The Role of the Problem in Great Stories

by James Bonnet

Taken individually all great stories are about problem solving. Taken altogether, as they are on The Storywheel, all great stories are about transformation. What is the link between problem solving and transformation? Great stories show us how to transform the negative energy that created the problem into higher consciousness.

Stealing Fire From the Gods

In the previous story course article, I talked about the Subject of the story – which is what your story is really about, and which, when taken to the quintessential, has a surprising and enormous potential power. In this article, I will talk about the Problem of the story, which is another essential element that has enormous potential power.

In real life, a problem is anything that is contrary to the way you want things to be. In a great story the problem is the central, unifying event that holds the story together. In Harry Potter, Voldemort is trying to take possession of the Wizard World. That is the problem that brings about the change of fortune and that is the problem that has to be resolved. In The Lord of the Rings, an almost identical story, Sauron is trying to take control of Middle-earth. In The Hunger Games, to return to her home and family, a young girl has to be the last one standing in a fight to the death with twenty-three other well-armed young killers. In a Faithful Place, to solve the murder of his fiancé, a Dublin detective has to unravel the mystery of his own dysfunctional family. In Hugo, a once famous pioneer filmmaker has been completely forgotten, and a young boy has to solve that problem in order to recover the family he has lost. In The King’s Speech, a soon-to-be king, with many important speech-making duties, has a serious stuttering problem. In Toy Story 3, Lotso, a once lovable bear, has become a tyrant terrorizing the toys at a day care center. In The Sixth Sense, the spirits of dead people are haunting a little boy’s mind. In Ordinary People, a young boy is suicidal. In The Silence Of The Lambs, a serial killer is on the loose. In Jaws, a shark is devouring bathers at the height of the tourist season. In Hamlet, Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, has murdered Hamlet’s father, the king, and taken possession of his kingdom and his queen. In The Lion King, another almost identical story, Simba’s uncle, Scar, murders Simba’s father, the king, and takes possession of his kingdom and his queen. InGroundhog Day, an arrogant boor is reliving the worst day of his life over and over and over again.

Each of these stories and hundreds of other great stories I could name revolve around a problem that has to be resolved. And these are the central events that are holding these stories together and giving them power. And, when these problems are finally solved, it brings the story to a satisfactory conclusion and we know it is over.

The reason great stories are about problems, and what this important pattern is telling us about ourselves, is that life is all about problems. Despite their prevalence, I’m not sure that most people realize how much our lives are dominated and controlled by problems. We are bombarded daily by all sorts of big and little problems. They come at us by phone, via email and the news – everything from finding our lost keys and having nothing to wear to a stolen wallet or a flooded basement. On top of that there are emotional problems, financial problems, health problems – threats to our lives and our well-being, threats to our families, threats to our communities, threats to our country and the world. All of the professions, in fact – doctor, lawyer, accountant, plumber, psychologist, therapist, auto mechanic, teacher, soldier, policeman, fireman, etc. are built around problem solving. They make their living solving problems for other people. Doctors make their living helping people solve medical problems, lawyers make their living helping people solve legal problems, plumbers make their living helping people solve plumbing problems, and so on.

What problems do storymakers solve? Well, great storymakers help people solve the most serious problem of all, the problem of ignorance – ignorance concerning who we really are and who we were really meant to be.

Be that as it may, story has gotten its most significant story structures from the problem solving structures we encounter in real life – from real serial killers, real diseases, real wars and disasters. Everything significant about the problem-solving structures of a great story can be traced back to the structures of problems and problem solving in real life. The only difference is that the problem solving structures in a great story have been artistically treated. The great mission of story is to show us how to analyze, cope with, and solve the problems that stand between us and the values we are pursuing, between us and our dreams, between us and our full potential. And revealing how that problem was created and how it can be resolved is at the very heart of a great story – and at the very heart of who we are and the predicaments we face during our relatively brief visit to this sometimes scary, often delightful, but always incredible planet called Earth.

To find the problem of your story, if you don’t already know what it is, probe the original fascination or the subject, seeking council from the source of your creativity and ultimate creative partner, the creative unconscious self. Anything you need to know about any particular problem is stored somewhere in the DNA, and the creative unconscious self can access that information. You just have to ask your self the right direct questions then play midwife to the new ideas as they come to life in your imagination. In any event, play with a lot of different possibilities until you discover a problem that really intrigues you. Then, if you want to make that problem more fascinating, take it to the quintessential – make your story a definitive revelation of that problem and you will make that story extremely relevant and powerful.

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In the next story course article I will talk about the Threat, which is the cause of the problem,  and another essential element without which there would be no story. The threat is, in fact, the very thing that brings the story into being and creates all of the other essential elements – which makes it something worth knowing about and something worth thinking about.

If you have any questions about any of the ideas in these story course articles, I’d be happy to answer them. Better yet come to my intensive weekend story seminar on October 20-21 and we can talk about them there.