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The Problem with Stories

Why can’t Harry Potter just go to Hogwarts when he receives his acceptance letter?

Why can’t Dorothy get back home to Kansas?

Why don’t the townsfolk believe the little boy who cried wolf?  

Even after two degrees in English literature, it wasn’t until my oldest son started 1st grade that I really understood stories. One morning when I visited his classroom, his teacher very simply laid out for her students the following little gem: 
 
Every story has a problem. 
 
Now this statement might seem obvious to you but when you begin to examine the story’s problem, or more specifically the main character's problem, that’s when the story gets interesting. 
 
In a good book or movie, everything from character growth to plot development to theme revolves around the problem. 
 
For instance, Harry can’t go to Hogwarts because his aunt and uncle forbid him. What does he do in response? That’s called plot. Why do they forbid him? That gets into theme. Why does Harry go anyway? That kicks off his character development. 
 
Understanding the problem in a story means you’re equipped to experience the texture…
 
The layers…
 
The beauty of story. 
 
And that’s one of the simple ways you can begin to get more out of books you read, movies you watch, or even anecdotes you want to tell. 
 
Not everyone can tell a story like J.K. Rowling but it’s worth perking your ears to whenever someone says the following phrase in conversation: the problem is. Because no matter how much we explain or ramble, our minds are wired for distilling situations into problems. Want to learn more about how literary terms can help you get more out of what you read? Check out my article that very subject. 
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