The Journal: Character with a Problem

In today’s Journal

* Topic: Character with a Problem
* Additional References
* The Numbers

Topic: Character with a Problem

Yesterday, I received a complimentary email from a writer. In it, he initiated two topics, one intentional and one peripheral. The more important is the peripheral one, so I’ll talk about that today.

Many times, I’ve said all you need to start a story is a character with a problem in a setting.

In his email, the writer wrote, “I have no trouble with the setting part. That’s what comes to me first. (Like the painting that has given you what, four stories now?) And the problem comes from who the character is and what he or she wants.”

Let me repeat that last line: “[T]he problem comes from who the character is and what he or she wants.”

Game show host: “Nope. [Insert buzzer sound.] But thanks for playing!” (grin)

Seriously, thank you to my friend for pointing out this misunderstanding. Because it is a misunderstanding.

This is important: That whole “discover what the character wants” is conscious-mind myth stuff we’ve all been taught over the years. That’s the sort of thing that will hold you back from writing into the dark (assuming you’re interested in the first place in trying to WITD).

First, let me give credit where credit is due. The notion that “All you need to start a story is a character with a problem in a setting” is not original to me. I first heard it from Dean Wesley Smith. But I tested it and made it my own and it works. It’s true.

All you need to start a story is a character with a problem in a setting.

But as I’ve also said, the problem does not have to be “the” problem of the story. That’s where the “trust yourself and your characters” comes in as you write into the dark.

The initial problem might be nothing more significant than the character glancing down and noticing one of his shoes or boots is untied. Or a door he rightly expected to be unlocked is locked. Or a door he expected to be locked is unlocked. Or he’s on his way into Walmart and realizes, halfway to the store from his car, which he parked at the far end of the lot, that he forgot his stupid &#%$@#% mask. Or he just woke up in a bad mood. Or on his way to the coffee pot, he barked the shin of his right leg on a lower cabinet drawer that someone else left open. Or whatever. That’s six story ideas right there.

The point is, “a character with a problem in a setting” is only a self-prompt. It’s meant to get you to the keyboard and get you started writing. Here’s the beginning of the fiction-writing process:

1. Describe the setting to ground the reader. This always comes first. (You can see this at work in any of my stories or novels and in any of Stephen King’s stories or novels and in most, but not all, bestselling writers’ stories or novels even if you think they begin in the middle of the action).

1. Introduce the character by name. (The “1” is not a typo. You might introduce the character by name, quickly, in one sentence, before diving into the setting description. But either way, all setting description comes through the POV character’s five senses.)

2. Mention the problem. Again, this problem most often is not “the” problem of the story. It’s only something to get you started writing. Which you’ve already done if you wrote “1” and “1” above, in either order.

3. Keep writing. Write whatever comes next. Yes, it’s that easy. Trust yourself and your characters. Just write the next sentence, and the next, and the next until the character or characters lead you through to the end of the story.

So why is this important?
Because if you learn to trust this technique, you literally will never lack story ideas again. Ever.

In the paragraph I wrote above that begins with “The initial problem,” each time I listed a problem (there are six problems listed), a story took off in my mind. That’s how well this technique works.

I could literally write the opening to a story (and maybe even a novel, depending on where the opening leads) by simply typing a character name, describing the immediate setting, and then mentioning any of the problems listed in that paragraph.

I was actually tempted to write a story opening for each of the problems I described above, right here, right now, in this post. I literally wrote and then deleted “To prove it, here are the story starts that came to me as I wrote that paragraph:”

I deleted that sentence because each opening would be 300 to 1000 words. So for one thing, this post would be ridiculously unwieldy if I wrote the openings. For another, writing them would also take a significant part of my writing day, and I’m writing a novel that I’m anxious to get back to as soon as I post this. As you’ll see from yesterday’s numbers—I had a really good day yesterday—that story is really popping right now.

But so could you write the opening to a story (and maybe even a novel, depending on where the opening leads) by simply typing a character name, describing the immediate setting, and then mentioning any of the problems listed in that paragraph.

It really is that easy, folks. I urge you to try it for yourself. And if you think for some weird reason that I’m trying to con you, please just pause and ask yourself what I’ll get out of you writing a story.

The answer is Nothing. I will gain nothing if you write a story, and I will lose nothing if you don’t. I have zero stake in your success. I would just like to see you succeed.

The next time I post the Journal, I’ll address another part of my friend’s email, to our mutual benefit.

Additional References

You can find additional references to this topic at and and and and and in many other places.

I found those by going to the Journal website and keying “shoelace” into the search box in the sidebar. If you type in “story start” or “opening” you’ll find a lot more.

Talk with you again soon.

Of Interest

See “Just Publishing Advice” at I haven’t checked this out thoroughly.

See “Does Your Cover Work In Book Thumbnail Size?” at

See “A Riderless Horse and Bagpipes…” at

See “26 International Literary Journals” at

See “Ideas On My Lists…” at

The Numbers

The Journal…………………………………… 1090 words

Writing of The Journey Home: Part 6 (novel)

Day 1…… 1628 words. Total words to date…… 1628
Day 2…… 2011 words. Total words to date…… 3639
Day 3…… 4722 words. Total words to date…… 8361
Day 4…… 3766 words. Total words to date…… 12127
Day 5…… 5161 words. Total words to date…… 17288

Total fiction words for January……… 80391
Total fiction words for the year………… 80391
Total nonfiction words for January… 22490
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 22490
Total words for the year (fiction and this blog)…… 102881

Calendar Year 2021 Novels to Date…………………… 1
Calendar Year 2021 Novellas to Date……………… X
Calendar Year 2021 Short Stories to Date… 1
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………………………………… 55
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)………………………………… 8
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)………………… 215
Short story collections……………………………………………… 31

2 thoughts on “The Journal: Character with a Problem”

  1. Hi Harvey! I didn’t get a chance to comment on your post a few days ago when you talked about writing a new nonfiction book. I know I’m gonna love it already! I read anything I can get my mitts on about writing with your five senses, etc., I’ve taken Dean’s Depth class and I really had to stretch myself ~ but by doing so I’ve started to enjoy writing more. It’s kinda fun to get down there in the weeds with my character and go full-tilt boogie along for the ride. I’m really looking forward to your new book. Thank you!

    • Thanks, Maggie. I look forward to getting time to write it. If only these pesky novels would leave me alone, eh? Still, it’s a nice problem to have. “Getting down in the weeds.” I like that. I used to tell writers in my classes, they could either ascend into the ivory author tower and control their characters from on high, or they could shed the stupid robes, roll off the parapet, and run through the trenches with their characters, trying to keep up. Like you, I much prefer the latter. (grin)

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