The next chapter in Les Edgerton’s book resonates with all of me. I think it’s one of the greatest chapters on story problems. And life problems. Hitting me right on schedule.
It begins by looking at the relationship between a story’s two types of problems: story-worthy problems and surface-level problems. Next the chapter reminds us that all stories must treat these two types of problems. Finally the chapter advises us to focus the plot in terms of a single individual, a single story-worthy problem, which gives rise to a series of concrete surface-level problems.
Regarding the two types of problems, let’s describe them again. We know they are related, since the worthy problem instantiates the many surface ones, while many surface ones are manifestations of the worthy problem. In other words, the story-worthy problem is like a cockroach infestation in the basement of your apartment, while the surface problems that arise from that infestation are all the dozens of cockroaches in your apartment. You try to kill the bugs, as you should. But the issue will persist as long as the source continues to spring new bugs.
We’ll list more examples later on, but for now let’s recall how a true story beginning gives us a little set up in order to establish a bad situation. Next it ruptures that bad situation in a permanent way. Later the character gets pushed out of his original situation, and must journey to resolve this rupture. (Usually by ignoring, by nostalgia, or emotion.) We call the start of this journey, which is like a tipping point, the story’s inciting incident: where a surface-problem reveals itself, along with a hint of a the true story-worthy problem.
. . .
Let’s say you are a conscientious person, who believes in the saying, “If everyone shoveled the snow from their part of the sidewalk, the entire sidewalk would be clear of snow.” You also live in a beautiful apartment that you pay for with the money from a big boy job. For the last couple of months you have had roaches, ruining the pristine beauty of your dwelling. You smash a few here and there. You buy some topical poisons. Some traps. You start to get angry. You hire a professional, who breaks an expensive work of art on accident. You still have bugs. You start to get really pissed. You can’t concentrate at work. More and more roaches. You start to see them everywhere. You slam the counter, but lift your hand to find there was no bug there. Your mind begins to play tricks on you.
So far, it’s only a bad situation. You try and try, to no success. So one day you say to yourself let’s see where they are coming from. You go down into the basement of your apartment complex. What you see utterly destroys your sense of place and comfort. Because down there lives a swarm, an intrusion, a colony of cockroaches of all shapes and sizes, mothers of mothers of grandmothers of cockroaches, each swollen and disgusting.
This is the tipping point, the inciting incident. In a true to live story, what do you do? You walk away. And the real story begins.
At this point, as Mr Ed writes, on our journey past the “point of new return,” our first steps are surprising and down-right wrong. They are almost always attempt to return to how things were. In the roach example, the second chapter of the story might be buying better poisons, hiring another professional for your apartment, maybe living with the roaches in your home for a while. Ain’t so bad!
Yet what you haven’t come to terms with is the fact that there is no turning back. You can no longer unsee the infestation. Self-pity, rage, and sorrow grip you in turns. Between bouts of ignorance, denial, and pure surrender. Naturally, your story cannot end here. Else we tell it for nothing. It needs consequences and purpose. Perhaps you have a dinner party that ends in ruin when you serve your friend a cup of tea, but a roach falls into the cup from the kettle. You can’t sleep at night. You have nightmares about what you saw in the basement. Ignoring the problem is always a problem. Killing only the roaches in your own apartment is never the solution.
A step away from the surface-level problem of apartment roaches is a step towards the story-worthy problem of the basement infestation. It would fascinate us to read about how you talk with the management of the complex. But they don’t care. About how you try to get a petition signed by your neighbors, but they don’t want to pay. About how you work extra long hours just to get this problem paid for yourself. You go all the way to hire the best of the best exterminators, but they overcharge you for nothing.
You see what I mean? Set-backs. And every problem you face is step closer to reaching the underlying issue: no one wants to deal with the source of an issue, except you — that the responsibility to clean out everyone’s infestation comes down on your shoulders. It isn’t enough to shovel the snow from your own sidewalk, when others can’t help themselves, yet you have the untapped power to help them.
So you travel miles to your family’s hometown. In a DIY hardware store you buy the biggest bucket of poison you can find — and even get some helpful instructions from the owner. On your way back to your city, you meet a gypsy woman who sells soap bars with roaches inside of them. You buy one, and continue. When you get to your apartment complex, you take a shower with that bar. You put on some heavy duty clothes. And you enter the basement again to face your disgusting fears.
You stomp. You spray. You even meet a neighbor who is down there doing the same, a man with a flashlight who can shine the way and point out the cracks you would have otherwise missed. You booth kill all the bugs. You shake hands with the neighbor. You walk up. You go to your apartment and shower again with the bar. The end.
Before we close this story, let me just say, this isn’t even as deep as it gets. If we wanted to really understand the character, we would dig down deep to discover just what was bugging — pun intended — you. Did you grow up in a clean home? Did you have something to prove? Did you have neighbors who suffered or what? This story could really have an even deeper story-worthy problem. Usually the best stories do. The infestation can represent the disgusting nature of the entire complex unwilling to do something about it. Everyone was so busy killing the bugs in their own home, that they failed to see the underlying issue: the whole place was bugged. In real life this happens a lot, people find excuses to worry only about their problems, when in fact their superficial problem is in fact a communal one. When we take it upon ourselves to kill everyone’s infestation, we end up solving our own. Not always. But sometimes yes.
. . .
In our lives, many incidents occurs. Not just roaches. But a laptop breaks down. A lover betrays us. We lose a loved one. The mistake many of us make when writing drama is to make it melodrama — namely we take the surface-level problem of a story and blow it up. Literally. We say the laptop spontaneously combusted. We say the lover stabbed us with a knife. We have our family members commit suicided. These may be graphic surface problems, but they are superficial at best. If you don’t believe me, as yourself: what matters more, how someone dies? or what that death means to you?
Digging deeper we find that all surface-level problems are manifestations of story-worthy problems. A laptop doesn’t need to blow up. It just needs to freeze the night before a final, after a semester of putting off the essay for our favorite class. Our lover doesn’t need to draw blood from us. She just needs to reply, “I’m sorry,” when we confess, “I love you.” And our family members don’t need to die in the most selfish way. They can completely alter our perception of them by telling us they wish they had never been born, after three failed attempts.
Dig even deeper and you discover, always, something still more transcendental, something still more timeless. The folly of youth. The downfall of love. The ingratitude and irrationality of an uncaring universe. Regarding these story-worthy problems we may write essays, volumes, libraries. They are archetypal. They are sources of literature never-ending. They are what writers love to write about. Almost too much.
Warning. The opposite mistake can be made when treating story problems. Similar to overwriting the surface-level problems (from drama to melodrama), you can overwrite story-worthy problems too (from drama to drama-less). If all you have are the explorations into the timeless topics, without a hard story to tell, without the scenes necessary to instantiate a story-worthy problem, then what you end up with is jibber jabber bullshit, rumination, and the dreaded navel gazing. My guess is that story-worthy problems are so fruitful, so engaging, that when we tap into that immortal something as artists, we completely forget to be human.
At least I find myself committing this second mistake way more. It’s the motivating factor of me reading books about plot. To ground myself. To take a single story-worthy problem and churn it for a series of well-ordered scenes.
. . .
I could talk more about where I went wrong and where I went well in my latest novel. Hell, Mr Ed quotes himself from time to time. But I find those passages skippable. So I’ll spare you (and force you to buy the novel).
Instead, let’s look at two favorite stories, that do this balancing act well. In Gone With the Wind, for example, we see the inciting incident reveal a major surface-level problem (Ashley got engaged to someone else) along with the hint of a story-worthy problem (denial by Scarlett). She thinks she can win him back. Of course, boom boom boom, one setback leads to another. Finally she is forced to accept reality that she never had Ashley, and that she had been too vain to see true love until it was too late. (Note: it occurs to me that the fatal flaw of denial comes in handy for Scarlett, like when she must feed her family, so turns a blind eye to stealing in order to scrap by.) (2nd Note: the real, deep, true, timeless denial is by the South itself, a nation that cannot accept defeat, and ignores reality.)
For the second example, consider the HBO adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. The story begins when June loses her first child to state kidnappers. Major surface-problem. As the story progresses, we see how she is forced to bare more children, which will be taken from her, eventually having a second child she have to give up, all the while she struggles to see her first child again. It is my opinion, the story-worthy problem is June’s guilt for being a bad mother. She lost her first child. At first she couldn’t protect her, but even before that she had failed to pick her up from school, or be a good mother before the Gilead coup d’état. This shitty new country at last forces June to become a mother again, giving her the training to be a child-barer, that is a good mother even by her own standards. It is terribly heartbreaking, then, to see June give up her second child. But then again it is a good sign. Because at least this time, when she gives her second baby away for rescue, June is making a conscious decision. This is part of the mother’s journey anyway. June is becoming a real mother.
Folks, yes, there is even a deeper underlying issue, that June represents modern women, and the inability of modern women to protect American ideals. America, as the child of its citizens, has been snatched up by a brutal militarized force. Everyone saw it coming, but no one was a good enough mother to save their child. Now, in the story, the remaining mothers of America survive in the shadow of an occupation. They are guilty of losing, but also of failing to protect. It is up to them, these remaining women, to save their country — just as June must save her captive first daughter.
. . .
If you’ve made it this far, thank you. Because it’s time to end on a personal note. Just as Mr Ed recommends to focus all our writing on single individuals, so too must I drive this point home.
Pause for breath.
Last night I lost my paternal grandmother. She was old, sick, and full of pain at the end of her life. How she passed away doesn’t really matter. So much as that her loss marks the loss of something dear inside of me. My grandmother represented the oldest relationship I knew — the one with my grandfather. Both of them symbolized true lasting love for me.
When I found my wife, before marrying her, it was this grandmother who had told me to get a ring. Who even gifted me her ring to give to my future wife. Forget that my grandmother and my wife share the same name. Just know that . . . her passing shows me that the deepest human emotion, love — something we attain if we’re lucky, nurture if we’re smart, and hold dead if we’re grateful — will eventually pass. No matter what. Love isn’t bigger than death. And look, my grandmother was a big woman. In many ways. Still.
Now my grandfather looked at me yesterday, unable to tell me what happened, with that thousand-yard stare. But because we were thousands of miles apart, him in the US and me in Romania, he literally had that stare. If I always empathized with him, if I always saw myself in him, what do I see now? The fate that life holds for me. That maybe my wife will die before me. That I will be in his place, possibly looking at my grandson with a look that says it all.
I will always remember . . . being at the back of a boat, on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, my head on my grandmother’s lap, and my heart bursting from inside my chest, a clear night sky above us. I loved her. Loved her in all the sense and senselessness of that word. A feeling I carry inside of me, and must pass on. Pass on. Pass away.