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List: Everything That Can Go Wrong (a Mix-n-Match Adventure)

Posted by on Jun 17, 2013 in Blog Posts, Uncategorized, Writing | 0 comments

Storytelling is problem solving–to have a plot, you need a problem for your characters to confront. Then the plot needs a reason behind it, and you have to make clear what’s at stake if the problem isn’t solved, while having some idea how your characters are going to solve it.

Over the weekend I started brainstorming problems-stakes-causes-and-solutions with a particular series in mind (another one!? Yes, another one). But as I went on I realized this list might serve as a more general resource. It does betray my particular interests as a speculative fiction fan and also my studies in international politics, economics, and development–but then, I think those need to be featured in more fiction anyway! This list is not exhaustive and I’d love to see others adding to it, as well as sharing it around with your own ideas.

These problems are all stated rather generally, and can be used in combination with each other (you’ll probably see ways solutions will lead right back to problems). Some should clearly be used with sensitivity, and some have been done a lot, but there’s always room for fresh and thoughtful iterations.

Threats (to your character–the stakes):
Other violence, assault
Loss of free will
Loss of identity
Loss of purpose or direction
Separation from loved person, place, or object
Exile, being very very lost and never able to return home
Failure at a crucial project
Abandoned dreams
Unmet potential
Loss or damage of a precious possession
Losing to a rival
Making the wrong decision–loss of opportunity, trust, confidence
Disappointing a loved one, losing regard or approval

Problems (society-wide, usually affecting many people but perhaps including your character):
I’ve tried to divide these into broad sections, but there remains a great deal of overlap
Political, Social, or Cultural
Oppression (legal, political, de facto) and cultural, linguistic, or legal barriers because of sex, race, religion, loyalties
–resistance to the above
–civil war
–uprising or rebellion
–coup, power seizure
–police violence, abuse
Collateral damage of violence, disaster
Violence threatened (unrest, breaking up of diplomatic relations)
Government corruption or incompetence
Taxation (excessive, unequal or unjust)
Betrayal (large-scale treason or interpersonal)
Colonialism, Imperialism
Unjust laws, obstruction of justice
Broken-down systems, infrastructure
Loss of cultural value–burned books, censorship, destroyed art
Education and childcare–orphans, abuse, homelessness
Migration, exile
Immigration, stigma, culture shock

Financial collapse
–Including of an individual business
— because of boycott, blockade, mismanagement, sabotage
Corrupt corporations
Talented figure languishes in unjust obscurity
Shortages, scarcity of vital resource

Unfortunate natural phenomenon/disaster (meteor strike, heath death of the universe)
Experiment gone awry (Frankenstein)
Discovery, revelation of things which should not exist (mystery or danger)
Experiment, invesitagion, or expedition is potentially worthwhile, but extremely dangerous

Threats to environments–deforestation, desertification
–especially threat to beloved or sacred environment (ex. the Shire)
Water–droughts, floods, pollution
Pollution in general, trash or dangerous wastes (ex radioactive fallout)
Species extinction
Creature threats (everything from invasive species to monsters)
Loss of a staple crop, animal
Loss of fertility of the land
An inhospitable environment–from Mordor to the Haunted Woods

Individual illness
Famine or starvation (interrelates closely to economic, environmental problems)
Disability, maiming
Fertility or infertility
Mental health issues: from depression to amnesia to trauma

Threatening supernatural entities
–Malicious (Demonic or vengeful entities)
–Indifferent but threatening to humankind by their very nature (Lovecraftian entities, TV Tropes’ ‘starfish aliens’)

Reasons/causes of the threats and problems:
Deliberate lies
Mismanagement through incompetence
Unsustainable system or situation continues too long
Lack of planning
Ignorance of crucial information
Malice, mismanagement through malice or sabotage
Perverse incentives
Opposing incentives between equally worthy parties
-Between two people, tragically star-crossed
-Between two factions: power struggle
Distrust between two sides that should work together
Jealousy or rivalry
Soulless bureaucracy
Unintended consequences/externalities
Cosmic Evil–or Cosmic Good
Chance, luck, or fate
Security issues/fear
Sadism (of the non-sexy kind)
The death drive/will to nothingness

Divine intervention
Communication and collaboration
–Calling upon allies
Finding a satisfactory deal
Character makes a sacrifice or trade-off
Technology (a new invention or new application of existing solution)
–Science saves the day
–Return to the Old Ways saves the day
Market-based solutions (why do these never appear in fiction?)
Banding together to institute a new world order (to balance market-based solutions, I offer a socialist revolution)
Public relations, Inspiring Speeches
Education or revelation
Compassion, hearts softening, the power of love and/or forgiveness
Crisis reveals corruption or sparks revolution
Characters ‘dodge a bullet’, escaping through sheer dumb luck (can be quite effective in horror stories, comedies or as lead-up to a final confrontation where luck won’t be on their side)
Shouldering responsibility
Averting a mistake just before it’s committed
Violence, or the threat of violence (against people or objects)
–by protagonist
—utilizing a special weapon or clever technique
—sabotage a diabolical plan before it goes through
–or by a greater threat (pursuing shark is swallowed by an even bigger fish)
Nonviolent resistance, defiance
A trickster solves the problem through manipulation, deceit
Use of disguises, hiding to avert or escape consequences
Feat of Strength
Money or wealth–access to adequate resources solves the problem
“Robin Hood” (vigilante justice)
Leadership–the rightful king, or free and fair elections
Heroic gesture inspires love, confidence, proves character’s worthiness
Specific character’s choice or judgement is upheld (the cute dog has to decide who he belongs to, the Gods are appealed to, the judge hands down her ruling at the end of an episode of Law & Order)
Evidence is uncovered to prove a character’s argument or point
Evacuation or rescue–escaping danger by running, finding a place of refuge
Deliver a cure or solution that already exists elsewhere (Balto, in the movie of the same name, bringing medicine through icebound wilderness)
Deliver a warning
Though doomed, accept or transcend one’s fate (the famous sci-fi story Cold Equations, and pretty much any Victor Hugo protagonist). This may or may not have any effect on the broader world.

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