“The Big Problem” is when the characters attempt to solve a massive, overwhelming problem by breaking it down into many smaller, more manageable problems. They decide “We need to colonize Mars, because Earth has a Trump on it” and then break down the goal of colonizing Mars into several smaller tasks (which can be further subdivided, if they are still too big):
a. Develop a spacecraft able to
i. make it to Mars in one piece,
ii. while carrying a couple thousand living people for three months without making them want to kill each other for lack of personal space or food,
iii. land on both Mars and Earth without being destroyed by the impact, so the spacecraft doesn’t have to be rebuilt every time it’s used.
b. Lower the cost of space travel from several billion dollars to a couple hundred thousand, so at least a million people both want to live on Mars and can afford to buy a ticket on your spaceship. To accomplish this,
i. build reusable rockets as cheaply as possible,
ii. figure out how to create a habitable biome on Mars,
iii. make a couple manned trips to Mars to set up the colony so people believe it’s possible to live on Mars.
c. Obtain the funding to do (a) and (b) before anyone buys a ticket to Mars.
d. Overcome the existential crisis of “Do I even want to live on any planet that doesn’t have cheesecake?”
We’ve now broken down the massive, inconceivably difficult task “Colonize Mars” into a series of still quite difficult, but possible, tasks. (Disclaimer: this goal, and all the subgoals that come with it, can be found in the story of Elon Musk and SpaceX.)
This structure for a story has several advantages. It’s focused, because every action is an attempt to solve one of the problems. It has natural, inborn conflict in the form of challenges and obstacles (especially for goal (d)). It has a natural, satisfying resolution: the achievement of a thriving Mars colony. It comes complete with its own subplots and minor story arcs, and it necessarily has a proactive protagonist.
Consider Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn: The Final Empire. It is primarily a “The Big Problem” book, where the task is “Overthrow the dictatorial invincible all-powerful ruler of the empire”—not a unique premise, by any means, but done in unique ways. Behold this quote:
“Previous attempts to overthrow the Lord Ruler have failed because they lacked proper organization and planning. We’re thieves, gentlemen—and we’re extraordinarily good ones. We can rob the unrobbable and fool the unfoolable. We know how to take an incredibly large task and break it down to manageable pieces, then deal with each of those pieces. We know how to get what we want. These things make us perfect for this particular task,” (75).
Sound familiar? The characters break down their plan into the following steps:
a. Secretly build a large, well-trained army.
b. Use a distraction to send most of the Lord Ruler’s magical inhuman super-soldiers far away from the capital city.
c. Steal the Lord Ruler’s supply of atium (a magical substance of extreme value) to cripple his economic and magical power.
d. Figure out why the Lord Ruler is invincible and immortal, and find a way to get around that.
e. Do all this without being killed by his pervasive network of extremely powerful superkillers, who are nearly omniscient and are actively searching for you.
f. Execute all of the above at the same time, because any attempt to kill the Lord Ruler that lasts more than a couple hours is doomed because he will immediately call back the inhuman super-soldiers mentioned in (b).
g. Figure out how to prevent the Lord Ruler’s civilization from disintegrating into chaos and anarchy after his death.
So, that’s hard. (Which means it’s lots of fun to read—I highly recommend Mistborn.) One way to deal with the extreme difficulty is to use a Heist Plot, which is a type of Big Problem Plot. In the Heist Plot (e.g., Mistborn), a team of specialists tackles the Big Problem together. Each member of the team is an expert at one specific task, and together they have the skills to tackle the Big Problem.
Most “let’s break into this impregnable high-security facility” stories are Heist plots. So are Apollo 11, The Usual Suspects, and Inception. The cool thing about a Heist Plot (which is distinct from a non-heist Big Problem Plot, e.g. SpaceX and Mars) is that, because these skills or capabilities are separated into several distinct individuals, not all of them can be present for any one subtask. If you have a lockpicker, a martial artist, a chemist, and a wealthy billionaire, you will end up having to separate them as they do their respective jobs—and separating them puts them in danger and creates new obstacles to overcome. If, on the other hand, all those skills are in one person (Batman), you gain the different problem of being unable
to be in multiple places at the same time.
In any Big Problem Plot, heist or no heist, there are two general ways to increase tension and conflict: hide parts of the plan from the audience, or have part of the plan fail.
Hidden plans can take several forms, but in all of them the biggest danger to avoid is making the reader or viewer feel cheated, like you are deliberately pulling the blind over their eyes. You can avoid this by making the majority of the characters not actually know all of the plan (in case they’re captured, because they wouldn’t go along with the plan if they knew, or for some other reason), by not immediately revealing that certain actions were part of the plan, or by having a “plan behind the plan.”
The “plan behind the plan” is when the purpose of the heist is not actually the stated goal. You think they’re breaking into the high-security facility to steal the jewels, but it’s actually to destroy the jewels, propose marriage in a unique way to the leader of the facility, or assassinate the president. You think the main character just wants to rob the Lord Ruler, but he actually want to seduce him and have a long, passionate love affair with him. You think Elon Musk wants to colonize Mars, but he actually just wants a place to practice his bagpipes without his neighbors calling the cops on him for the raucous noise.
Alternatively, you can have the reader not even know there was a heist until the very end, when it is revealed that everything that was done in the story was actually a complicated plan to achieve some goal. (This would be a plot twist. Plot twists are fun.) Of course, that would mean your plot wouldn’t seem like a Big Problem Plot until the very end, so you need to engage your readers in other ways. But we’ll get to that.
It’s important not to go overboard with this—you don’t want your reader to feel like the wool was pulled over her eyes, and you don’t want your reader not to understand what happened in your story. Having too many hidden aspects to a plot can make your story feel contrived. As with most things, hiding information from your reader and then revealing it later in the story is just another tool to keep in your writerly toolbox, not the secret all-powerful key to fame and glory.
Also of great importance is foreshadowing any revelations of hidden information. If you keep your readers in the dark, and then reveal something unexpected, it still needs to make sense—in fact, it especially has to make sense if it’s unexpected. Otherwise, your readers will feel like you’re just pulling stuff out of your undercarriage. The way to make unexpected things make sense is to foreshadow them—in other words, to have details earlier in the story that are explained by a future revelation. I won’t go into too much more detail here, because I’ve already covered plot twists and revelations in my free eBook, Mastering the Plot Twist.
Hidden information is one way to build suspense and intrigue in a Big Problem plot—another good way is to simply have your characters’ well-laid plans go wrong. Obstacles arise, mistakes are made, unforeseen circumstances have dire consequences. All pieces of a broken-down “Big Problem” should either have hidden aspects to them, go wrong, or go right, but at a significant cost. If a piece of your characters’ plans works out exactly as they envisioned, it better have come at a serious sacrifice of some sort. (Sanderson’s Second Law.)