Writing Pitfall: Cool Solution Looking for a Problem

There are many ways that a writer can screw up their story. One that I am susceptible to is the “I have a cool concept, now I need a story to fit it.” or worse, “I have a cool solution. I need a problem to fit it.”

Why a ship? It’ll make sense eventually

The “cool concept” one is, I feel, far less risky and can be pulled off well. Here we’re talking about high concept stories like the classic Arthur C Clark stories Rendezvous with Rama and Childhood’s End. In “Rama”, an extraterrestrial foreign body is tumbling through our solar system; let’s go investigate. In “End”, aliens have arrived to shepherd humanity to our next level of evolution. Both are easy to quantify and catchy pitches.

Even then, “Rama” didn’t offer a lot of satisfying conclusions, instead opting for a soft cliffhanger ending (literally, “wait, there’s more!”). I know many people were disappointed with Childhood’s End, but I’m not among them, and in some ways the disappointment seems generational.

But the “Cool Solution looking for a Problem” pitfall is one I’ve seen a few writers fall into, and it is a deadly trap. Here’s the problem with this approach. Your solution has to be either the only viable solution or the simplest. Otherwise when your readers come up with a better solution than your protagonists do, they will hurl your book against the wall.

I … speak from experience.

I’ll be vague here…

I read a book about a decade ago. It made me scream in frustration. I threw it against a wall, and later burned it in a fire pit. I’m serious.

Let’s take a non-book example, then get back to this book.

Someone has a cool idea for a movie and needs to brainstorm it:

Let’s put rough and rowdy oil field workers in space and have fun.

OK, how do we do that?

Maybe an asteroid is coming and NASA needs to blow it up? They need these guys to drill a hole for the bomb?

Couldn’t we just train astronauts?

No, no, no “it’s easier to train drillers to be astronauts than to train astronauts to be drillers” Really?

That doesn’t sound right.

Come on, it’s a movie. They’ll love it. How many viewers are going to be both experts in drilling and space? No one! We’re safe!

For the “Cool Solution looking for a Problem” to work, the experts in your story need to be smarter than your target audience, which means you need to be also.

Back to that infernal book…

Its cool solution was a huge space station orbiting Earth, with the elite of the elite surviving a disaster. The problem it wanted was all the political intrigue that would go into making it.

The problem that the author settled on was that biblical-level flooding was going to wipe out the Earth, covering it with water.

So, if you had a story where a known flood was going to happen (everywhere, so evacuation isn’t really feasible) what would be your first solution?

I’m sorry, Couldn’t hear you mumbling at the back of the class. Did you say, “boats?”

I know I did.

In fact I started imagining converting a PanaMax cargo vessel into a floating farm, with people living below decks, wind or solar as a source of power. Hell, a few thousand of these and you could save a decent sized city. (In this book, only a few hundred people would be allowed to survive on the space station).

Then think of all the smaller ships that exist and could be converted, like the tramp steamer pictured at the top of this page. With no land to go to, their engines don’t even need to be that great. You just need hulls with integrity to convert to little oasis of tenancies.

You could build a whole economy afloat, with smaller sailboats acting as fishing vessels. Scavenging the flotsam and jetsam of our society might be productive too.

In short, the technology to do this solution was much more feasible, mostly already existed, and would have allowed for an order of magnitude increase in the number of people who survived.

But in the story, NO ONE, not one of the ‘genius’ advisors gathered to ‘save humanity’, mentioned boats or ships as an option.

And that’s why that book got hurled and burned. I won’t buy another book by that author (caveat: I’m not sure I remember who the author was now). As a reader, they’ve lost me not only for that story but for all future outings.

And that’s a huge problem with a poorly executed “Cool Solution looking for a Problem”. You lose readers, not just on this one title, but on all going forward.