What’s the Problem?

Image from (http://peanuts.wikia.com/wiki/Lucy%27s_psychiatry_booth)No, really. I mean it. Tell me what the problem is. And do it quickly before I get bored and wander off.

Of course, Writers, I’m talking about the opening of your novel. It’s not enough to have beautiful writing, or character descriptions and backstory, or even unique world building, although all those things become important as the story goes on. First, as a reader, I need to know what the character’s issues and goals are. Why should I keep reading?

Author Kelly McCullough calls this the problem statement:

“Somewhere early in the story, ideally in the first couple of pages, the author has to define the problem that is going to be solved or addressed over the course of the story. … The reader needs to have some idea what to watch and watch for, or they will become increasingly unhappy”

Or, even worse, they will do what I normally do: get bored, put the book down, and wander off to read a different book or play video games or something.

Here, I’ll give you a few examples, of what I’m talking about:

Emmy Laybourne opens her novel Monument 14 with:

“Your mother hollers that you’re going to miss the bus. She can see it coming down the street. You don’t stop and hug her and tell her you love her. You don’t thank her for being a good, kind, patient mother. Of course not–you launch yourself down the stairs and make a run for the corner.

Only if it’s the last time you’ll ever see your mother, you sort of start to wish you’d stopped and did those things.”

Obviously, the problem here is that the main character never sees his mother again. And the reader immediately wants to know why this is the last time he sees his mother, and keeps reading to find out.

The first lines of The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan are:

“The pipe under the sink was leaking again. It wouldn’t have been so bad, except that Nick kept his favorite sword under the sink.”

Which, again, immediately makes the reader ask “why” and then by page four, Nick is using the sword to fight off a demon attack. The problem here is clear. Nick is being hunted by demons. And just like that, the reader knows there’s a story there.

In Wicked Lovely, Melissa Marr chooses to start with a prologue that introduces The Summer King, an inhuman faery who hides what he is, makes girls fall in love with him, and asks them to take a terrible risk. Then, again by page 4, you find out that Aislinn, the main character can see faeries, and that acknowledging that is very dangerous. Between these two things, the reader can clearly see the problem coming, and will read on to see what happens when the two of them come together.

And it doesn’t always have to be fantasy or life and death. Maybe the character has a huge crush on her brother’s friend, or she’s dying for an invitation to the prom, or she has to lie to her best friend… The problem can be different for every book. Just make sure that it’s there and that you clue me in right away, because if there’s not a problem, there’s not a story.

By Holly West

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