What’s your story’s problem?

What’s your story’s problemI recently reviewed a debut novel, The Valley at the Centre of the World. In it, the author, Malachy Tallack, describes life in a rural village on the island of Shetland. And he tries to do that in an accurate and honest way.

The problem is that not a whole lot happens in a remote village. The inhabitants go about their daily, seasonal and yearly rhythm. Strangers might arrive, but they’re usually looking for peace and quiet. Others might leave, but villagers are used to that too as people, mostly the younger generation, go off to pursue opportunities in the city. Even deaths in these aging communities happen regularly enough that there’s a certain routine to them too.

When nothing happens, nothing changes. And novels—stories in general—are all about change. There is (nearly) always a moment of self-realization for the (usually) main character.

And yet Tallack makes his story work.


For one, he shifts time onwards quickly between chapters. The narrative skips weeks and months ahead, and it moves from place to place around the village. As it does, we get the perspectives of more characters to give us (the readers) the bigger picture. We hear about people who have moved to the city, so we get that contrast too.

But he’s careful not to rush it either. He doesn’t force the drama into the story. He keeps a slow pace that fits perfectly with the place he describes.

Tallack must have realized that he was going to have these problems, and he worked out how to get around them.

Famous examples

These are major storytelling issues, ones that—ideally—should be solved as early as possible. Preferably at the idea stage. But don’t worry, if you’re on draft three or four, or ten, it really is better to be late than never in this case.

The first place to start is just to have a good old think. Why isn’t your story working? Try to work out what it is you want to say, and then make a list of all the potential problems you might run into while telling it. What would be the best perspective, for example?

In his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain wanted to make a point. But how could he best show the immorality in society through a fictional tale? His solution was to tell it through the eyes of a boy. And not only is this a mere boy, but he’s basically illiterate, as we can see from his language (a technique Twain perfectly employs to get his point across). And Huck’s not an especially great example of how a decent person should act, but, in the end, he learns a lesson. If he can learn how to be a better person, than why can’t the rest of us?

But maybe the problem with your story is with shifting timelines, maybe you need to juggle events from the past, present and future. That’s tricky to do without confusing readers. In Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller lets us see what kind of man Willy Loman used to be by having the character see his dead brother before him and interact with him as if he was still alive. These exchanges have the extra advantage of illustrating Willy’s own confusion in the present. And Miller gives us a look into the future through Willy’s two sons, Biff and Happy: Biff learns the lesson his father didn’t, while Happy will likely make the same mistakes.

Sometimes it’s about finding the right protagonist. F. Scott Fitzgerald has to make readers care about the shallow rich people having parties in The Great Gatsby. He, to put it very simply, divides them into groups—old money and new money—and plays them off each other to show the contrasts. We wonder if one group (or person) is better than the other.

Maybe these brilliant writers didn’t struggle with their stories’ problems, and maybe you don’t have to either. The problems in your story might be obvious, and the solutions might come easily. But sometimes you have to dig deeper.

Dig deeper

This next technique might take some time, but it’ll be easier if you already have a story outline or a synopsis. The idea is to reduce your story to its bare facts. Take your story outline and cut it back to nothing more than bare statements. No fancy descriptions, not even any conclusions: avoid word like ‘because.’ Just the facts, as the original Joe Friday never actually said.

Here, as an example, is my stripped-bare version of The Great Gatsby:

Nick Carraway moves to the village of West Egg, meets Jay Gatsby, a multi-millionaire. Gatsby is in love with Nick’s cousin, Daisy. He throws parties hoping she will come. He uses Nick to get to know her. They have an affair. Daisy’s husband, Tom, finds out. Tom is having an affair too. On a drive with Gatsby, Daisy hits and kills Tom’s mistress. The dead woman’s husband, George Wilson, believes the driver must be his wife’s secret lover. Since the car belonged to Gatsby, Wilson shoots and kills Gatsby. Later, Nick finds out that it was Tom who told Wilson it was Gatsby’s car. Nick moves back to the Midwest.

The idea is to take just those facts and construct another story. Now you can introduce some description and some of those causal phrases. For example, maybe Nick moves to West Egg because he’s in love with Daisy too. But he’s completely broke, has gambling debts, and so he agrees to introduce the charming Gatsby to his beautiful cousin to gain the man’s trust—and maybe get some cash out of him. Daisy’s married anyway, so what chance does Gatsby have? But then Nick learns that Daisy’s husband is having an affair. If Daisy found out, maybe she’d leave Tom, and then he could get closer to her. But he’s already pushed her too close to Gatsby. If she leaves, she’ll run straight into his arms …

I could go on, giving all the characters their motivations while having them follow the same basic storyline, but I think you can already see that this would turn out to be a very different story.

You could try changing the perspective too. For example:

I moved to West Egg to be close to Daisy. Sure, she was my cousin, but I’d been in love with her for as long as I could remember …

Or the setting:

Sir Nick rode his steed for many days to reach the fair city of West Egg …

The idea is to see if you can find a new way to tell your story. My Gatsby doesn’t quite come up to Fitzgerald’s standards, but maybe this technique can help you find some solutions to your story’s problems.

A version of this article was first published on 12 February 2019 as part of Jim’s regular column on WriterUnboxed.

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