Story Problem (Worksheet Wednesday)

Story Problem Worksheet

A story problem is a simple way to envision your character’s plot arc. Choose your main problem, break it down into smaller challenges, and allow the main solution to appear as the character tries to deal with these tasks.


Determining the main story problem can also help you solve a real-life conundrum, craft a customer journey, or study an existing text.

Breaking Down the Story Problem

You can begin with the main problem and break it down into its components, or begin with the main solution and break it down into its components. Or you can work in practically any order you find helpful!

  1. Decide on the main problem. This is the root of the difficulty your character is facing.
  2. Break the main problem down into symptoms, or smaller tasks or challenges. These are the manifestations of the main problem. The character will usually try to tackle these until they are able to see past them to the root cause of these symptoms. If you’re following The One Page Novel method, this will be the Shift.
  3. List the feelings evoked by each of these symptoms. These feelings will help you draw the reader in to an understanding of how the character is trapped by their individual symptoms.
  4. Consider the measures taken by the character or by other characters to deal with the symptoms. These reactions will often entail try/fail cycles (part of the Quest).
  5. Determine the main solution to the main problem. This is the key, final piece that the character needs to overcome their main story problem. Usually it will involve unlocking an inner resource that they hadn’t realised they possessed (the Power).
  6. Optionally, you can use the Advantages & Disadvantages sections to brainstorm ideas to help or hinder the character in dealing with their symptoms.


An Example

Main Problem: Cinderella is powerless.
1. Her step-mother and sisters treat her like a servant.
2. Her only friends are mice.
3. She can’t afford a dress to wear to the ball.
1. Injustice, disappointment, being unloved & unappreciated
2. Comfort, homeliness, dissatisfaction
3. Poverty, lack, disappointment, longing
1. She tries to treat them with kindness, despite their bad behaviour.
2. She tries to be content with their company.
3. She tries to make her own dress.
Main Solution: Demonstrating kindness & inner strength.

Of course, there are many other interpretations to this fairytale. You might say that the main problem is her father’s lack of provision for his daughter, or her step-mother’s inability to care for her, and you could argue that the main solution is something else too; perhaps the intervention of her fairy godmother, or her marriage to the prince.

Thinking through these possibilities can help you pinpoint exactly what the main problem and main solution are, deep down, past all of the surface symptoms.

Stack up several “main” problems to make the character’s life even more difficult, or promote symptoms to main problems for more complexity.

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