Protagonist & Plot Problems – The 3 types of problems in stories

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

So, we’ve figured out that stories are about stuff happening. And the best kind of stuff happening is the stuff that happens because of a problem. Problems are what are driving your story forward – they provide tension, intrigue, character development and (by necessity of requiring a solution) they provide momentum. Problems should plague your protagonist and proliferate in your plot.

But, as I have discovered, not all problems are equal. Some problems are better at ratcheting up tension and accelerating momentum. Some are deliciously subtle. Others are explosive. And others are…well, they are just another problem – an obstacle, a thorn in the side, a stone in the shoe.

Danger

Which brings us to the three types of problems you can introduce in your story:

  1. Causal – A problem that happens directly as a result of something else in your story. 

    Causal problems are those that occur as a direct result of cause and effect. It rains, you get wet. You put your hand in the fire, it gets burned.

    Causal problems in your story are the explosive, flavour-packed, all the tingly feels problems that are perfect developments from situations that have come before in your story. The best of these are problems that happen because of something your protagonist has done (or failed to do), but still work well if they happen because of something else in your plot (e.g. something another character has set in motion, the result of a environmental incident, etc).

    e.g.
    * Your protagonist runs away from a fight, that leads her into a dark alley where murderous thieves are lurking. A problem that occurs directly as a result of something your protagonist has done.

    * Your protagonist’s sidekick tries to pick up the local barmaid and lets slip some vital intel that is overheard by the antagonist’s goons. As a result, the antagonist is able to hijack the protagonist’s mission. A problem that occurs directly as a result of something another character has done.

    * An earthquake hits town, cutting off all roads and leaving the protagonist stranded and unable to get to their destination. A problem that occurs directly as a result of an environmental incident.

  2. Correlative – A problem that is related to something else in your story, but not caused by it.

    Problems that are correlated are (as the word suggest) related, but not caused by the other. I put my gumboots on, my friend grabs their umbrella. I grab frantically for a bandage, my friend screams in horror. While these things aren’t causal – they are related. My friend and I both grab our wet weather gear because it is raining. I grab for a bandage and my friend screams because I have burnt my hand in the fire.

    Correlative problems are the subtle problems in your story. The problems that hint at a deeper understory or that give clues about possible plot developments, character flaws, or story complexities. They can be explicit – where the ‘binding agent’ (the third aspect that relates them) is known; implicit – where the binding agent is hinted at; or inexplicit – where the binding agent is unknown.

    e.g.
    * The earthquake causes widespread damage and destruction. The protagonist, left without a car, heads out on foot through the city to get to their destination, vulnerable to aftershocks and violent looters. Character B, whose child is injured, races out into the city to find medical assistance. Both journeys put each character on a collision course. The two problems are caused by a known binding agent – the earthquake. –> This closely mimics a causal relationship (since the cause of these related problems is known).

    * People around the city are falling sick and/or dying unexpectedly. Character A frantically attends to their sick child before running out of the house. The protagonist, a renowned epidemiologist, receives a phone call in the middle of a celebration, immediately turns serious and leaves without telling anyone. The two problems are caused by a hinted binding agent – a disease outbreak of some sort. –> This is great for causing the kind of tension that comes when a reader reads on to find out if their hunch is correct. Whodunnits are famous for it – giving readers enough of a hint in order for them to form a theory of their own and keep them reading to get validation/confirmation.

    * Character A withdraws her life savings and buys a plane ticket. The protagonist packs up their car and heads out of town. The two problems are caused by an unknown binding agent. –> This type can seem as pure coincidence at this point in the story, but is discovered to be related later in the story (a satisfying pay off). To be effective, both incidents need to be evocative (causing the reader to wonder why these two events are happening and to keep reading to find out). It can also help if the same type of emotion is present – in this case urgency – or opposite emotions are present – e.g. extreme joy vs extreme disappointment — both of which help to establish or hint at a shared connection.

  3. Coincidental – A problem that is neither caused by or related to anything else in your story. 

    Coincidental problems are those that are completely unrelated. I lose my watch and my worst enemy becomes my boss.

    In stories, these problems provide points of interest and action, but can (if overused) give an episodic feel – you know, the “and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened” style (for more on why you should avoid this pitfall – read this).

    Sometimes the coincidental problem is inevitable – and sometimes it is necessary. Accidental Hero stories depend on them – your average Jane finds herself embroiled in an international terror plot, just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    The best place for coincidental problems is at the inciting incident stage – where unlucky circumstances can be forgiven as a plot point. But if all your protagonist and plot problems ‘just happen to happen’, then you may need to review whether you have a plot or just a series of unfortunate events…

 

What problems have you introduced into your story? How do you use them to establish tension and drive momentum? 

 

Image courtesy of Frederic Bisson via Flickr Creative Commons.

 

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Protagonist & Plot Problems – The 3 types of problems in stories