In every story, there’s an initial problem that the hero wants to solve. If that’s the only problem in your story, you’ve got a dull story. What you need isn’t just one big problem, but three big problems.
Think of “The Hunger Games.” First Katniss’s problem is trying to protect her little sister from the lottery that picks tributes for the Hunger Games. When her little sister gets picked, Katniss volunteers and solves that initial problem, but now she’s got huge problems of her own.
First, she has to survive the Hunger Games. Second, she suddenly finds herself dealing with Peeta and his feelings for her, even though she isn’t sure if they’re real or fake to gain sympathy from the TV viewers. Third, she haas to keep Peeta alive so they can both survive the Hunger Games.
This three problem element weaves through every great movie. In “Die Hard,” the initial story is how will John McClane get back with his wife. Then his second problem is how will he survive from the terrorists hunting him down? Third, his problem is how to rescue his wife from the terrorists before they kill her?
Each time your story starts, it has to keep snowballing additional problems. This keeps your story interesting with multiple story lines to follow and multiple problems to worry about. This is in addition to any minor subplots involving secondary characters.
Think of “Star Wars” where Luke’s initial problem is getting off his boring planet to have an adventure. Then he has to rescue Princess Leia. Then he has to get off the Death Star. Then he has to blow up the Death Star to save the rebel base and Princess Leia in the process.
This is the way multiple problems often occur in a story:
- The hero has an initial problem that eventually gets solved in the end
- The hero’s initial problem creates a new problem
- Before the hero can solve this new problem, it creates a third problem
- The hero has to solve the second problem, then the third problem, before finally solving the initial problem
In “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” the hero’s initial problem is that his mother has forced him to befriend a girl dying of leukemia. He doesn’t want to hang around her and she doesn’t want to hang around him, but because the hero’s mother forces him, he and she have little choice.
Once the hero starts hanging around the dying girl, they start becoming friends. That causes a problem when he starts to get to know her and is coerced by a girl he really likes who wants him to make a movie for the dying girl.
The dying girl is in the hospital and the girl the hero really likes wants him to take her to the prom.
How does this all get solved? Like all good movies, everything rapidly gets solved in the end. The hero finishes the movie for the dying girl, shows it to her when he spends the night with her on prom night instead of the girl he initially liked better, and watches the dying girl slip into a coma and pass away later, which solves his initial problem of being forced to hang around her. In the process, he learns how much he really cared about her and how much he learned about himself in the process.
Another example is “Mad Max: Fury Road.” The hero’s initial problem is trying to get away from the gang that has captured him.
In the process of trying to get away, the hero’s second problem is that he’s caught up with some women trying to flee the gang that had captured him. The gang’s leader now chases after the woman and the hero is now in danger of getting caught again unless he can help these woman escape.
The hero’s third problem occurs when he decides to head back to the gang’s stronghold because of their water. Now instead of just escaping the gang, he has to defeat them.
Can you see how the hero’s initial problem multiplies into more problems as the story goes on? Yet the hero’s original problem remains unresolved until the very end.
Multiple, major problems are one way to keep your story from getting too dull, too one-dimensional, and too narrow. Give your hero an initial problem and then keep multiplying those problems until they get bigger and bigger. Now your overall story will be more fascinating to watch because we suddenly want to know how all of the multiple storylines will eventually end.
The first problem the hero has is something the hero desires. The second problem is that the hero interferes with the villain’s goal somehow, which creates problems for the hero. The third problem is that the villain now threatens the hero directly and someone the hero loves so now the hero has no choice but to confront and defeat the villain.
By creating three major problems for the hero, your story no longer feels one-dimensional with the hero pursuing an initial goal, but gradually escalates into increasingly tougher problems that keeps your story moving.