Are you writing a novel? Then you’d better have a big problem.
By that, I mean something big that’s thwarting your main characters and that can’t easily be made right. For instance, in Gone With the Wind, Scarlett is desperately in love with Ashley — but he’s happily married to Melanie. There’s no logical way for Scarlett to solve this problem.
Even if your problem is interesting, if it’s not big enough to last an entire manuscript, your book may be doomed to the rejection pile.
Here are 4 ways to add heft to your novel’s problem:
1. Make your character more vulnerable physically or emotionally.
If your character is a brilliant surgeon, make him develop a sudden fear of blood. If he is a cop, give him an injury that he must hide from his superiors in order to keep his job.
Recall the protagonist, Frodo Baggins, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. It wasn’t enough that Frodo had to traverse thousands of miles, dodge vicious orcs, and sneak into enemy territory to destroy evil; Tolkein made the problem even bigger — the simple act of carrying the ring brought Frodo physical distress.
This concept made us constantly question: Does Frodo have what it takes to truly save the world? It made the problem big — and one that pitted good against evil.
2. Raise the stakes.
The key here is in taking your current worst-case scenario and ramping it up with dramatic consequences.
Ask yourself: What happens to my main character if the thing he dreads most in the world comes true? If he simply has a bad day, or just loses a job that he didn’t love anyway, a reader will stop and ask, “Why is this story even worth telling?” Your novel’s problem needs some higher stakes.
How about: Your main character’s secret will be revealed to the person he loves most, causing him to lose everything. Or, make things even more dramatic: If he accomplishes his goal, he lives; if he fails, he dies.
Don’t be afraid to raise the stakes; it’s the only way that you can ultimately show readers what your main character is made of. And that’s how you write a powerful story.
3. Strengthen the opponent.
In my work with authors, the opponents I find in a first draft are often two-dimensional. The problem: The authors haven’t done the deep character work they did for their protagonist.
You don’t have to necessarily mimic comic book writers to strengthen your novel’s opponent. Simply pinpointing where your opponent came from and why he’s so committed to his cause or mission is a powerful way to construct a deeply rendered antagonist.
Strengthening your opponent in a way that will improve your novel can be as simple as instilling above-average intelligence or cunning to your character, or giving him a set of morals that are much looser than your good guy.
4. Create a ticking clock.
Hollywood movies do this really well. When the main character is not only given a problem to solve, but also a seemingly impossible deadline by which the goal must be accomplished, this increases tension for your entire story. Look to see where you can increase the tension by putting a time limit for the problem to be solved.
You also don’t need to necessarily throw a literal ticking clock into the plot. Simply create a small window of opportunity and then add complications that make the task harder for your main character. That’s a great way to a big problem.