We discuss important storytelling concepts like conflict, tension, and stakes all the time, but in the simplest terms, what matters is whether your protagonist is solving problems. If they aren’t solving problems, then nothing is happening, and the story gets boring no matter how many technical schematics or philosophical musings you add. This week, we’re talking about why it’s so important for characters to solve problems, how to create those problems, and why your hero shouldn’t just have an antidote for death in their pocket.
Generously transcribed by James. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris. With me is
Chris: If your story is boring, what you need to do is put your characters in a room with a chalkboard and yell at them to always be solving problems or they’re fired. That is what you need to do.
Oren: The one who solves the most problems gets a car. The one who solves the second most problems gets a set of knives. The one who solves the third most problems gets fired.
Chris & Wes: [laughter]
Chris: And whoever is driving the car – that’s your main character. Congratulations, they’ve become your main character now, because they solved the most problems. That’s how you do this.
Oren: Yeah, they did it. I’m pretty sure that was a Glengarry Glen Rossreference that I was making. I’m not actually positive now that I’ve said it.
Chris: No, that was, uh, remarkable [sarcasm] for somebody who doesn’t even know what it’s from. Okay, so I’m saying this because we’ve had a lot of discussions about tension and structure, but those things are very abstract. People usually need something that is a little bit more concrete to hold onto when they’re thinking about their story. And in a lot of cases people know tension is important but when they write their story, they tend to leave it by the wayside and just not have it be present. A way of putting this that is a lot clearer is always be solving problems.
Wes & Oren: [laughter]
Chris: Its page eleven. Do you know which problem your character is solving right now?
Oren: I barely know what problem I’m solving, so probably not.
Wes: [laughter] I’m going to say that I get distracted by flashy things. I don’t want to be solving problems Chris.
Oren: I do have an important question. Are we talking about conflict?
Chris: [clarifying] It includes conflict.
Oren: Okay. But not always?
Chris: Yeah. But I think we’ll find that one of the requirements, when we get down to it, is that what the audience really wants to see is the character face tough problems. And if they’re facing tough problems, they’re going to struggle. That’s what we classify as conflict. There’s going to be conflict in there. And again, there’s really no clear line between what is conflict and what is not. You know, we need to see them doing something doing something that doesn’t feel trivial. Usually that means that it’s going to end up being conflict.
Oren: Because it sounds a lot like conflict, but I’m fine with phrasing it as always be solving problems.
Chris: Well, the problem with conflict is that it doesn’t include the resolution aspect. Conflict is just the struggle, and if you tell people conflict, you’re not telling people how it is supposed to end. And the other problem with conflict is that, again, people are not thinking about how much tension is generated. Now, a lot of times conflict will generate tension, which is good. But the reason I like to focus on problems is because ‘problems’ is the best word we have for ‘attention generating situation’.
Wes: That’s a good point too, because if you’re telling somebody that stories need conflict then they’ll just throw in a gunfight. That’s not going to provide something that has meaning. Random sudden violence is not tense. Its theme breaking and weird.
Chris: Yeah, I’m finding that a lot of writers, especially if they write light content, will have characters who are just going about having their tea party and then suddenly somebody bursts in with a katana.
Chris: And they have their fight, their conflict with the person, with the katana. And then, it’s like, they go back to the tea party. And that is not what good structure looks like.
Wes: Wasn’t that kind of like an Alfred Hitchcock, a thing like he allegedly said that tension is showing that there’s a bomb under the table, and then having people play poker. But if you had let it detonate without letting people know about it, then that wouldn’t be good.
Chris: Tension is about anticipation. And that’s an excellent example of what it looks like when you have tension but not conflict. There’s definitely tension about that bomb just ticking down and probably as these characters are just playing poker, the audience is wondering, are they going to notice the bomb? Are they going to notice the bomb? Time is elapsing. And we can make this an exciting poker game, or classify playing poker as conflict if we wanted to, but normally we wouldn’t call that a struggle, right? We wouldn’t call playing poker conflict.
Oren: So this is like the thing, where I’m usually talking about characters that should be doing something or, you know, I phrase that in terms of solving problems or engaging in conflict. This whole idea of a bomb under the table, but the people playing the poker game don’t know, only the audience knows, I’m like genuinely confused about that, and to what extent that would actually work. You know, how long can you have that?
Chris: As I said, characters need to always be solving problems, and if they’re just playing poker, are they solving that problem?
Oren: I would say no.
Chris: So no, you cannot get away with that for very long.
Oren: Okay, that’s what I thought. It’s sort of like having a slasher sneak up behind the protagonist. Yeah, okay, that does generate some tension, even if the protagonist doesn’t know that they’re there, but like, you can’t maintain that for very long.
Chris: Right. If you just had the entire movie be the bomb ticking –
Chris: – and at the end the bomb just blows up and everybody’s dead now, technically we do have a problem and a resolution, but we are missing the turning point. And the conflict that the turning point is generally a part of.
Oren: Or even if you had that same situation where it’s like, we watched these people play poker for low stakes, playing-for-pennies poker, for an hour and a half, then in the last five minutes they realize there’s a bomb under their table and try to diffuse it, I still feel like that’s not going to work super well.
Chris: Right. They need to spend the bulk of their time solving problems. For the majority of that poker movie, they’re not doing that. If you are a little averse to problems and tension, having your characters spend most of their time or almost all of their time solving problems may sound a little monotonous, but problems come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes. That is not how it plays out. So first you need a problem to solve, right? We talked about the ticking bomb, but what you can do for people who are not interested in tension is that you can make any activity your character is doing their way of solving a problem. So, one of you give me a random activity that’s normally low tension.
Wes: Everything I’m thinking of is so full of tension for me.
Oren: Washing the dishes.
Wes: That’s what I was going to say Oren, but it’s just a nightmare sometimes.
Chris: Okay, washing the dishes. You have a scene where your character is washing the dishes. We need to make that their way of solving a problem. In that case, they just had a party. The place is a total mess. Their parents are coming home soon, and they need to get all of these dishes washed to hide the fact that they had a party. They are solving the problem of the fact that they’re parents are about to get home and they are going to get in trouble.
Oren: Oh, this is fun. [dramatic pause] Recording a podcast.
Chris & Wes: [laughter]
Chris: Ohh, okay. That’s a little bit tougher. Okay. Recording a podcast. Your character needs to impress somebody. They’ve got a shot at a job that involves podcasting, for instance, and they don’t necessarily have enough experience, but they need to impress this person who is going to hire them. So, they’re going to try and record an amazing podcast that they can show to this person. This is their one shot at this job so that they can pay their bills.
Oren: Writing a think piece about how you don’t actually need conflict or problems in your fiction.
Chris & Wes: [laughter]
Oren: I gotcha. I gotcha.
Chris: Well, I mean this is clearly part of a character arc.
Chris: You’re torn over the fact that you have your magnum opus, and you really are not ready to come to terms with the fact that it needs tension. So, this would be a character who is trying to solve that problem by convincing themselves they don’t need tension by writing this think piece.
Oren: So it would be an emotional problem. I see. Alright, alright. I’m into it.
Chris: I mean technically we could also use the think piece to try to impress somebody. A lot of activities can be used for social problems. There’s a lot of things you could do that have the effect of impressing somebody, for instance, or making something up to somebody if you, again, trash the house. You’re going to get in trouble.
Oren: Alternatively, I really love the idea of a story in which the protagonist is trying to convince someone else that stories don’t need problems or conflict. And then, at the end, they succeed via a clever deduction turning point, for like, maximum dissonance.
Chris: It reminds me a little bit of Adaptation. That’s basically what happens in there, except for he just kind of gives in and puts in lots of action.
Oren: Yeah, that’s the one where he’s like trying to adapt a movie about flowers.
Chris: Yeah, and he doesn’t want to put in any conflict or tension in it. And then he’s like, struggling, and he’s like, ‘oh, I just don’t want it to be a story about drugs and car chases.’ Then he makes it a story about drugs and car chases. Which is not the best because, why didn’t you make a problem about flowers?
Oren: Right. It’s just way worse at that point.
Chris: You’ve got to convince somebody to put an effort in to conserve this flower. You’re trying to get a grant, so you need to show off this flower to a foundation, convince them to give you the grant money to save the flower out in the wild. There, that’s a problem that’s better suited to a story about flowers.
Oren: How does this apply to the pacing advice we have given in the past of peaks and valleys for tension? Do you still need problems in the little valleys because we always recommend tension going on like, a kind of jagged graph, where it trends upwards, but sometimes is, you know, higher and then dips again and it goes back up.
Chris: Generally, you have problems even in the dips.
Wes: You’re always solving problems Oren. [laughter]
Chris: Always be solving problems. But you change which problems you’re solving often. I mean, it depends on the story. If you’re using an external arc and an internal arc, what you do in the valleys is work on the internal arcs because they’re lower stakes and they’re lower tension problems. That’s how you get your valleys. So you can also be working on the external arc and have lower stakes. This is why, for instance, the peak would be like, an action scene, and then the valley would be like, the characters strategizing after their action scene as they like, work out their romantic tension.
Oren: Sounds like a fun evening.
Chris: They’re still solving problems. The stakes are lower. Somebody’s not about to die. A less urgent relationship arc is just going to have lower stakes than an action arc. That’s what you generally do there, but you can also, for instance, build up those peaks if you just have internal arcs, like a relationship story. The peak is some sort of confrontation with the character that they’re having a relationship with and then maybe it doesn’t go well, and they retreat and try to make themselves feel better. And that’s the problem they’re solving.
Oren: What about if you’re writing a slice of life story, how do the problems arrive then?
Chris: Are we talking about a slice of life story that is just a euphemism for has no problems or tension.
Oren: It’s a slice of my life, which is verrry borring.
Chris: Well, I mean, then we’re going back to the activity for how we make this little problem.
Oren: Mmh. That doesn’t sound like my life anymore.
Oren: Catch-22. Gotcha.
Chris & Wes: [laughter]
Chris: First requirement, we need a problem, and you can take any activity and support it with stakes and make it into a problem. And that’s the primary thing. There are other requirements for tension besides stakes, but usually that’s like the first one you go to.
Wes: And those stakes should be external, right? I mean, like, internal stakes just don’t seem to carry as much weight, or does it just depend on the problem?
Chris: They can be internal stakes too. For internal stakes to matter, the stakes have to be high enough that it matters to the audience. That they care that the character fails to solve the problem is the requirement. So, for internal stakes to meet the requirement, they usually have to be more attached to the characters. So, they care if the character is unhappy. If you’ve got a jerk, you’re like, well, I don’t care if that jerk is having a bad day. It’s going to be lower tension, but some stories are lower tension than others. Some scenes should be lower tension than others. So, yeah, it could absolutely be how a character feels.
Oren: So, once you have the problem, you just kind of leave it there, right? And just, you know, walk away.
Chris & Wes: [laughter]
Oren: That’s where we’re going with this?
Wes: Yeah, always be creating problems.
Wes & Oren: [laughter]
Chris: Okay. So, next your character has to [emphasis] do something in response to the problem to solve that problem. Meaning they can’t just stand around passively while other people are doing things, or just kind of watch it happen. They have to be trying to solve the problem in some way. Now that could just mean they’re running away from a monster. That’s problem solving. Not what we normally think of as problem solving but it totally is. If the monster is trying to eat you, you solve that problem by running.
Oren: By not being inside the monster.
Chris: So this doesn’t require productivity, but the character has to take action and not be completely passive. Pretty intuitive requirement right there. The other one that gets a lot of storytellers is that your character has to come up with a non-trivial solution. The issue here is that you make the problem tough enough that it generates tension- and you also want that conflict – you want your characters to have to struggle a bit. If you make your problem super easy, its not just that you don’t get to see your character struggle, but also its just way too easy to solve those problems. The answer is, is trivial. So, for instance, ‘oh no, somebody is dying’. ‘Oh, that’s fine. I just happen to have a bottle of antidote on hand. Here you go. Okay. We’re done now.’
Chris & Wes: [laughter]
Oren: I love the antidote for death. That’s a good one.
Chris: There have been similar things, and stories. Lucy’s got that.
Oren: They apparently do that in the second movie based on The Lightning Thief, the second Percy Jackson movie, where they’ve like, just acquired the golden fleece that can heal anything, and Annabeth gets stabbed. I think its Annabeth, and they’re like, ‘Oh, what do we do?’. And they’re like, ‘Oh right, we have the golden fleece that heals everyone. Here, here you go.’
Chris: So yeah, the problem has to be tough. And then your character has to kind of impress the audience with how they managed to solve this tough problem. And this can be tricky and take problem solving on the storyteller’s part. People run into trouble because once they’ve made the problem tough, I think they run into a block about, ‘Oh wait, how does my character solve this problem?’.
Oren: Yeah. If I knew how to solve that problem, I would be solving my own problems, not writing about some fictional character who can’t solve his problems.
Chris: So that’s when its really easy to just like, okay, how about if another character comes in and just gives them the solution? There we go. Problem solved. It’s like, no, your character needs to be solving that problem themself.
Oren: What if they had like, a magical orb, and by pondering it they could solve all problems. Literally read some books recently where they do that. God, I hated that orb. By the end of the second book, it was just like, Jesus Christ, are they going to solve a problem with that orb again? I bet they ar- yep, they did it. Thanks. Good job, orb.
Chris: It takes some work to think about, okay, I’ve got a tough problem now, how is my character going to manage to solve this? But that struggle, and that impressive solution, is really what the audience wants to see. And so you’ve got to do that work.
Oren: And on the bright side, you have a lot of extra time to think of a solution. In real life, you might not think of a solution in real time, because you might not be a trained crisis responder, but in fiction you can think about it. It’s in the same way you think of like, the wittiest thing your protagonist could say that in real life you would just, you know, think of five hours later.
Chris & Wes: [laughter]
Chris: And even change the prior line of dialogue to make sure that the punch line works just right. [laughter]
Oren: Yeah, make sure that they’re properly set up for it.
Chris: The worst is when the problem is just solved off-screen. It’s like, ‘We know we have to create tension by creating a problem, but we’re not sure how to solve it.’ ‘Oh, did you know that other character just, you know, did this while you were sleeping?’. ‘Like, okay, cool. Thanks. I’m glad that’s solved now.’
Oren: Yeah, I encounter that in unpublished manuscripts that I work on. In published stories, it’s pretty rare to have them just like, completely lacking serious problems. There are some examples. If they have problems, if they know to add problems, its fairly unlikely that they will resolve them off screen randomly like that. That’s usually something that a less experienced author does because they don’t know how to do it any other way. And it’s hard to get published at that level of experience.
Chris: Again, some problems do appear a lot in published works, but its always interesting to see the ones that don’t, but are very common otherwise, because then you can see what publishers consider to be a deal breaker.
Oren: The reason why I think there are more stories that just lack problems at all for the protagonist to solve, and I know this might sound a little confusing because we talk about problems with the story versus problems that the protagonist has to solve, but these are character problems. There are a fair number of books that I just, like, I named like three of them off the top of my head. You’ve got Wanderers. You’ve got Hyperion. You’ve got this novel Airborn.
Those all have issues where the protagonist just lacks any problem they need to solve. The reason, I think, is because those managed to squeak by on like, the novelty of the situation. Like, they could still be better, right? If the protagonist actually had things to do. Like in Wanderers, it’s like, this is pretty weird. We’re following some like, techno zombies around. That’s odd. And in Hyperion it’s like, there is a thing that wants to put you on a space pain tree. That’s real weird.
Chris: I will say that both of these works – there are problems to solve in Hyperion. They just don’t really come up right away. Again, it’s the density. Sometimes these stories still have problems that are being solved, but the density is low, but at least in the first story, it takes a long time to work up to it. A character that is writing the journal definitely has problems he is trying to solve, at least by the climax of that. Wanderers opens with here is a problem you need to solve. And then they just don’t let the characters make any headway on it.
Oren: Hyperion is less of a novel and more six backstories in a trench coat. You are only on the first one and I’m here to tell you it gets worse.
Chris & Wes: [laughter]
Chris: I know, but it’s not completely devoid of problems.
Oren: There are, in theory, problems, but the backstories are like, ‘Here, let me tell you a bunch of things that happened.’ Ironically, the character who actually has, on paper, well written problems to solve is also the most boring one, because it’s just like a very conventional detective story.
Chris: The novelty of that one is not high.
Oren: The novelty is extremely low, whereas all the other ones at least have something weird going on. Whereas this is just like, yeah, this is a detective story. And technically she does have a problem to solve. It’s just that it doesn’t have any stakes that I care about.
Wes: Yeah, that one was more to just like, world-build on like, what the AI is doing.
Oren: Really, that character just ends up increasingly feeling like she’s there as a vessel for other characters that Dan Simmons likes more.
Chris: And the only one of the main characters who’s a woman.
Oren: I’m sure that’s just a weird coincidence. [heavy sarcasm] Who could know that that could happen that way. [heavier sarcasm]
Chris: There’s also, of course, the extreme racism. There are issues with Hyperion.
Wes: So, in solving problems, should you also be creating new ones? Should you be doing Malcolm in the Middle when Hal tries to, you know, fix a light bulb, and then by the end of that, he’s like fixing a flat on the car in the garage or something like that. Because in trying to find a solution, you just discover more problems.
Chris: That is a good way of keeping your pacing going. If you think about stories as having that fractal structure, where you have problems within problems, basically arcs within arcs, there’s always going to be problems being created. The question is, how big are they?
Oren: This is where our good friend, the child arc, come in. You don’t just introduce a single problem and then spend the entire story waiting for your protagonist to solve it, right? This is why Star Wars doesn’t open with Luke being told about the Death Star, and then we spend an hour and a half watching him get a ship and then go somewhere so that he could destroy the Death Star. Even if we knew he was going to destroy the Death Star at the end, that would be very boring. We have to introduce problems in-between the Death Star and when he starts the movie. And, I mean, even before then, because we actually start with the droids, not Luke.
Chris: You mentioned in the podcast on Middles, those steps from the beginning to the end are obstacles. So, basically those are your mid-problems. Your child arcs. Okay, we want to destroy the Death Star. Okay, first problem, we don’t have a ship. We solve the problem. Okay, we got a ship, but that ship doesn’t have its hyperdrive. So you can take those one at a time. And each one is an obstacle on the way to destroying the Death Star.
Oren: ‘On the way’ is very critical, because you don’t want to be like, we’re going to go destroy the Death Star and then they get to Mos Eisley and then Luke is like, ‘Wait, hang on. They’re playing my favorite space basketball game. I’m going to join up’. And then like, have the problem of trying to win the space basketball game. What does this have to do with defeating the Death Star? It’s like, nothing. I just really care about space basketball. It’s part of my character traits. So I’m going to do this for a little while’.
Wes: It’s like the problem with every open world RPG.
Wes & Oren: [laughter]
Oren: I know there were reapers we were supposed to fight eventually, but I’ve spent 30 hours doing loyalty missions, so who knows.
Chris: Yeah, that’s the thing. You can make any activity into a way the character solves the problem. So, if you like your scenes of characters chatting when washing the dishes, you can put that in a context where there’s still some urgency about the parents getting home. You do need those problems to build on each other. There are child arcs going on somewhere, so the story has movement, which means if you have lots of different activities that are not problem solving in your work, there’s a good chance that some of them just aren’t going to fit in. They just don’t have anything to do with the story arcs. So there are going to be some things that you have to cut in order to get to the situations when you have a strong structure.
So, there are two solutions if you want to include an activity that doesn’t inherently have any tension to it, and you really like it. One, you can always summarize it, right? You can do a lot more slice of life type things that add flavor if you don’t turn them into an entire scene where the character is doing it. That can still definitely add value. Maybe not as much dwelling on those things as you want, but for readers, especially if it has a little novelty, it can give a positive feeling and set the atmosphere.
The other option is to use it as a backdrop. So, the character happens to be doing that activity while they’re making other efforts to solve a problem. Character goes to a party because they need to talk to a particular person at that party. The party is the backdrop. And so you can have fun things happening at the party. Do you want your character to make punch? They’re making punch while talking to this person.
Oren: Who is probably a vampire, and they could be a vampire hunter and they could be in love. I’m just saying.
Chris: Yeah, those are your two basic solutions for how you work in that content that you really like but just has nothing to do with your problem solving and isn’t related to your plot.
Oren: Well, I think we that we have solved the problem of the podcast so we’re going to go ahead and call thing to a close.
Chris: If you enjoyed this podcast, support us on Patreon. You can go to patreon.com/mythcreants or mythcreants.com/support.
Oren: I now want to solve the problem of thanking a few of our previous patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.[closing theme]
Chris: This has been the Mythcreant podcast. Opening and closing theme, “The Princess Who Saved Herself” by Jonathan Colton.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?