A huge thanks to Les Edgerton for joining us here to share his wisdom. If you haven’t read his book, Hooked, I highly recommend it. (Or any of his books, and be on the lookout for his next one.) Most of us have heard this analogy: “The king dies and the queen dies. That’s not a story. The king dies and the queen dies of grief. Now that’s a story.” One of the many questions I had when I began reading Hooked was what is the story “worthy” problem in my young adult novel? Les had a lot to teach me. In this final excerpt of our interview, he explains the difference between the story-worthy problem and the initial surface problem.
Write On asks: One of the first things I got excited about while reading Hooked was the difference between the story-worthy problem and the initial surface problem.
Is there a test or a question for writer’s to help them know the difference?
Les: First, it’s crucial to know the definitions of each. The story-worthy problem is what the novel’s really about. It’s a deep, psychological problem. Most of the time, it’s a problem the writer has in his or her own existence. It can be anything so long as the average reader can relate to it and find it a worthwhile problem for someone to have.
The surface problem is more materialistic and superficial. It’s symptomatic of what the “real” or story-worthy problem is. Pursuing a solution to the surface problem leads the protagonist to the realization of what her true problem is. Again, the surface problem is symptomatic of the story-worthy problem—they are directly related.
This is why the author really should know what the story-worthy problem is before she begins to write the story… which pretty much implies that she should know the ending. If she doesn’t know her protagonist’s story-worthy problem, how can she possibly expect to create a good surface problem for her character? The answer is evident: she can’t. While the protagonist can’t possibly know what her story-worthy problem is—it takes the entire struggle to resolve the surface problem for that to be revealed to her—the author does need to know. If she doesn’t, she can’t create the journey to that discovery for her protagonist. It’s the struggle that reveals the “real” problem to the protagonist… and to the reader. Without that struggle, she can never learn what her real problem is and therefore she can never resolve it.
This is all a story is about. It begins with the inciting incident which creates and/or reveals the surface problem to the protagonist. Even though the surface problem is, in the end, relatively superficial, it’s important for the author to know that even though it is superficial, it’s symptomatic of the real, story-worthy problem. The author needs to know, not the character nor the reader. Neither of those two should know what the true problem is until the end, but the author must know.
The best way to illustrate the difference and similarities between the two is to use an example. In the movie Thelma & Louise, the protagonist Thelma’s surface problem is she’s finally had the last straw in her relationship with her husband Darryl, who she’s allowed to imprison her in a stifling relationship. The story begins with her attempting to ask for his permission to go on a weekend camping trip with her friend Louise. She’s evidently always had to do so in the past. She tries to ask him twice, and each time he curtly dismisses her before she can get the words out. The second time, the little light bulb goes off in the refrigerator of her mind and… she doesn’t ask him. That’s the inciting incident and it’s perfect. It’s dramatic, rather than melodramatic. Her first action to resolve her problem is… not to ask his permission. It’s from that moment of insight that the rest of the story emanates from. If she’d asked permission, there would have been no story.
I want to pause here to point out something. Many times, writers think they need to write melodrama in their beginnings. Mondo mistake! Write a small, dramatic beginning, such as T&L. If you begin with explosions, killings, kidnappings, and the like, where do you go from there? More and bigger explosions? Won’t work. Start small and with a truly dramatic opening and gradually ratchet up the action.
Also, in this beginning, you’ll notice there’s no backstory except as is implied. Thelma’s been in an abusive relationship for eight years, but we don’t know that at this point and we don’t need to. As intelligent human beings, we can readily “see” that she’s a dutiful little housewife—she’s wearing curlers and a house robe, has a refrigerator loaded with recipes pasted on the door, and she’s already been warned by her friend to be sure and ask Darryl for permission. And, then, as soon as she begins talking to Darryl upstairs, it’s clear what their relationship is all about. This is an author (Callie Khouri) who supremely trusts her viewer’s intelligence to “get it.” And, this is also a good place to point out how the definition of an inciting incident works. The definition is: the inciting incident is something that happens to the protagonist that creates and/or reveals the surface problem. That “and/or” is very important. It means that the incident may or may not create the problem, but that it has to reveal it. Thelma’s had her relationship problem for eight years so it’s not created here, but it is revealed to her. Not that she’s been totally blind to it. She’s aware, but up until this point, the enormity of her problem hasn’t been clearly revealed. Here is where she reaches her tipping point and it’s clearly revealed she has a problem to such a degree where she is no longer willing to ignore it but has to take action to resolve it. Which she does. She doesn’t ask for permission. A great action! To most who know her, she’s had this problem for a long time, and she’s undoubtedly aware that she has one, but until this point it hadn’t assumed critical mass to the point where it becomes the single biggest problem in her life. Now, it has.
At first, her only goal is to escape Darryl’s domination for a single weekend. It’s a surface goal, and pretty much superficial. When she leaves on the trip, it’s only for a brief escape. She assumes she’ll be back on Monday to face Darryl. At this point, she (nor the viewer/reader) don’t yet realize what her real, story-worthy problem is. (But, the author—Callie Khouri—most assuredly does.)
To speed things up, as the journey progresses, as a direct result of her rebellion, Thelma gets in deeper and deeper and as the struggle ensues, bit by bit she comes to realize what her true, story-worthy problem is. She has to go through this struggle to come to this realization. There’s just no other way around it. And, thank God! Without the struggle, there’s no story.
She doesn’t fully know what her story-worthy problem is until the very last scene. That’s where the protagonist should always realize her story-worthy problem. And her problem isn’t simply Darryl and his boorish behavior toward her and her imprisonment in a slave-like relationship. Her story-worthy problem is that she now realizes she’s imprisoned in a word dominated by men and that everything in her life is controlled by a male society. And, that’s why her surface problem is symptomatic of her story-worthy problem. Make sense now?
I wish I had more room to expand upon this, but I’ve kind of overstayed my welcome as it is, probably! I’ve got a new writer’s how-to based on this movie I’m titling A Fiction Writer’s Workshop at the Bijou my agent’s shopping around just now, that will go into much depth on this subject. Hope when it comes out you’ll all glom onto a copy!
Anyway, Dawn, thank you so much for having me here. I hope this helps at least some of your readers in their own writer’s journey. I’d like to take credit for the ideas here, but most of ‘em I’ve stolen from other, wiser writers than me.
Just remember—nothing is carved in granite. In the final analysis, always trust your own instincts. Also, be aware that all of us read selectively. We’ll spot a sentence that sets off the little red alarm in our brains and the disclaimer or caveat surrounding it becomes invisible. I know this from experience when I get letters and emails from people who’ve read my book Hooked for instance, and reveal that what they read was that they should begin their novels with a bang (read: melodrama). Never said that, but it’s how many of us assimilate information. Selectively. I do the same thing.
Hope this helps!