Do All Narratives Have a Problem?

We know that our favourite stories share a lot of features in common with each other. It is useful as writers to understand the underlying building blocks that make up most narratives.

Yes, almost all narratives have a problem. Most narratives are structured around a central character who encounters a problem that they must overcome. The audience identifies with the protagonist, cheers them on when they succeed, and learns lessons from their journey.

What are the Most Interesting Narrative Devices?

The most interesting and useful narrative devices, including ‘Problems’, are explored below in this article. They include having a sympathetic protagonist, a complex villain, a central objective for your protagonist, and obstacles or problems which stand in your character’s way. Tension should rise, and there should be high stakes.

What Makes a Story Well Written?

There are certain structures and principles that are present in many commercially successful and popular stories. Every story is of course different, and every story teller has a unique way of approaching storytelling, but considering the suggestions below may help you to understand how your favorite stories are structured, and might give you ideas for your own creative writing too! 

What is a Sympathetic Protagonist?

Writers since Aristotle have noted the importance of having a sympathetic, or likable central character. Generally, a character is sympathetic if they are morally good, and if they are pursuing an objective that the audience wants them to achieve.

Sometimes there is a difference between what the character says they want, and what they actually need. The audience will sense powerfully what the protagonist needs, and wish for them to achieve this end i.e. love, or shelter, or family.

A sympathetic character will help the audience to identify with the protagonist’s experiences, and see themselves in the leading role. It will also help the responder to identify your character as a hero, and make the audience cheer your character on in their journey towards their good objective! (save the world, be a good parent etc.)

How do I Write Good Problems or Obstacles in a Narrative? 

As the protagonist journeys towards their final objective (save the earth from doom, clear their name of a crime etc.) things get in their way. The majority of the plot will usually consist of exploring the ways in which the protagonist overcomes these problems or obstacles.

What makes a good problem or obstacle? There’s a great screenwriting maxim that goes ‘every line should reveal character or advance the plot.’ This arguably applies to obstacles in all story telling forms as well!

Good problems should be directly related to the central journey of the protagonist (arise from the central journey and have consequences for the main plot) and they should reveal character too!

In most stories there is an internal and external plot: the external plot is the outward (observable) journey that the character goes on, the internal plot is what occurs within your protagonist (their spiritual growth) which usually consists of the character finding an answer to the question ‘Who am I?’

What Makes a Good Antagonist? 

Antagonists, or antagonistic forces, are the embodiment of the central problem, or obstacle.

If the central journey of your protagonist embodies a theme, for example Luke Skywalker choosing goodness over evil, then the opposite of the theme can be embodied in a central antagonist, which is often a ‘bad’ character, for example the evil emperor in Star Wars.

If Harry Potter is ‘the boy who lived’ and is good, Voldemort is the wizard who (nearly) died: he and his ‘death eaters’ represent death, and all that is evil.

How do I Make Tension Increase in my Narrative?

To sustain an audience’s attention, and make your story thrilling, consider having increasing tension in your story. There are numerous ways to achieve this, including making your problems or obstacles increasingly different to overcome (or increasing in size).

As the Hobbits move closer to Mordor, they get closer to achieving their goal of throwing the ring into the crack of doom, and destroying it. However, the challenges they face increase in size and number – the tension goes up! 

What are Stakes in Narrative?

Another way of increasing tension in your story is to consider what the protagonist stands to lose if they do not achieve their objective, or if they are defeated by the problem. In superhero stories usually the world, or the lives of a large number of people, hang in the balance if the forces of evil are not defeated.

In crime stories the villain will escape, perhaps to break the law again, and justice will not be served. 

How do I write a Great Narrative Climax and Resolution?

Some writers discuss the necessity of an ‘obligatory scene’ at the end of a story. This is the scene that you have promised your reader / viewer. In Lord of the Rings the reader is promised a scene in which the fate of the ring is finally decided i.e. whether it is destroyed or falls into the clutches of the villain. 

Some authors say that an audience should always be looking forward to something, or dreading something. A way to deliver this final scene is to ‘give the audience what they want, but not in the way they expect.’ 

The central problem, or antagonist (antagonistic force), is usually defeated in the final confrontation (which is the final and biggest problem) which is also called the climax. This is the big showdown at the end – the shootout. After the final climax occurs there is the denouement, or the wrapping up: the hugs and the lessons.

What Are your Favourite Narrative Techniques?

Every writer will find their own favourite narrative techniques (like the central problem) if they continue to write narratives and experiment with the wide variety of techniques that are available. Consider utilising the narrative elements explored in the article above to find what works best for you!

Good Luck! Check out more creative writing tips here.