When I write fiction, I’m always conscious that I need to elevate the stakes throughout the story. By the middle of the book, I always feel like I’m pushing it. “This is a story about a 12-year-old! What more can I do!”
Then I read a post by Janice Hardy about small problems. The sense of this immediately hit me. What’s more stressful and annoying that the tiniest dripping faucet? Of course, Hardy made it clear that I could have to do better than that for small things to add to my story tension.
She encourages writers to include the little things that add up. You know – those things that derail your plans each and every day. As I read her post, I realized that this is one of the big reasons that cozy mysteries work because the main character isn’t just solving the mystery. She’s doing it while dealing with family issues (must back brownies for bake sale, put laundry in dryer, pick up the dogs medicine, etc.). Work could be another source of problems.
If your character is a child or teen, they may not have job related issues but they will likely have school related problems. And family problems will most likely include dealing with unrealistic expectations from adults and sibling issues. Face it, young people always have someone telling them what to do. And sometimes these people are their friends!
There are also societal/setting issues. Depending on where the story takes place, the environment can add to a character’s problems. Spring storms, summer heat, fall wind or winter ice can all present problems for your character.
One of the awesome things about Hardy’s post is that she reminds us that these small problems can’t be random. Yes, they may be random in real life but random problems in a story make it feel messy and unfocused. Instead, she encourages us to add small problems that play with what is already on the character’s plate.
What makes an existing big problem worse? Rushing to get to work could be exacerbated by a broken dryer and a damp uniform.
What could highlight a character flaw? If your character is a procrastinator that damp uniform could be a huge problem because they are already cutting things super close.
What skill could your character acquire by solving a small problem that will come into play with the major story problem? Well, not to sound like a broken record, but a little bit of planning goes a long way in many situations. But, as my son would point out, so does being able to think on your feet.
Weaving small problems into the larger story not only increases the character’s stress and tension, but it can help create a story with depth and the layers needed to hold the reader’s attention.