Why problems are great for writers: and how to use them to your advantage

Problems are great for writers: here’s how to use them to your advantage, plus a couple of practical writing exercises so you can try this out for yourself.

So what do I mean by problems?

Practically speaking, I mean any of these things: annoyance, clash, decision, difficulty, dilemma, encounter, episode, event, exasperation, experience, fear, grievance, hardship, hostility, hurdle, irritation, need, niggle, nuisance, predicament,  surprise, threat, trouble. There must be specific difficulty associated for your lead character. Remember:

  1. Readers like conflict, which leads to action. (It can be subtle.) ‘Specific’ makes this work.
  2. Readers want to see characters in action, attempting to solve the problem in front of them.

The Problems Technique

Know your character’s job – his or her main role in life. Here’s a blog post explaining how that works. Get to know the specifics of that role. The locations they inhabit, the things they do with their day.

Know the difficulties your character faces. I don’t mean ‘asteroid hits their house’ kind of problems (unless you’re writing sci fi or fantasy). I mean problems that come up because of their day to day lives. They could be big or small, but get as specific as you can. Here’s why being specific is so important.

Make a couple of quick lists. Time yourself for five minutes per list.

  1. Create a list of the kinds of jobs people do – these can be paid roles or otherwise.
  1. Create a list of the kinds of problems people face in life. Time yourself for five minutes.

You can develop these lists of problems and jobs in a notebook. Come back and update them from time to time.

Write a problem

Grab your list of problems and conflicts. Circle a few of these – the ones you think you could develop further. Do the same with your list of jobs. Now play a game with them.

  1. Someone who does one of the jobs on your list has got involved in at least one of the problems and conflicts you’ve listed.
  2. Write 500 – 1,500 words. Involve two of people and at least one of the problems / conflicts on your list.

So how do I use the ‘problems’ technique to write my novel?

  1. Write a list of specific problems faced by the characters in your novel. Things that could happen because of their personality traits, relationships, or day-to-day lives. Do not be kind to your characters!
  2. Use cause and effect. This takes a bit of thinking through. Ask yourself ‘what if?’ and see if you can connect these difficulties together. Could one cause another – a worse or more complicated problem – to happen? You’re trying to create a sequence out of the problems you like the most. Draw it or make a list, and don’t be afraid to make it messy – you can redo it.
  3. Once you’ve got your list of problems your main character faces, and you’ve had a go at plotting out some cause and effect, circle the creative stuff that jumps out at you. These are going to turn into scenes. Next step: number or colour code your scenes.

How to find the time

If you’re having trouble finding the time to work on your novel, try  this.

Grab a free downloadable weekly calendar. There are lots of these but here’s the website I use. (Or make your own.) Do some copies. Decide to write at least one day a week and pair the scenes from the previous exercise to the days on the calendar. Make a date with yourself to have a go at writing that scene on that day. Schedule the time. Block it out in your diary or digital calendar.

More soon. Until then: happy writing. x Louise

Download this blog post as a PDF


Read more about writing a novel in these posts:

Answer just three questions to start your novel today

What’s the secret of good writing?

How to create an intriguing lead character

If you need help finding time to write, try these resources:

Signposting for writers

Track your time

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