I had another writing panic attack a couple of weeks ago. I’d come up with a new idea only to discover that it wasn’t really new. It was just a different version of the same idea I’ve had a thousand times before.
So why don’t I write it? If you have an idea over and over again, you should probably write it. You may never have peace, never have a different idea until you get this one out of the way.
What’s the damn problem? I was angry by that point, wondering what the hell was wrong with me. Maybe I really do need to throw in the towel. Maybe it was time to find a new dream. There had to be something else I was good at. Right?
The years stretched out before me, long and lonely and empty. I pictured myself tossing aside the books I had once loved, too bitter to enjoy them. I tried to picture a new ambition, a new dream. Nothing came to me. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
What if I ended up stuck in the job I have now? My eyes widened with fear and I felt my heart stop for a split second. No, I thought, shaking my head. I won’t let that happen. Anything but that.
Again I asked myself what the problem was. Why can I not finish the story?
Then it hit me: the problem is there is no story problem. The idea I keep getting is just the beginning of the story. I can never make it to the end because I had no destination in mind, no problem to be solved.
Yes, I’m going to use the road map metaphor. It might be a little cliché but I’ve recently developed a small obsession with maps. My Homebody board on Pinterest is full of them. And it’s the easiest way to explain this.
But don’t we have enough problems to deal with?
Sure we do. Life is chock full of them. How can I lose weight? How can I make more money? How do I find a new job that doesn’t make me feel like my very soul is being sucked out me?
That’s why we read stories. They help us navigate our problems in the real world (there’s the map reference again).
That’s what stories are: problems being solved. Think about it for a second. No, you argue, they aren’t all problems. Some of them are love stories or they talk about a group of friends finding each other. Yes, but those stories have problems too.
Lovers have to overcome obstacles to be together. Friends bond over battling evil, such as a clown living in the sewers. These are story problems. And they’re what make stories interesting.
It’s not the destination…it’s the journey.
Think of it this way, stories always have a beginning, middle, and end. No matter how long it takes, whether it’s stretched across one novel or 7, there’s a beginning, middle, and end. If it’s a series, the same applies with each book. They’re just shorter stories part of the greater whole. Like really long chapters.
In order to figure out the middle, you have to know the beginning and ending. Like this:
You have point A here and over here__________________________________ point B.
That line is your middle. All you have to do is figure out what it takes to get from A to B and that’s your story.
Here comes the map metaphor…
I never said figuring out the middle would be simple. But that’s part of the fun of writing. That’s the story. Once you know your A and B, all you have to do is figure out how to get from one to the other.
The beginning and he destination are your road map for the journey. You write with your destination in mind and keep the story problem at the front of your thinking and you’ll eventually get there.
It’s just like any problem in real life, only, hopefully your story problem will be more fun and exciting.
I want to get to the Florida Keys for my vacation. How do I do that? I sit down with a map and take a look at where I’m at now and what lays between here and Florida. I know I’m going to have to take a flight. Then maybe rent a car or take a shuttle from the airport out to the Keys.
But I can’t take a flight directly to Florida because it costs too much. And I don’t want to fly into Miami because that’s more expensive as well. So I choose a flight that lands in Fort Lauderdale with a layover somewhere along the way.
I’ve got a basic plan laid out for my trip, right? Is that exactly how it’s going to go down? Hell no. Anyone who’s ever traveled knows that for sure at least one thing will go wrong. If you’re me, it’ll be way more than one.
But the unexpected is the exciting part. And this exact same principle applies to writing stories. The difference is, you get to pick the shit that goes wrong and make it happen to someone else. Then sit back and laugh maniacally over your tea. Or liquor if that’s how you roll.
How do I find a problem?
I had the epiphany and thought, ironically, all my problems have been solved! Now I just need a story problem to figure out. I looked around the room as if one would pop out of the closest and start waving at me. Nothing happened. No problem floated into my mind needing solved. I heard crickets. The metaphorical kind since it’s still April. Like all my other writerly epiphanies, this one proved to have more difficulties than immediately met the eye.
That may just be my own personal hang-ups and fears about writing. You may read this and sit down and pop out a novel like the golden goose laying the golden egg.
Problems are everywhere. We run into them daily. We talk about them at work and family gatherings. Health problems, money problems, relationship problems. We wish our lives were problem free and the second we find they are, we’re bored out of our minds. I wish something exciting would happen, we think. Then a pipe bursts or the first hot day of summer comes along and we find the air conditioner quit. Suddenly we’re back to wishing our lives were problem free.
The truth is I can’t really tell you how to find a problem for your story. I would pick something you’re curious about. Curiosity is what keeps us reading. We have to find out what happens next. When you think of a problem and find that feeling in yourself, that’s the one you should write about.
As for me, I’m still working on figuring out my story problem. Until then, at least I solved one more problem that led to another blog post for your guys. Until next week, happy writing.