In every story, there are three problems the story can solve:
- External problems
- Internal problems
- Philosophical problems
Bad stories simply focus on external problems such as showing the hero mowing down an army of bad guys with a machine gun. There’s little more to care about than gunfire, explosions, and special effects, but the action itself means little. That’s why solving an external problem alone can never tell a complete story.
Internal problems involve inner conflict within the hero, often based on problems from the hero’s past. Watching a hero solve an internal problem makes the story more interesting because instead of just seeing the hero overcome physical obstacles (external problems), we can see the hero also overcoming internal problems that allow the hero to become a better and stronger person.
However, great stories also solve a philosophical problem that gives the story meaning. Because of this additional meaning that explains some aspect of life, the story resonates far more strongly in our minds.
Let’s start with a story that only solves external problems such as “Jaws: The Revenge.” The external problem is simply to kill a great white shark. Once this great white shark is killed, that’s the end of the story and that’s all audiences will remember. Boring.
Now consider a story that solves all three problems such as “The Shawshank Redemption.” The external problem is the hero trying to regain his freedom. The internal problem is that the hero must constantly hold on to hope while struggling with despair being locked in a prison with no way out. What makes the hero’s plight even worse is that he’s innocent.
Finally, “The Shawshank Redemption” provides us a clue for how to live life by telling us never to give up hope. When we see the hero embrace his friend on the beach at the end of the story, we finally understand the importance of never giving up hope.
Another movie that embraces all three problems is “Rocky.” The external problem is that Rocky gets a chance to fight the heavyweight champion of the world. The internal problem is that Rocky wants to prove to the world that he’s not a bum, but he’s also afraid that he might be. The philosophical problem that the story tells us is to never give up on our dreams.
Eliminate the internal and philosophical problems and your story is weak. Add in an internal problem and your story is stronger. Add in a philosophical message and your story will be memorable.
This idea of defining a story using external, internal, and philosophical problems came from Donald Miller’s book “Building a Story Brand,” which uses storytelling techniques to market a business. Although the book focuses on marketing, it’s actually an excellent book about storytelling techniques in general.
So define the three types of problems your story will present: an external problem, an internal problem, and a philosophical problem. By defining what these will be in your story, you can create a fully fleshed out story that will resonate with audiences and make your story stand out.