Editing Challenge Day 5: Establishing the Problem

editingchallengeThis is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

When I look at published short stories in my favorite literary magazines, I can’t help noticing something that student work, even very good student work, is often lacking. Let’s look at a few examples of first sentences of stories I love:

“My father is eighty-six years old and in bed. His heart, that bloody motor, is equally old and will not do certain jobs anymore.” – Grace Paley, A Conversation with My Father

“Last year, the people in charge of the picnic blew us up.” – Seth Fried, Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre

“I don’t know what to do about my husband’s new wife.” – Molly Giles, Pie Dance

“My wife came home crying from the Dumpsters, said there was some pervert over there jerked down his pants and showed her his schlong.” – Larry Brown, Waiting for the Ladies

What do you notice? These sentences are all winning in their own ways; they’re different in style and perspective and voice. But what they all have in common is that they are inherently problem statements. In the very first or second sentences of these stories, writers are identifying central problems in their tales. They are establishing the problem that characters will be worrying over like bad teeth for the rest of the story. In Grace Paley’s story, we see an aging father with a bad heart; in Seth Fried, we have a mysterious but vivid problem of violence; in Molly Giles, we see an odd little turn of phrase that makes us curious about the marital conflict; and in Larry Brown, we see an inherently conflict-ridden situation, with a flasher threatening the character’s wife.

It seems so simple and easy to do now that I’m pointing it out, right? But if we look back at our own first drafts, I bet we’ll be missing that immediate sense of problem. We might have a vivid opening line, but does it leap right into the problem that is going to be worked on for the rest of the story?

Today’s editing challenge is about more than just tweaking that first line. It’s about the big picture of framing your story in the context of problems. What is the fundamental problem your character is wrestling with? Is it quickly evident, and does it drive the momentum of the story? Does that problem drop away for a few pages? In your editing journal, make a note of every page that doesn’t make explicit mention of the problem that first set the story in motion. You might notice that your story’s true problem doesn’t really emerge until page three or four. There are stories that can make this work, but in that case we need another problem to hold our attention, a kind of bait and switch that occurs. This is somewhat true in the Larry Brown example above; we think the story is a more-or-less straightforward problem about the flasher, but after a few pages we realize it is about the narrator’s own insecurities and struggles with his masculinity. Think about ways to introduce that problem back into a conversation or scene. Keep the flame on under the pot so that the water is constantly burbling.

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