More questions. More help. Introducing Mastering Table Topics Second Edition.

“The solution that increases the problem”

I found myself stumped on the new novel I started. I had ideas about where I wanted the story to go, but I couldn’t put the pieces together. That was when I thought of six words that helped me put the plot together and make the story move forward: The solution that increases the problem. Here’s why this works.

You’ve probably heard the quote attributed to various authors, “In the first act get your principal character up a tree; in the second act, throw stones at him; in the third, get him down gracefully.” But how do you get the character to climb the tree, drive others to throw rocks, and then get that character down?

When we have a problem, we want to solve it — but we don’t always think through the ramifications of that solution. A mouse is hungry. He solves the problem by eating that piece of cheese that was conveniently left out for him. It’s only when the bar snaps down on his neck that he realizes his solution caused a bigger problem.

Our characters are motivated to solve whatever problem faces them. If they are desperate enough, they’ll make whatever choice is available regardless of the consequences. A scriptwriter must sell his scripts to avoid going broke and having to give up on his career. He gets involved with a faded movie star, which leads to a bad end. A chemistry teacher needs money to pay for his cancer treatments and take care of his family. He gets into the meth business, which leads to a bad end.

It’s not just the principal character who has problems to solve. When the antagonist chooses the solution that causes more problems, it gives the principal character the chance to get out of the tree. The Empire builds a Death Star to destroy the Rebels, but the Rebels destroy it and eventually the Empire. Disney films are filled with villains like Gaston and Scar who are shown mercy by the hero, but decide to take advantage of it to kill him. In their attempt to do so, they wind up meeting their doom.

Secondary characters also seek solutions that can help or hinder the primary. Think about Upham in that  firefight in Saving Private Ryan or how Harry Potter’s friends, classmates, and teachers helped him defeat Voldemort. Characters try to solve problems that create worse ones for themselves. Those problems can offer solutions to other characters. These intermeshing pieces can bring life and depth to the story and its characters.

So when you find yourself stuck on a story, look for the solutions that increase the problem.