Establish story’s central problem in opening lines

Almost all stories force the main character to solve several problems. The issues of where to hide, of finding a way to send a message for help, of obtaining a weapon to defend oneself, all might appear within a single chapter of a novel or even a lone scene of a short story.

One core problem, though, sets into motion the need to address these other issues. For example, escaping a murderer might require the main character to hide, to seek help, and to defend herself. This core problem also is known as the central problem.

The central problem is the broad or central conflict that the main character must resolve before the story is over. In the above storyline, readers will be interested in the tale because they want to see if the main character escapes the would-be murderer. They won’t be satisfied with the story unless it ends with a solution to the problem. Typically, this means the main character must be victorious in the conflict.

The bulk of a plot focuses on the main character addressing a central problem. The story’s opening lines then must introduce this catalyst, as it is what gets the story going. Consider these opening lines from three different stories:

Story #1
Captain Steve Haley gazed warily at the shard in his helmsman’s palm. Not much larger than a peppershaker, the thing tapered from a wide jagged edge to a dull point, reflected the ship’s lights with the sharp gleam of obsidian. “It’s safe to hold?”

Story #2
Even before the sun rose, Evod and Nevar prepared themselves for the race. Silently, they inventoried supplies, examined their craft’s hull and unpacked Nevar’s ceremonial suit. Evod inspected each item with a drill instructor’s eye, discovering problems that really weren’t. As Nevar quietly assisted, her brother tapped here and there, scrutinized with the spectroscope, and fidgeted over adjustments. Then came the time for Nevar to don her suit. First the compuvisor went on, followed by the inertia damper ensemble with gloves and boots, each task done after a short chant as prescribed by tradition. Despite her magnificence in the resplendent suit, Nevar still felt like the adolescent girl the really was, not a daughter of the great pilot T’sohg.

Story #3
Jalen skidded chin first into the ground and wincing, spit dirt from his mouth, then gazed up. Even at that moment with the machines upon him, he found the night sky beautiful and mysterious. The heavens grew inkier the higher one looked, as if space suddenly were denser there, and a streak of brilliant white light, the Saoirse Comet moving west, shined amid the stars. The fuzzy edges of the silhouetted corn leaves wavered above him, breaking his view of the firmament, and he resisted a tear. Everything stood between him and the stars.

Though never overtly stated, each of the stories has a definite central problem that demands resolution: What is the object in the helmsman’s hand?…Will Nevar win the race?…Will Jalen reach the stars?

Resolving the central problem becomes the plot goal, and the rest of the narrative arc then might unfold this way:
• Rising action scene A – The antagonist comes closer to achieving his goal as a direct result of the main character’s failure to resolve the broad conflict.
• Rising action scene B – The situation worsens for the main character, whose attempt to resolve the central problem only leaves the antagonist even more implacable.
• Rising action scene A – The main character’s attempt to resolve the central problem at best only slows the antagonist, who now appears to be undefeatable.
• Climax – The main character finds a way to defeat the antagonist, hence resolving the central problem.

Arguably, the central problem isn’t what a story ever is really about. It’s just a device to get the story going. After all, in many character-based stories, the story actually centers on an internal conflict within the main character that unless resolved will mean she can’t resolve the central problem. For example, if the main character is opposed to using violence as an ends to a means, her only alternative is to run from the murderer. That only buys her time. To resolve the central problem, her beliefs must change so she realizes that sometimes violence is necessary. Ultimately, she must decide to use a weapon to defend herself. For the reader, the most interesting aspect of this story is how the main character “evolves” or changes. Indeed, that’s true for the writer as well, as the message or theme of the story is that sometimes violence must be used to achieve peace.

Out-of-Whack Event
Usually the central problem in the opening lines involves some incident that upsets the status quo. In doing so, the main character faces the challenge of restoring order in the world.

This incident is known as an out-of-whack event, which is “when the story concerns a character whose stable life is knocked out of whack by an external event,” as the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc., defines it.

Consider this example of a story opener that employs an out-of-whack event:

Peter Hanswurst sniffed indignantly. A gray circle of withered plants lay in the middle of his field, an otherwise perfect patch of green soybeans alternating with black dirt that ran into the horizon. The hot Midwestern sun beat down on him, and he wiped sweat from his forehead. Hanswurst figured the circle was no more than six feet across, a miniscule fraction of the entire field, and one he decided that was small enough to eradicate.

In this story, farmer Peter Hanswurst finds his world out-of-whack: a strange circle of dead plants sits in the middle of his otherwise perfect field. He now will spend the story trying to rid the field of the circle – and face a number of obstacles in doing so.

Starting a story with an out-of-whack event is a time-honored tradition in Western storytelling. Indeed, Aristotle touted it.

Usually the out-of-whack event happens at the story’s beginning. Sometimes it even occurs before the story begins, as the tale starts with the main character already engaged in the struggle to get his life back in order. If the excerpt above started with Peter Hanswurst plowing under the dead plants in the gray circle, the out-of-whack event would have occurred before the story began.

If using an out-of-whack event, don’t wait too long to introduce the incident. If you do, you risk having the story move too slowly and missing out on a great opportunity for a narrative hook.