Writers in the Storm

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March 3, 2021

Does Your Novel Have a Problem? (It Should)

By Janice Hardy (@Janice_Hardy)

I’ve always been drawn to writing science fiction and fantasy, which means that I’ve written a lot of first drafts based on “cool ideas” but no real conflict. Sure, I had a sense of what the problems were, and maybe even a few key scenes unfolding in my mind, but the books were about the idea, not characters with specific problems. 

No surprise, those drafts never got beyond the first draft.

Many a novel has been started with a vague idea and a lot of pages that explain why that idea is so cool. They’re even well-written novels, but in the end, they fail because there’s no point to them and no problem driving the plot.

Are you making this mistake in your novel?

Take a look at your current manuscript. What’s the problem of the novel? Is it a specific, concrete problem to solve (such as catch a killer, find the money to save the farm, defeat the evil wizard before she enslaves the realm) or is it a vague issue (such as find love, learn to rely on yourself, show how X came to pass)?

If the point of the novel is a vague issue, odds are you’re going to have trouble writing the first draft, because there’s nothing for the protagonist to do. Without a problem to solve, there’s no plot. 

Evaluating Your Story

Here is a template to help you evaluate. Test your novel and fill in the [bracketed information] of this statement:

My novel is about [the protagonist] who [has a problem], because [the reason the problem exists]. To fix it, [the protagonist] must [risk something of value] and [specific action that has to be done to resolve the problem] or [what happens if they fail].

For example:

My novel is about [Lisa] who [is part of a government experiment], because [she was born with a special gene that allows her to sense emotions]. To fix it, [Lisa] must [risk her life and defy her government] and [make people aware of what’s being done to people like her] or [they’ll kill her].

Can you tell what this book is about?

There’s a general sense, but the specific plot isn’t there, because “defy her government” is a vague idea, not a problem to resolve. Her “problem” is also that she was born with a special gene. There’s nothing here that says how that’s affecting her life or what problem she has because of that gene.

Let’s dig a little deeper. I’ll add the parts we’re filling in as a reminder:

[has a problem]: [is part of a government experiment]. How is this a problem? Captain America was part of a government experiment, too, but he volunteered to serve his country. This is a good example of a vague idea that feels like it’s enough to carry a novel, because odds are you know it’s bad and an issue, even if you don’t know how yet. It feels like enough to plot with, yet it’s probably not.

[the reason the problem exists]: [she was born with a special gene that allows her to sense emotions]. This gives specifics, and is good, because it tells us why the protagonist is special. You can instantly picture several reasons how this might work, how it might help her, and how it might hurt her. But it doesn’t say how this is a problem.

[risk something of value]: [risk her life and defy her government]. This is another vague and unhelpful description. How is she risking her life? How is she defying her government? Without those details, it’s difficult if not impossible to plot this story.

[specific action that has to be done to resolve the problem]: [make people aware of what’s being done to people like her] Great plan, but how exactly does she do this? And is this the real climax of this novel? She goes on TV, shares her story and all is well? Odds are no, just making people aware isn’t going to do it, and there’s more here to do before this problem is resolved.

[what happens if they fail]: [they’ll kill her]. This seems like a great stake, but how often do protagonists actually die? Almost never, so readers know this isn’t going to happen, and you as the author know it isn’t going to happen. Which means you don’t really have anything at stake.

See how easy it is to write a pitch line for a book that won’t help you write the novel?

To find the story problem, you’d have to figure out the specifics of these vague ideas.

“Defy her government” might be hijacking the local TV station and showing videos of the treatment or the experiment itself to create public outrage and force government intervention. It might be causing a revolt. It might even be escaping and running away. What does Lisa have to do? Find the specifics, and you’ll find the story problem.

Let’s look at an example that works (my novel, The Shifter):

My novel is about [Nya] who [has a missing sister named Tali], because [Tali was kidnapped by people wanting to exploit her magical ability for financial gain]. To fix it, [Nya] must [risk her freedom] and [use her own magic to break into the Healers’ League and rescue Tali from her kidnappers] or [Tali will die and Nya might get captured and exploited herself].

It’s raw, but what has to be done in this novel is fairly clear. The plot will come from Nya trying to find and rescue Tali from kidnappers. That’s not all that happens, of course, but this is at the heart of the novel and the plot is all about resolving this problem.

Let’s dig a little deeper:

[has a problem]: [has a missing sister named Tali] This clearly states the problem and it’s easy to extrapolate that finding the sister is the goal. I could have added “she must find and rescue” to be more specific.

[the reason the problem exists]: [Tali was kidnapped by people wanting to exploit her magical ability for financial gain]. This sets up the problem and who the antagonists are. There’s inherent conflict here, even if there are still details about the why to work out.

[risk something of value]: [risk her freedom] Freedom is a bit better than life, because it’s quite possible (and likely) that Nya will lose her freedom at some point in the story. If I wanted to clarify this further, I could add “and her anonymity, her only protection against people who would exploit her as well.” That tells me that Nya is very likely going to lose her anonymity and the safety it provides.

[specific action that has to be done to resolve the problem]: [use her own magic to break into the Healers’ League and rescue Tali from her kidnappers] A specific act for specific motives, and also connects back to the original problem stated—has a kidnapped sister.

[what happens if they fail]: [Tali will die and Nya might get captured and exploited herself]. Tali dying is a real possibility, as is Nya being exploited. These are stakes readers can see happening, and stakes I could have happen, that won’t stop the story cold.

Final Thoughts

Could I flesh this out more? Sure, and if I was writing this for the first time, I probably would, since I’m a plotter. But there are enough concrete details here to prove that this idea has a problem, real stakes, and a specific plan of action to solve it.

Odds are I won’t hit a wall at page 100 and not know where the story goes next, which is a common issue with vague goals and unclear story problems.

Try your own idea and see what happens.

If you have trouble filling this template out, that’s a red flag that there’s no problem to solve, just a vague sense of where the problem lies. If you can fill out the template with a concrete and tangible problem, odds are your novel has a conflict you can work with.

How did your novel or idea do? Which of the steps in the "template" gave you the most trouble? Share with us down in the comments!

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About Janice

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy. When she's not writing fiction, she runs the popular writing site Fiction University, and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series. Sign up for her newsletter and receive 25 ways to Strengthen Your Writing Right Now free.

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22 comments on “Does Your Novel Have a Problem? (It Should)”

  1. Thanks, Janice. The template helped me confirm my WIP is on the right track. Now to apply it to the book I set aside...

  2. Janice, I love this post! I talk about specifics all the time in authors' writing--how it brings a story to life and deeply engages readers. What a great explanation and examples this article offers--I'll be sharing.

  3. Janice, this was a great exercise for me to walk through. I have one book that has bothered me for a long time because I know it has flaws but I wasn't sure which way would plow me through them the fastest.

    Your template shows me that not only am I not clear enough on what my protagonist risks, but that I also need to show her specific actions to resolve the problem earlier in the book. It's very clear to me when I walk it through a template like this.

    So, THANK YOU!

    1. You're welcome! I'm so happy the exercise helped you pinpoint your problem. This is why I love this template. Even if you can't fill it out, it usually shows you exactly what you're missing so you know where to put the brainstorming efforts 🙂

  4. I gave it a whirl. Still rough, but an excellent focusing exercise.

    Vivienne is desperate to know her great-grandmother’s dark past, because Grammy Pearl has never talked about her life in Hiroshima during WWII. Vivienne risks losing her elder’s love by running away to walk in her footsteps—using Grammy Pearl’s long-hidden 1945 diary as a guide—before the old woman’s dementia erases the difficult decisions and unimaginable choices that sparked her life-changing secrets.

    1. Good start! What I wanted to know from that, is why Vivienne is so desperate to know that past, and what was so important to her to find to risk so much. That goal is what will drive your plot, and I suspect the reason she needs that goal is your character arc 🙂

  5. Thank you, thank you! This was just what I needed to read to get a long-stalled, partially written book back on track. I cannot thank you enough.

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