Les Edgerton recently explained the difference between what “action” and “problem” mean in lay language and in literature, to show how the confusion about terminology creates problems in writing education.
In short (his blog has a much more in-depth analysis), Les defines “action” as “anything a character is doing” — not just murders and car chases, but also dialog, reading a newspaper, or catching glimpses of a family photo in the brief flashes of light from a thunderstorm.
Les also breaks down the problems faced by characters into “surface problems” and “story-worthy problems.” A story-worthy problem is the personal, psychological issue the main character is facing, while the surface problem is the outward manifestation or symptom of the story-worthy problem.
The way I like to think of it is that the surface problem is what the story is about, while the story-worthy problem is what the story is really about. If I were teaching a class on the Les Edgerton Method, I would probably reference Moby-Dick, but Les illustrates it this way:
In David Madden’s novel, The Suicide’s Wife, the protagonist’s problem is that her husband has (supposedly) committed suicide and left her unprepared to face life’s everyday demands. Her surface goal to resolve this is to obtain her driver’s license. Her real story-worthy problem is to find out if she has the internal wherewithal to exist independently. The struggle she undergoes to resolve her story problem leads her to understand what that problem is symptomatic of and therefore gives her the capability to resolve the deeper problem.
As any writer would, when I read this piece I immediately started thinking of my own stories, many of which have already been picked apart according to the method Les lays out in Hooked.
For example, in my short story “The Dun Cat of Mill Bridge,” despite the fact that the narrator is a Security Corps officer with a deep fascination with fire-arms, the opening action is simply a conversation through a doorway between the narrator and a trouble-making local girl, Diana Ashcraft.
No gunplay, no wicked criminals, just talking. The story later becomes quite violent, but it doesn’t make sense to open with that sort of action. Why? Because it doesn’t fit the problems.
The narrator’s surface problem in “Dun Cat” is that Diana keeps dragging him into investigations that do not fit his official job description. The story-worthy problem is whether he can trust her, which he engages by allowing her to drag him into an investigation that is clearly outside of his job description and jurisdiction.
How does it turn out? Are the story-worthy problem and the surface problem resolved together at the end of the story?
Well, I had read Edgerton’s book before writing “Dun Cat,” so I understood the importance of bringing these two problems together. However, I was also constrained by the knowledge that “Dun Cat” was intended to be only a part of a collection of short stories with a continuous story arc. I needed to close in on the problem, but not close it out.
How did I do? Not for me to say, but Les’s definitions helped.