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The benefit of plot problems

June 8, 2012

Last week, I read an article from the Harvard Business Review that suggests thinking outside the box has become so standardized that it’s now really thinking inside the box. In other words, when thinking outside the box becomes so labored and convoluted, it becomes stilted and every bit as useless of traditional inside the box thinking.

Sure, you say, I can see that, but what does that have to do with writing?

At some point, everyone writing fiction is going to trip over a plot problem–something that you work and work and work at that kicks your butt anyway.

First the good news: if you can find away through the plot problem you don’t think you can solve, you will wow your readers by solving a plot problem they don’t think you can solve.

The question is, how do you do that? After all, if it were that simple, everyone would be able to do it. And while there’s no paint-by-the-numbers approach to this Herculean task, the Harvard Business Journal article might give you a new way of thinking–real outside the box thinking–that could help you through the problem.

The article discusses the AIDS ride charity event that started in California. At the time, charities were raising to the bottom in terms of the effort required for people to give–adding giveaways and sweepstakes. The author went the other way. To participate in the AIDS ride, you have to raise $2,000 and ride 600 miles. In return you get…nothing. It’s a model Susan G. Komen has honed to perfection. Instead of making it easier, he made it harder–and bragged about it. When you accomplish the AIDS ride or the Breast Cancer Three Day, you’ve conquered a personal challenge and raised a ton of money. In both cases, the outside-the-box approach has been wildly successful.

In the same way, you can fill a plot issue by turning the circumstance on its head, by going in exactly the oppose way your mind is pushing you. In short, your efforts at resolving the problem are probably all aimed along the more or less obvious answer to the question. But what if you stood the question on its head? Re-examined your assumptions and changed a few of them? What if the helpful, supporting guy lingering in the background really isn’t good? What if the loving mother isn’t really loving? What if the pain-in-the-neck semi-antagonist is really a morally upright person who dislikes your hero, but would never break the rules?

A simple flip of something obvious could resolve your problems and make your story stronger.

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