Surface Problems vs. Story-Worthy Problems: Top Five Quotes

As writers, we’re frequently told that the ability to write a good book depends upon one’s ability to come up with a good conflict. Conflict, and all attempts to resolve it, is the stuff of every plot; the deeper the conflict, the better the plot. If you delve at all into the writerly tool box for ways to establish and build conflict, you’ll probably discover terms like “goal,” “setback,” “disaster,”  and “dilemma.” It is the establishment of a good, important, big, relatable goal, and the various obstacles the main character encounters in direct opposition to that goal, that make for good conflict. It sounds like it should be easy, yet we know that ninety percent of a writer’s battle is pinning down those kinds of goals for their m.c.s and coming up with unique ways of overcoming those obstacles. There’s all kinds of muddy water there. To clear those waters somewhat, I recommend defining surface problems and story-worthy problems.

Hooked coverLes Edgerton, in his book Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One and Never Lets Go, defines the distinction as follows:

“the surest way to involve the reader is to begin with an opening scene that changes the protagonist’s world profoundly and creates a story-worthy problem. A true story-worthy problem is closely associated with the protagonist’s inner self, while a surface problem is merely symptomatic, derivative of that larger problem. The inciting incident creates the character’s initial surface problem and introduces the first inklings of the story-worthy problem, which is the raison d’etre for the entire story.” It is in the proportioning of the surface problems to the appropriate reactions and to the overall story problem that masterpieces are made.


Self Editing coverIndeed, Renni Browne and Dave King, authors of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print, state: “Like so many of the other elements of fiction, proportion is a tool. If you use it without being aware of what it can do, you certainly won’t use it to its full potential and may wind up doing damage to your story. But in skillful hands, it can subtly draw your readers into your story and bring it to life.” If you spend most of your scenes focusing on a character’s emotional reactions to various setbacks, you’re going to have them focusing on surface problems rather than the resolution of their story-worthy problem and the accomplishment of their big goal.


Writing Fiction for Dummies coverRandy Ingermanson and Peter Economy, in Writing Fiction for Dummies, call this big goal the “story goal.” Everything in between the inciting incident and the accomplishment of that goal is either a proactive or reactive scene. “Knowing your character’s ambition is great,” they say, “but it’s not enough to make a story. Until you have a simple, clear, concrete answer to the questions [of why or how], all you have is a vague yearning. If your lead character has no story goal, then you simply have no story. A great story goal should be:

  • important (the reader must believe the story goal matters)
  • achievable (the reader should believe that the character has a chance to reach her story goal)
  • difficult (the reader should believe that the character may fail)

Scene and Structure coverAnd Jack Bickham, in Scene and Structure (perhaps the best resource of all titles listed so far), explores the exact dimensions of those goals:

In terms of the scope of the result of the scene to be written, a writer can err in two possible ways: She can select a goal so small or insignificant that the scope of the result cannot possibly be broad enough to affect the course of the story, or she can select a goal so gigantic and all-encompassing that the scope of the scene result will be earth-shattering–probably ending the story right then and there, or possibly changing the course of the the rest of the story so drastically that the m.c. may never again have a realistic chance.


All this being said, the best instructions I’ve ever received on making good conflict were not in a book. They were presented by Sarah M. Eden at the 2016 Storymakers conference. She said:

We deepen and heighten the conflict by personalizing it, not by enlarging it but by making it closer. It needs to be the bad guy’s goals vs. the good guy’s needs. The foundation of deeply personal conflict and ultra high stakes is characterization.

So, yes, spend a good amount of time defining the surface problems and story-worthy problem of the manuscript you’re working on. In doing so, if you’re using your “tools” right, you cannot help but get to really know your main character, which, ultimately, will be the best thing you can do.

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