Back to Basics: Problems and Soultions

This week I was thinking about the joys of writing as a gardener.

Which is nice, because last week I was grinding my teeth over this natural tendency I have to leave my manuscripts open to what may come. Sometimes, this tendency bullies the front end of your plot into very necessary revisions. At other times, it smashes that fantastic ending you had in mind because events no longer line up with one another.

But this week? This week being a gardener has been fun.

A whole ton of people are tackling the yearly challenge of #NaNoWriMo. A worthy challenge in my eyes, if not simply for the fact that it urges writers out of maybe and into yes. That’s meaningful. I’ve been the struggling author (most days I still am the struggling author). I know the ease with which we can begin a story, get 10,000 words deep, and find ourselves drowning. Where did the plot go? What happened to my characters? Why aren’t the words coming any more?

I love that a hashtag, a month, a movement, can be what pushes aspiring authors past those first, painful stumbling blocks and into the meat of what might one day be an excellent story. So let’s take a look at one way to continue productivity in the actual writing process, because the month centers on production. Word counts. Page after page. Scene after scene. Let’s take a look at the simple idea of problems and solutions using my current work in progress as an example.

Basic Scene Setting

My scene features two riders who have fallen behind in a race. Falling behind has necessitated that they take a more direct, dangerous route through a cave. The character has mentioned this possibility, and her fear of it, many times. Knowing I wanted to take her through those caves anyways, I started examining some problem and solution relationships before starting in on the scene.

Problem # 1

If you ride through a dark cave, you can’t see.

Solution: My world building solves this. She’s riding a specific type of horse that can be genetically altered through a special type of alchemy. A certain mixture allows the horse’s coat to glow. There’s our first problem solved (and in a way that lets me show off some of the fantasy in the world I’ve set the race within).

Problem #2

Most caves do not have ideal footing for riding a horse.

Solution: This was a far bigger issue. How on earth do I explain or create a cave system that would not only allow passage on a horse, but quick passage on said horse? The answer: sun golems! I concocted a mating habit for a rather large, dangerous creature. Boiled down to essentials, when the female sun golem calls to the male sun golem, he goes to her. No matter what stands in his way and no matter how far, he goes to her. So let’s say this mountain or plateau was in the way. Well, no worries. The sun golem devours and burns his way through the mountain and his mate-to-be does the same. They meet in the middle and burrow down for breeding. By doing this, they create a… you guessed it… cave. A fun explanation for why the cave path would be so smooth and processed, because something has literally bored its way through like a high-tech drill might.

Problem #3

How do I raise the stakes with the basic elements I have to make it more of a conflict?

It already sounds interesting enough, right? Two riders entering a dark, mating cave in order to gain ground on the other competitors in their race. Add in the potential of angry, breeding monsters and now we’re cooking. But I still wanted more. I wanted a situation that would challenge my two characters and reveal something about each of them. They have the same goal (win the race) but they have very different personalities (one is sacrificial, one is selfish). So how do I put that on display? Let’s look at the facts.

A. They’ve fallen behind in the race. – This means someone else could have come in the cave before them. Someone else could have risked the route, but maybe that person didn’t know what kind of cave they were going through. They just saw a shortcut and decided to take it. Big mistake.

B. In a race, you want to win, not help others. – So when my two characters stumble upon someone whose life is in danger (and whom they don’t even really like), what will they do? Lose time and help? Keep going forward?

Here’s a bit of the scene that resulted from these questions:

(Note: My character’s names are obviously not Q and P. Just doing that because it’s a WIP)

A glance into the abyss surprised Q. It was not the endless fall she’d imagined. A foul broth sluiced up from below. The slop boiled with heat, squelching against the sides of the newly-made tunnel, smearing the air and everything in it. Even Q’s skin began to feel soiled. She tried to hold her breath as P led them toward the second tunnel.


The word choked into the air. P’s head swung back to Q, but both knew the sound had risen from below, from the black morass.

“Can golems talk?” Q hissed. P shook her head, eyes wide.

“Is someone up there?”

Definitely from below. Q knelt. The movement and shadow of the liquid surface made locating the source of the noise difficult. Q searched for nearly a minute before she saw it. Just a mouth and a nose and a pair of eyes.

“Please,” the mouth said. “Please don’t leave me.”

P’s eyes widened. “Geoff? Is that you?”

The voice tried to answer, but all they heard was a rattling gurgle. Q watched the mouth spit and gasp, barely held above the surface. “Please. Please help me.”

“What happened to you?” P asked.

“Didn’t see the pit. Horse is dead. Ghost, too. My arms… numb.”

Q glanced over. “You have rope in your bag.”

“Of course I have rope,” P whispered back. “But we don’t have time.”

They stared at one another in the half-dark. Q felt nothing. No intuition into the girl’s thoughts, no bright connection as there had been. In a single moment, they became unknowable to one another.

“Don’t look at me like that,” P said quietly. “If we don’t get out of the cave by the next sunrise, we lose.”

“If we don’t help him, he dies.”

P shook her head. “I’ve made my choice.”

“And I’ve made mine,” Q said. “Leave me the rope. Go on. Win your race.”

P hissed in frustration, but Q could tell by the set of her shoulders that she wouldn’t change her mind. The girl dug through a side saddle and shoved the rope at Q.

“Have it your way.”

Without another word, P turned. Trust snorted uncomfortably before easing back into motion. Their forms slid along the wall, soft glow marking their progress. Q gritted her teeth and followed, stopping when she was positioned just above the boy’s floating head. She could hear his shallow breathing above the boiling pops.

So, there’s the scene. I ended up liking it a lot, but I arrived here by analyzing the problems honestly:

Why would my character go here?

What problems does going there create?

How could that be solved?

Should I use the world to offer a solution?

Or the characters themselves?

The meat of my writing comes from looking at those relationships and coming up with solutions for them.

Hope this helps as you fight and claw toward 50k for the month! Best of luck to everyone doing #NaNoWriMo.

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