she was something.

    You got that right. Apparently Robbie had some extracurricular
    activities going on and she took some folders with her when she left.

    Robbie, screwed you!

    Yeah, big time. The redhead also told them that I knew all
    about it. I knew she was going to be a problem. Remember I told you that she
    came on to me at the company 4th of July party and she got a pissy
    because I remaindered her that the company policy for executives is not to fraternize
    with their secretaries or assistants. I guess this is her revenge for that.
    Freaking Robbie.

    So what is going to happen now?

    I already spoke with my new best friend my lawyer and he
    took a quick look at what they had and told me not to worry too much. I was
    like, “too much?”

    He went on to tell me that we had to play nice or else they
    could keep all my equipment forever under the confiscation laws, that’s not the
    right name, but I can’t or maybe don’t want to think that hard right now.

    That is incredible.

    Yeah, it is a good thing that both me and my assistant keep
    separate backups of the entire companies records or else I would have had to
    shut down. When this is all over I have to give her a raise, she suggested that
    we do that. I have been able to get everything up and running and keep everyone
    employed so far. The lawyer said there shouldn’t be any more raids or problems
    with the operation of the business as they have everything I have already. We
    will see.

    That little shit Robbie. Little, the guy is six foot 6 and
    280. I guess he used his bulk for leverage collecting his loans.

    Jack shouts at Roy and rolls his finger in the air
    indicating to bring another and keep them coming.

    Bottoms up Mike, tomorrows better

    Times up.

    • KatSteve

      Like the tension, despite a rough draft, had a great flow. The stones flew nicely and kept me wanting to read more.

      • Vincent

        Thank you.

        • I’m determined

          Thank you. That was life. Plenty of problems to write about.

  • John Yeo

    Saturday night again and the emergency department is filling up with a steady procession of drunks and drug addicts, some brought in by the police already under arrest. I was late for work tonight and I walked straight into the Sister, I will be in a great deal of trouble on Monday, I am already in for a formal written warning forgot to take another patient’s temperature, this didn’t inspire confidence in my abilities. Now this lady is threatening to put in a formal written complaint against me because she says I deliberately kept her waiting. I had another problem earlier tonight, when a lady obviously at the end of her tether, brought her daughter in with a bloody nose, she said the little girl had fallen over. I had to call in Social services when I discovered that the little girl was deaf and dumb, and was unable to communicate with anybody. I was so tired and nearly at the end of my shift when a man assaulted me by touching me inappropriately, he grabbed my bust. Security called in the police and he will have to go to court now. I’m scared about that as I don’t want any comebacks from nutters. The Sister in charge says I must make a formal complaint as he will be doing it again to another innocent person. I have to attend the local police station to do that tomorrow.

    • KatSteve

      Love this. Lots of energy. Great pacing, Lots of stones, I hope you decide to add more or take this further. The main character has a strong voice and lots to say, so this could be very interesting.

  • LaCresha Lawson

    That is what I learned about when reading Greek Tragedies. Starting off with chaos. Thank you.

    • Yep! The Greeks were the best at this. All they did was throw rocks!

  • KatSteve

    Mark faced Anna. “Look”
    he said. “I’m not perfect, I never claimed to be.”

    “Mark, we didn’t bring you here to be perfect. But we need you to help us. You are here to
    help us. Why can’t you see that?”

    “You dragged me out to the middle of the desert. I’ve lost
    my job. My Wife. My life. How can I be expected to help? What more do you want
    from me? “

    “You have to stop Guado. You, you have to stop this. You are
    the only one with the connections and know-how to bring this to light. My people
    are counting on this. The land is all they have. If it is polluted what can
    they do? Where can they go? You are the only chance they have.”

    “Do you expect me to go Sal and ask him to stop? What
    leverage I had is gone. What about your Sheriff? Why don’t you go to him?
    Surely he has more pull with the EPA than I do?

    “Mark, how stupid do you think I am? He’s as corrupt as they
    come. Sal probably paid him to kidnap Boston Blackie. No. I know you have
    connections, United States governors, Congress Men and Agencies. You can do something
    about this. You are the only one.”

    Mark was left standing there. He wanted to respond, but they
    could go on like this for hours and come full circle. Finally, he said “let me
    think. I need to think.” He turned and wandered aimlessly down the road, the
    gravel filled trail.

    He saw Window Rock in the distance and decided to head in
    that direction. His head lowered
    somewhat in thought he ambled along. Letting his thoughts roll and turn over in
    his mind. The sun became lower in the sky, and the shadows increasingly longer.

    • Interesting piece, Kat. I found it hard to get a sense of the story, mid scene like this. I like how dialogue heavy it is, but I do think it could use more description/action (more about that here: http://thewritepractice.com/show-more). The dialogue gives it a fast pace, though, which is great! Good work, Kat!

      • KatSteve

        Thank you so much! Your comments really help, and I will check out that link.
        I was in a hurry and forgot to say, that it is part of a novel I’m working on. This practice was so great, as I needed to have this conversation between these two so I can move forward. Mark is a crooked lawyer and Anna is a Navajo. Illegal toxic dumping has been discovered and Anna thinks Mark can help

  • Njeri Kihang’ah

    Hello, Here’s my first attempt at a non-fiction inspirational piece.

    When I first learnt that I was pregnant, I was staring down a faint second line on a pharmacy-bought pregnancy stick that I had left out for longer than recommended. My first instinct was to keep the revelation to myself until I had confirmed from more authoritative sources than a 10 centimetre-long gadget with a bad reputation the world over. There is also the little matter of a previous incident last month when all the tell tale signs were present until my periods caught the last train in. So really, I had good reason not to jump into any conclusions yet I managed to pull my husband into the washroom to join my stick-staring party. Of course I was quick to recommend a visit to the doctors early the next day.
    Morning came and as I sat two steps across from the doctor, I held my breath as he flipped through the fresh lab results.
    “Congratulations! You are pregnant!”
    Thank God! I exhaled.
    He immediately prescribed the necessary supplements before sending me home with repeated congratulations.
    It wasn’t long before I returned however. This time husband in tow. I had suffered such persistent headaches which some pregnancy websites downplayed as regular symptoms. I would have, as well, except my rapidly pacing heart often brought to mind the worst of scenarios.
    “Your blood pressure is too high. Actually, it is two points way from alarming scores. Couple that with the severe headaches you reported and I am afraid… if not managed well, your pregnancy may not be viable.”
    I looked up at my husband of four months. My world’s most reassuring male; the it-is-well guy. My all-time funny man with the most calming smile. This time, his face drew a blank. Mine struggled to reign in a stream of tears.
    It was the rollercoaster ride I never signed up for.

    • Good narrative, Njeri. You brought us into the scene and made us feel what you were feeling. This is some problem! If this is nonfiction, I’m sorry you had to go through that. What happened next? I hope you’ll keep working on this.

      • Njeri Kihang’ah

        Thanks Joe. As non fiction as it gets. Thanks for the encouragement. Perhaps I could send something over once I complete the chapter…well thats if you don’t mind reading about faith.

  • Kelly-Anne Maddox

    It was going to be a happy day. You called in sick, kept your daughter home from daycare and were getting towels and bathing suits together to head out to the splash pad. The July sunshine was waiting for you both when the text from your husband arrived. I’m on my way home. Elated you reply “meet us at the park. Yippee!”

    But he arrives before you finish packing to go and as he walks in the door you yell “yay papa’s home,” arms thrown wide to greet him. Except he doesn’t speak, his mouth serious and you say “shit, you got fired.” “Where’s Zoe,” he asks, his tone even and controlled. “I turned on the tv for her while I was getting everything ready”, you say. As you mentally calculate a sea of mortgage payments, groceries and bills on your salary alone, annoyed that you didn’t that closer attention in math classes, he beckons you out to the front porch, turns to face you. Says something that you can’t understand. And then come the gut punches, over and over, knocking the wind out of you. You’re gasping for air and the little bit you manage to take in is midsummer humidity and as your legs give way beneath you the words finally filter into your brain. “Your mother’s cancer is back. It’s in her stomach and her liver.”

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