Problems and Choices
When someone asks you how your day went, what parts do you tell them? I usually start with the moments that were the most interesting, or had the greatest conflict. Some dude was acting crazy on the tram. My boss had an unreasonable request. I spilt something on myself at lunch. In other words, the problems. Then I follow it up with how I handled those problems and what the resolutions were. And often that’s it. I’ll say something like ‘other than that it was a normal day’ and not even bother to detail all the parts of my day that didn’t include a problem to overcome. The same is true of the news, or sports highlights, or when someone recaps a movie. We show the problems and resolutions, and cut out all the rest.
Our job as a writer is to give our characters problems. Big problems, little problems, consequential and seemingly inconsequential. To string problems together until we’ve told a whole tale. We start by showing life as usual for our protagonist, and then drop a hot steaming problem right into their lap. And as soon as we do, well, then we have a story.
That initial problem, the one that starts the story, can be something big, like needing to throw a ring into a volcano to stop the end of the world, or it could be something small, like trying to choose between two muffins at a cafe. Let’s take a look at the latter one, since the first has already been explored in some detail.
Our protagonist is looking at two muffin options: orange, nutmeg, and poppy seed, or caramel and honeycomb? Two great options, right? So great that our character can’t choose which one they want. They have a problem. Which brings us to the second half of the equation. Choices.
Whenever our protagonist encounters a problem there comes a choice. How will they react? What will they do? That choice informs what direction the story will take next.
Let’s go back to our muffin conundrum. Let’s say our protagonist ends up choosing the caramel and honeycomb muffin. What a potent sugary combo, how could you not choose it? Except here’s the thing, that was the last caramel and honeycomb muffin, and it turns out the person waiting behind out protagonist, who had to wait patiently while our protagonist wrestled with their decision before finally making a choice, had their heart firmly set on devouring that caramel and honeycomb muffin. And so now that person has a problem, and a choice to make. Let’s say they choose to aggressively demand that the muffin is rightfully theirs and they’re going to have it, by force if need be. Now our protagonist has another problem and another choice to make. And so on it goes. Problems lead to choices that have consequences, which leads back to more problems. This series of ever increasing problems and choices are ultimately what a story is.
As you can see with the muffin example, problems come from the world our character is living in, from the other people in that world, and from the character themselves. That particular world had the choice of two equally delicious muffins. It also had a person who was so obsessed with one of those muffins that they were willing to get into a fight over it. And our protagonist was indecisive, which exacerbated both of the other problems.
As for the choices your character makes, that comes entirely from them. Not from the writer, mind you, but the character. The way they would react or the decisions they would make has to come from the root of who they are, what their values are, what has happened to them in the past that relates to the current scenario, and their own internal temperament. It doesn’t always have to be the right choice, it just has to be the choice they would make.
Problems are the connect-a-dots we create to construct a story. The choices our characters make are the lines between those dots. When you know your character well enough to know what choices they’d make and provide them with setting appropriate problems you can easily connect the dots to create a story that felt like it was always there just waiting to be discovered.
In other words, tell the most interesting, conflict-filled, problem-riddled parts of your characters day, and cut out all the rest.