When You’re Stuck on a Problem in Your Story…

Two “Simple” Questions to Ask Yourself

by Ann Marie Williams © 2020

Some problems a story faces are easy to fix. But, sometimes I’ll find myself deep into my work in progress, struggling to fix a fairly massive issue (or, at least, it sure feels massive when I can’t find the solution).

I don’t mind tackling problems in my stories. It’s part of the job. But those times when I run up against a problem that I just can’t seem to fix… the ones that keep me going around and around, trying to find a way to make it work, coming up with increasingly complicated solutions that require multiple revisions throughout the story, only to realize the fix doesn’t work and I’ll have to start again… those are the ones that get to me. The ones that make me weary.

And because of this, because it can be so difficult to find a solution that I end up looking for increasingly complex fixes, it’s easy to get away from what the original problem actually was.

So, sometimes I need to sit back and ask myself to (seemingly) simple questions:

What is the actual problem?


Why am I holding on to this?

Let me look at each in turn.

Here’s the thing: when facing a complex problem, it can be easy to start to focus on the fix, instead of the problem.

What do I mean by that?

I mean that, sometimes, I’ll “decided” (somewhat subconsciously) that the fix needs to include XY&Z and then I go about trying to find ways to implement that solution in the story.

And as I go about trying to work XY&Z into the story (and failing), I keep looking for other ways to implement XY&Z — instead of going back to the actual problem.

Taking a pause and asking, “Wait, what is the actual problem here?” can bring me back to center and strip away all the solutions I thought I had to use. This gives me focus and clarity and helps me look at the problem with fresh eyes (and hopefully bring a fresh solution).

It’s easy after multiple revisions of a story to lose track of where you started and where you are now. Sometimes I find myself trying to work in an element of the story for which I can’t quite find the right place. At these points, it’s great to ask, “Wait — why am I holding on to this?” In other words, “Does this element still need to be in the story?”

Sometimes the answer is “I’m holding on to this because it’s necessary to the story because (fill in the blank).” And when that happens, discovering why it’s necessary to the story can help pinpoint what the solution needs to be.

But sometimes the answer is, “You know, this actually isn’t relevant to the story anymore.” Or, “Oh wow, during one of the revisions I actually addressed this in another scene.” Or, “I’m really only holding on to this because it took me a week to write it and I love it (but it really doesn’t have any impact on the story anymore)”. And, when these answers crop up, then more often than not the element can be deleted entirely.

So there they are. Two “simple” questions to ask next time the work in progress seems to stall.

Will these two questions solve all your story issues? Sadly, no. But they can be a helpful way to get clarity and pinpoint the issue at a base level.

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