Writing Mini-Lessons: Problems to Explore in Fiction

The successful writer of fictional narrative creates a world so complete, plausible, and seamless that readers unknowingly slip into its rhythms and feel as though they inhabit the world of the narrative.  It takes tremendous skill to pull off such a feat as a writer of fiction.

Our first step in writing fictional narratives will be to develop the problem of the story, starting first by reflecting on how published authors develop problems.  We’ll then develop possible problems to explore in our fictional narratives.  Once we have the problem we create for our characters, we will develop main characters and then determine how each character will confront or avoid a particular challenge. The fictional narrative’s setting, theme, and plot will emerge from the what if? of the problem.

Most published novels and short stories are about two things:  a particular person or group of people, and the particular problems one or more of them are facing.   For example, how many of you have read R. J. Palacio’s Wonder?  I think we can agree:  Auggie is the main character.  What problems has Palacio given Auggie to confront?… Stereotyping, isolation, discrimination, kid-on-kid violence based on status, the death of his beloved dog, a rare craniofacial deformity requiring numerous surgeries, terrible tension with his sister. Palacio has provided myriad problems for Auggie.

This isn’t plot or theme; it’s difficulty:  what will a particular character do, faced with a particular challenge.  Consider the novels and short stories you’ve read, both independently and in class, and determine the problem or what if? of each title you’ve read.  You are to gather data about problems or plot premises that have served as the foundations of fiction.

Note this quote from author Roald Dahl:

“What about a chocolate factory that makes fantastic
and marvelous things—with a crazy man running it?”

~ Roald Dahl

This quote is from a note Dahl wrote to himself about a what if that intrigued him:  “What about a chocolate factory that makes fantastic and marvelous things—with a crazy man running it?”  That what if jotting was the seed from which Charlie and the Chocolate Factory grew.

Below are some problems published authors have explored in fiction.

Problems Found in Published Fiction

Troubled relationship with a grandparent Changes in a friendship Figuring out one’s identity
Looking for an adult role model Adult censorship of kids Peer pressure at school
Kids with different religious views Moving away from friends End of a friendship
Competition with a friend/jealousy Parents’ divorce Trying to fit in
Peer pressure to do something dangerous Seeking revenge Pressure to fit in
Facing the past–trying to make a new life Finding love Gender stereotyping
Physical appearance issues Social status or class issues Troubled sibling relationship
Getting beyond stereotypes/first impressions Racial prejudice A parent’s or sibling’s death
Proving one can do something Troubled friend Survival against the elements
Solving a crime/mystery Peer pressure to win Deciding to make a big change
Influence of childhood friends on rest of life Dysfunctional family Ghost encounter
Childhood friends who change in junior high Fighting evil Facing a fear
Telling the truth Adverse effects of technology War/nuclear holocaust
Debilitating disease Fighting an enemy Recovering from an accident
First love Kidnapping Death of a pet
Overcoming adversity    


Now it is time for you to make your own list of potential problems in fiction.  Imagine and list dilemmas that interest you as a writer.  What problems inspire your imagination?  What what ifs? intrigue the writer in you.  Go for quantity and quality of ideas. 

It may help you to see a student list of what ifs? for fictional narratives. Notice that this list avoids using death as a short story problem.  Death, as a subject, is so huge that it requires pages and pages of the main characters’ thoughts and feelings, reacting to such an overwhelming loss and attempting to come to terms with it.  You will have neither the time nor the physical space in a short story of ten pages or less to do death justice or make it convincing, so do not choose death as one of your dilemmas.

Potential Problems in Fiction, A Student’s List

What if…