Friday, April 27, 2012

Aspiring Advice: Problem, Solution, Repeat

Last Saturday, our whole family crowded around the TV to watch The Legend of Korra. If you don't already know, we're big on animation. Anyway, we were introduced to the antagonist, Amon. Being fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender, which this show is a continuation (of sorts), we kept wondering, "how is this non-bender going to be a threat to benders?" The third episode answered that, and reminded me of an important storytelling element:

The solution is the problem.

Or rather, the solution that ended the first series is now the problem for the next generation.

(And I'm not saying what that is - neener-neener).

This is good to remember when writing a series.

The best stories have problems. Problems generally have solutions. Solutions can make problems worse. And, on rare occasions, the problem is the solution.

"You've lost me, bro ..."

This is where the planner part of me comes in. Some of the best solutions to the most improbable problems I've seen end up being super simple - kind of a "why didn't I think of that" moment. It stirs the problem-solving pot in my brain and doesn't insult the intelligence when the solution appears (convenient solution - not so much).

- Solutions have consequences. That's where it gets fun.

We recently finished a series called FullMetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. When it comes to Anime, I'm exceptionally picky, but I'll tell you this: it's the absolute finest Anime series I've ever seen. This show is literally a non-stop problem/solution tug-of-war! When it finally ended, I was satisfied. Mainly because the solutions were preplanned. Plans within plans. Simple, yet effective. If I hope to write a story as complexly woven as this one, I have to think ten steps ahead.

In short, create the solution that solves the problem first. If we know what the solution is (or the end result will be), we can generate a gripping problem. Then mask the solution (by adding additional complications - with their own solutions) in a way that makes the problem real and doesn't make the solution predictable.

- How can a problem be a solution? Since we all know this by now, we'll turn to our friend, Harry Potter.

The problem? A piece of Mr. V's soul is a part of him. The Solution? Death. Wait, what? We can't kill him off! He's the protag! The solution sounds like a problem, right?

But, in all the books prior, did we anticipate that he would have the ingredients to become a master of death? The elements were put in place  beforehand. By dying, Harry was liberated from that piece of Mr. V's soul. I think we all know what happened after that!

Err, sorry - wrong story ...

*     *     *

This is not the rule, just my thoughts on the matter. Like a teacher once told me - "There are always more than three ways to solve a problem." So it's possible for the characters to have a solution in mind when really it's something else entirely that wins the day. This keeps the audience guessing and keeps them on their toes.

Especially when the odds are against them.

Do you think of the solution before writing the problem, or do you wait and write it when the time comes?

I'm David, and your little dog, too!

Alright - she's not so little ...


  1. Great post, David! Have you ever watched Prison Break? The whole series is based on the Solution/Problem paradigm you've described. It is such a good series. Just when the prisoners thought their freedom was right around the corner with breaking through a wall, out pops up another problem...a fence, and so-on.

    Again, great post and I've bookmarked it for future reference!

  2. My husband and I love animes. The Last Airbender was our favorite, though we didn't get to watch Legend of Korra (yet!) ...
    And I'm going to check-out FullMetal Alchemist: Brotherhood right now ;)

  3. What a great post! Having just finished watching both FullMetal Alchemist, and FullMetal Alchemist Brotherhood, I have to agree with your assessment. While I enjoyed both series, Brotherhood was by far my favorite and the storyline was fantastic.

  4. I have also seen this that when someone thinks they are solving a solution, they are actually contributing to the subsequent problem. Great post.

  5. I've never seen Avatar; the show or either movie with the same-ish title.

  6. Solution and ending always come first.
    Sorry, not watched any of those shows either. Of course, no kids, so no kids shows.

  7. Seen Avatar - very cool.
    This is a tough question. I used to think in story lines, kind of like big picture thinking or solution based. I still do, but not as much. Now I'm so drawn by characters. I try to latch onto them and allow them to tell their stories.

  8. This is great advice, but not so easy to pull off, but definitely worth putting some effort into.

    Thanks for sharing.

  9. I really can't wait to see The Legend of Korra. We're huge Avatar fans. Not to freak you out or anything but the more I read your posts the more I think you and my hubby would get along. The solution/problem circle is pretty amazing and intense when you really start thinking about it. And it makes for some good story telling.

  10. Great post! Making the solution part of the problem goes well with making something go wrong or worse. Solutions are great ways for causing new problems. In a WIP I'm working on, the mage who has sworn off magic (for good reason) is forced to use it to heal his new friend because he feels responsible for causing the injury in the first place. (And he likes her.) But in healing her, his magic use alerts an old enemy of his, causing the villain to send someone to capture or kill him. The solution to that won't really cause a new problem (since it only deals with the immediate problem), but it will instigate a decision that must be made. Solutions and problems can chain one to another very well to pull the plot forward.

  11. I haven't thought about it for this perspective. Genius!!!

  12. Ahh my brain hurts thinking about this! haha. I usually have the problem first, then try to come up with a solution, but I like my solutions to be bittersweet :)

  13. Good points, David. I like it! Meyer didn't plan on the wolf legends in Twilight to become what they were, but her publisher thought it would work. Good setup on accident. Not every author is so fortunate!

  14. Edward and Alphonse! :)

    ...I mean, what? I would never recognize such geekery, David. Geesh!

  15. I usually think of the problem first. I wish I could be creative and think of the solution, but I'm a left-to-right, beginning-to-end, logical-order kind of gal.

  16. This is a brain-cramper, LOL.

    But yeah, totally. You're spot on. :D

  17. "the problem is the solution..."

    This is so true for one of my manuscripts. Thanks for summing it up so beautifully.

  18. I have done a mixture of the two in my writing...sometimes I have known what the solution was going to be while other times I have had to wait to find out what the solution was.

  19. Hrmmm. Kinda like how well-written soap operas can go on forever. The conflict just goes from solution to problem to solution to problem with different characters snowballing into tangents, etc.

  20. Kind of like chess right? The best players map out their strategy at the beginning and manipulate their opponent into making the moves that will make that strategy work.

    Sorry, my 5 year old has become suddenly interested and wants me to explain the complexity of that game. This feels the same to me.

    Great post, as usual, David.

  21. For me, that's the nice thing about plotting ahead of time. I can think about it, mull it over, brainstorm and then create with the final solution in mind. Loved this post - and am getting to enjoy Korra more. I fell in love with Avatar the Last Airbender much more easily. Second series are always harder for me to get into, though.

  22. We have the exact same taste in Anime! Love how me and the kids can watch Legend of Korra together. That's a rarity these days. Love the dog-polar bear. I want one.

    Your post remind me of The Matrix movies. Neo was the one, and at the end of the first movie, he's flying around and you're like, YES! But then after movie #2, and into movie #3, you're thinking...okay, he's THE ONE, but it's not how I thought it was going to be. Being The One sucks!

  23. I try to think of the solution before writing the problem, but them sometimes my characters get all bold and go and do something else to try and solve it.

    (They're usually right... but don't tell them that ;))

  24. I had to pop in from the RSS reader just to comment on your moniker for Voldemort. "Mr. V" -- I LOVE IT. I may have to use that in the future. It is beautifully irreverent.