The Story Problem Dilemma

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Book Titles, Please?

During a Twitter discussion about writing “rules”, Frances Gilbert posited this idea:

If anyone critiques you with any set of rules, rather than a nuanced critique of your writing, find a new critique partner. Anyone who says a character must solve their own problems is encouraging everyone to write the same story. That story is unlikely to be acquired.

Frances Gilbert, Twitter

At first, I could not think of a single story that broke this “rule”. After a while (and with help), titles came flooding in.

Thinking Cap Activated

Short of writing a thesis, I began to tinker with the idea of why those stories worked and organize them into something meaningful:

Who solves the story problem?
Sometimes story problems remain unsolved or there are no story problems!

Character Agency 101

Giving a character agency allows them to impact the story. To me, agency is not binary but rather a continuum. Some books the main character has full agency, some agency, or no agency.

Why does it matter? One thought is that giving the main character agency is a way to give the reader agency. Often (but not always), the main character is a stand-in for the child.

Here are some reasons why you may want to think about who is solving the story problem:

  • It adds realism (Grumpy Monkey)
  • It supports a twist (Life on Mars/I Ate My Best Friend)
  • It plays with perspective (Horrible Bear/ Triangle)
  • It explores an idea (Open This Little Book)
  • It adds mystery (7 Ate 9)
  • It could be a slice of life (I am Famous)

Now What?

  • Read some books and think about who solves the story problem (if applicable). Check out fiction and non-fiction. What makes the story work?
  • Look at the illustrations, how do they try to answer the story problem?
  • Try changing the resolution of a current WIP/or rewrite a well-known story by changing who resolves the story problem. How does that affect agency? How does it make you feel as a reader? Does it work?

More Resources

➡️ Patricia C Wrede, Agency in Fiction
➡️ Nils Odlünd, Character Agency for Beginners
➡️ K.M. Weiland, How to Write Character Arcs
➡️ Josh Funk, Story Arc Components
➡️ Institute for Writers, Picture Books: Sound, Story, and Emotion

Special thanks to Frances Gilbert.
Her book is available for preorder!


  1. Thank you for this informative article. I know you must have researched several picture books to identify the specific categories. I’ve written a few stories in which the main characters had help solving their problems. It seemed natural to me because kids usually need someone to help with the issues that occur in their lives. That’s why it was refreshing to me when I read Frances Gilbert’s tweet to toss the rules!

    1. Thank you, Pat. I’m glad it was helpful! And yes, it was like a crash course in mentor texts. I recommend a lot of coffee or some very strong tea. It was super fun though!

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