Does Your Novel Have a Big Problem?

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.

7 comments on “Does Your Novel Have a Big Problem?

  • I saw this and panicked! I think my novel really truly DOES have a problem, Diane, and it’s not because it has one! Lol. Very helpful. Can these ideas only be applied to an entire story, or can it also serve to strengthen individual scenes within a plot? Many thanks. x, Meredith.

  • I’m a big fan of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Refreshed that you’ve included it. It’s a great example.

    I’ve been writing my first novel for just over 14 months now (in between juggling a new job and paving way for a newborn in the house!) and I’ve been running into so many plot holes and problems just with how I’m sequencing the events of my plot. I’m not writing a complicated thriller or an epic fantasy adventure. I’m too shy to say exactly what it’s about at this point, but it involves an ordinary character and a relatively ordinary chain of events. There isn’t much of an opponent. (Maybe that’s another huge problem??) I so love these ideas you have here. I now see I must bestow a more high-stakes quest onto my main character to really force her into something extraordinary. I’m beginning to get a bit upset that I spent so many months writing without these things in mind. Thanks for your insight Diane. Any chance you have an opening for working with a lost, clueless first time author like me?

  • THe ticking clock idea was taught to me in a very comprehensive writing course long ago and I swear by it. You’re right, it doesn’t have to be an actual countdown. THis is where writers must get very creative. It’s all in the fun of writing.

  • Hi Diane,

    I am a 15-year-old writer. I am just beginning to explore the world of writing blogs. I have 1 idea for a novel I’d like to write maybe one day it will be made into a movie! Thank you for your advice. It is really helpful.

  • Diane, I know you’ve talked about “raising the stakes” in a number of other materials you’ve presented. (I was at your BEA panel talk, which was fabulous. Hello again, if you remember me!). These others are helpful. It brings home the idea that life should be made difficult for your main character, in order for readers to really see what kind of stuff he or she is made of. Your LOtR example is spot-on. That’s what I’ve always loved about the series. Your points to make the opponent stronger and stronger and also to create a ticking time clock also applies to the LOtR series; the more that time goes on, our heroes become more fatigued and conflicted with each other while Sauron grows stronger and stronger. Darkness always seems to encroach upon good faster than good can overtake evil (at least, at first, in fantasy.) This article has filled me with such ideas. Planning to rewrite passages of a short story soon, to comply with some of the ideas generated here. Many thanks Diane.

  • I’m really glad I found this website, as I’ve admittedly let my writing passion slip out of my fingers amidst everything else going on in my life (I work full time). I’m just starting to get back into things, writing on weekends and a bit on my commute. Short bursts, that is. I’d love to write a novel – I’m itching to more and more – but I can’t get my hands around exactly what. This talk of the problem is so enlightening. It’s been a great jumping point for me as I brainstorm. Lots of “What ifs” and the like. I am sure this material will only enrich my writing process. I look forward to the days I both come up with an idea that bites me and finish my first draft. I want to wish best of luck to everyone else here. Let’s write!

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