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The Power of the Unresolved Problem

Let’s assume you’ve grabbed sufficient attention by pulling the reader in, you’ve laid out what your theme or argument will be, and you’ve presented the tension between opposites that needs to be there in any successful story.

But what now?

Whatever you might think of Harry Potter or his creator J.K. Rowling, there’s no doubt that the Harry Potter series of books are page-turners (and best-sellers!) What is the key ingredient which makes them so?

You have to carry forward the emptiness.

What does that mean?

A problem is, by definition, one thing opposed by another. Ask yourself not only what the problem is, but why it is indeed a problem. A problem for whom? When did it first become a problem? What is at the root of the problem? The unanswered questions are what pull the reader on.

If you’re having trouble figuring this out, you need to go back to basics with your work.

An interesting piece of work must always have an unresolved problem at its core -that’s what makes it interesting.

That’s what your hero or heroine is there to do -figure out a solution, or, more often, BE a solution. There’s a whole field of study behind this (see the book How Stories Really Work) but for now, let’s just stick with the above datum: define things in terms of an unresolved problem. If you have the problem correctly defined, the story or essay will just flow from your pen or keyboard -if not, you may freeze right there. You may abandon the story altogether. Your reader almost certainly will.

If you can’t pin down the problem or have trouble figuring out the whole thing, here’s another very key tip, something that will get you out of all sorts of scrapes and deal with any amount of writers’ block or anguish whether you’re writing a story or an essay. Follow this one and you’ll never need to worry about writing again, really.

Do more research.

If the ideas don't yet flow, you need to do more research about the story or issue. Keep on reading or looking through notes or researching until everything becomes clear.

When you have done enough research, the essay or story will leap off the page and demand to be written.

Continue to educate yourself, or, if it’s a story, look deeper. Tolkien, best-selling author of the worldwide phenomenon The Lord of the Rings, said that he never “invented” anything in his stories, he simply looked for what must already be there. Reading widely will soon give you the inspiration needed to point you in the right direction, even if it’s reading your own invented backgrounds to characters or plots.

Ask questions. Write down ten questions about the problem or issue. What caused X? Who is X? What can X be compared to? What other attempts haïve there been to deal with X? Answering these questions will generate immensely interesting material. Some questions won't bear fruit, but the ones that do will probably lead you to a major breakthrough that could form a new foundation for your work.

Discover original, hidden aspects even of your own material. Assuming you've done a fair amount of preparation, you should now have a solid foundation of concepts for an essay or story. Now go beyond other authors to propose something original.

Originality is important. Whether your writing is just satisfactory or great depends now on going outside the established “box” to some degree. While all readers seek for the patterns that we’ve hinted at, if they can totally predict what’s coming they will “switch off” either fully or partly. My father used to be particularly good at guessing the endings of TV shows or films -he could just see through the codes anéd conventions and pick out the villains and predict the outcomes. It use to amaze me until I saw what he was doing -he was reading all the signals and patterns that were obvious once you knew what you were looking at. It’s true that readers secretly want to see the same patterns and structures no matter what they’re reading - but paradoxically being too obvious will kill the tension of emptiness that is one of those patterns!

So writing, then, is a balancing act between predictably clear and precise patterns on the one hand and originality and surprise on the other. To keep your reader hooked, you have to be able to give them the patterns they want (expected similarities) and surprise them (unexpected differences).

Take your reader beyond the obvious.

Look beyond the obvious. Have an idea others don't already see or realise themselves. Your job in writing is to tell the reader “You thought it was about that; it’s really about this!”

Every issue or problem has a few assumptions, usually part of the reason why the problem is a problem in the first place. Ask yourself what is being assumed? What do people take for granted? What if they’re wrong?

If you don’t do this -if you stick with obvious outcomes and do things in an obvious way- the reader will stop turning the pages. It’s almost a mechanical fact.

Obviousness applies the brake to the reader’s hand as it tries to turn the pages.

Whenever you look beyond the obvious and give readers something new to consider, or a new twist to an old pattern, you'll get their attention. Effectively, you’re tampering with the core problem, showing it to the reader in new ways. They love that!

Before you go any further, make an outline of your piece, including all the key tips covered so far. Keep it brief -all the points in your outline shouold be about one line each. Drawing up an outline allows you to see at a glance how each of the principles we’ve covered fits into a larger picture.

Once you’ve got an idea of the shape of your work so far, you can move on to the next key principle.


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