Being a Better Writer: Cursed Problems in Story Writing

Welcome once again writers! Just as with each Monday before it, it is time for Being a Better Writer to make its mark on the world! And this week, we’ve got an interesting topic to discuss. One that you might have heard in a different context—and if so, you and I probably watch similar video channels.

Really quick, though, before we dive into things, a reminder that LTUE is next week! That’s right! February 16th-18th is just around the corner! I’ll have a more in-depth post on this later this week, but for now, just keep in mind that the day is fast approaching! By now, you should know what LTUE is, but if not, I’m just going to drop a link rather than bother explaining it, since I want to dive into today’s topic. Partially because I’ve got a lot to get done today, and getting right to the meat of Being a Better Writer will save me time. And because there’s not really much to chat about in terms of news. Writing progresses, and that is that!

So then, with our update delivered, let’s spring right back to where we were a paragraph ago and get talking about these cursed problems.

I chose to put this topic on the list because personally, I felt it was a fascinating way to look at potential problems with a creative work. Especially when applied to writing. See, in writing it’s generally held that there isn’t a “problem” that can’t be overcome by a skilled enough author. And … yes, this is pretty true. Usually however, when we think of “problems” of this nature, we’re thinking of common bits of bad advice, like “nothing new under the sun” or “there are bad ideas.”

But a few months ago, as I was watching a GDC video on “Cursed Problems with Game Design,” I realized that the video was alluding to something that also applied to writing. My mind started working on it, and I realized this was something that I wanted to spend a BaBW post on. It would be a little strange, a little different, and a little contrary to most common ideals of writing … But that’s exactly why I think it should be something that’s kept in mind when we’re working out what our next story should be.

Now, that is the first warning of today’s topic, and there might be a few more. Today’s writing topic is a bit more conceptual than some of our other writing discussions. Because here’s the thing about cursed problems, before we even define what they are: they’re something that can seem achievable with just a little tiny tweak, meaning that we’re right on the cusp of being able to solve them.

Except we aren’t. Figuring out, then, what a “cursed problem” is as compared to a problem we can solve with a little work, is part of the puzzle.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First, we need to define what a “cursed problem” is. And for that, you’ll need to hit the jump.

So then, you’re here. What is a cursed problem? Now again, before we define this, recall that we’re transferring this definition from another entertainment medium, so we may have to do a bit of stretching. But a cursed problem is defined by most as a problem with an inherent contradiction of goals.

Now, the examples of this in the mediums that this term arises from are fairly straightforward, and two are given in the video that prompted me to write this post. The first is a game design that revolves around free-for-all martial skill between players, but instead is found to encourage extreme politicking rather than shows of martial talent for the game. Another example given was any cooperative game that encourages one player to take over and play all the other players’ positions (aka quarterbacking).

With that in mind, the more expanded definition of a cursed problem is a design problem rooted in the a conflict between core design elements and/or what was promised to players.

Now, we’re writers, so we don’t have “players.” But we do have readers, and I would wager that as soon as a few of you read that definition above, you began adapting it to the world of writing. Which may have looked something like this:

A fundamental problem with a story driven by conflict of what the book has as its core elements and/or what was promised/expected by the reader.

Now see, here’s the thing about cursed problems, that if you watch the whole GDC presentation, the conclusion comes to: These are Gordian Knot problems, but they don’t look like it, and they can drag down a team of developers who will keep searching for a solution when there really isn’t one.

Again, we’re talking writing instead of games, but can you yourself envision stories that may have “cursed problems?”

I certainly can. I read a story once that was quite fun, a short Fantasy novella length work involving a Groundhog Day-style loop and a character attempting to break free of it. It was whimsical, fluffy, and cute. All well and done, right? No cursed problem here.

No, the problem began when the author attempted a sequel, to this whimsical, fluffy, light story, and tried to keep that same mood while at the same time introducing political intrigue, politicking, and drama akin to Game of Thrones.

Can you see the “cursed problem?” The incompatible ideas and concepts that were now fighting for control of the core of the story? Suddenly you had moments of lighthearted whimsy facing off against moments of dark politicking, peril, and threats of death with blades held at character’s throats. There was a sudden need to establish whole “noble houses” with their own traditions and dirty dealings, none of which had been even alluded to in the first story.

It was jarring. And while there were people who were able to look past this disjunctional melding of ideas, too many readers were unable to. Eventually, the sequel never finished, as the author was unable to get these disparate elements to work, but was too committed to remove one or the other. The story died, incomplete, and never saw a conclusion.

So yes, then, the idea of a “cursed problem” can apply to written works. As we saw above, an author attempted to meld two things together that conflicted with one another, both in the story and setting and with the audience.

Now, a brief aside. Before we have discussed the concept that there are no bad ideas, just bad executions. And there are plenty of books that prove that. But a cursed problem is not a bad idea, but a bad execution. I want to make that clear. Because if we go back to that GDC talk about cursed problems, the solution that is offered is to trim these disparate ideas—or sometimes reinvent one entirely—until the two do fit together, but the speaker notes that often those caught in a cursed problem are caught because they do not wish to give anything up.

They’re too committed to the concept. They think “If I just add a little more, that will fix this!” The speaker, if I recall correctly, goes back to the example of the martial skill game that becomes a politicking simulator and notes that often, getting caught up in the cursed problem is going “Well, if I add more rules about the martial skill, preserving that, it should fix the politicking!” when instead it just narrows the windows further, drives people away, and cannot fix the problem.

The solution is to step back, and give up a bit of the design in order to widen the lens a little.

See, it’s not that you can’t have a whimsical Fantasy story with political drama that’s similar to something like the backstabbery of Game of Thrones. You can … but you’re going to have to give up something from one side or the other of that concept. Because Game of Thrones is not whimsical. It’s utterly opposed to the idea. Likewise, whimsical Fantasy isn’t about endless peril and threats of death, or against one’s family line, etc. etc. as Game of Thrones is so fond of. These two concepts, taken whole, are incompatible with one another.

“But but,” someone might say. ‘I can make it work! If I just double the whimsy whenever someone’s throat is sliced, that’ll work, right?”

This is them getting caught in a cursed problem by adding more, as opposed to taking away. And you can’t add more to something that already doesn’t fit. It’s like trying to fit two puzzles into one by adding even more pieces from either box and still expecting the corner and edge pieces to add up. You’re just creating more spots that won’t fit.

But take away something … Let’s look at our example and see about making it work, making it not be a cursed problem, by taking one thing or another away.

For example, let’s take away the mortal peril from the Game of Thrones bit. What does that leave us with? Noble houses? Check. Lots of power plays and drama? Yes … but without that threat of imminent death that takes away from the whimsy.

Of course, we’ll need to replace it with some other kind of stakes. After all, political threats do need to have something backing them. Maybe public embarrassment? Of the amusing kind? Suddenly we’ve got noble houses playing practical jokes on one another to turn the public’s focus one way or another, and hey, presto! That works with the whimsy!

And just like that, by cutting instead of adding more (or doubling down, as some might see it), we’ve cut our cursed problem.

Of course, you can go the opposite route. You can cut the whimsy, and keep the Game of Thrones. “Ahah!” some of you might say. “That’s also a viable solution!”

Save that it is unfortunately not. Why? Simple: We forget the latter half of our definition of a cursed problem up above. This was “… conflict of what the book has as its core elements and/or what was promised/expected by the reader.

Herein is why simply cutting the whimsy wouldn’t work: The audience was promised it. It was part of “sold package” for that first work, after all. People came along expecting the sequel to have more of that.

Once again we find ourselves talking about audience. If you’ve promised your audience something, it becomes something that can contribute to a cursed problem. The audience now expects this thing. It’s a core component. And if you introduce concepts or ideas at the core that conflict with that … you’re going to have problems.

Yes, you can cut the audience. Technically, this is an option. It’s just … not an advisable one. Especially if you’re working on something that has already been promised.

Fot example, say I decide that I want the sequel to Axtara – Banking and Finance to have some real thick grim and gritty elements. Seems like those would conflict with the cozy aspects a little, wouldn’t they? So I cut the cozy. Problem solved?

No, because the audience for Axtara is an audience that has already been promised cozy elements by the first book delivering exactly that. While I can choose to cut those elements to make my grim and gritty sequel work, I haven’t really “solved” my cursed problem.

In other words, I don’t have control over the audience if I’ve already made an agreement with them. I can choose to cut them or disappoint them. But that leads to other problems, such as who the book is for, especially if the first book delivers one thing and the sequel another. How would you market that? Read the first book, but not the second? Read this sequel, don’t worry about the first book?

Cursed problem? Yes. And I wouldn’t have fixed it by cutting one thing, because I would have cut the wrong thing.

You cannot ignore the audience. And sometimes, they may be the thing you cannot cut or modify. Which means you must cut something about the concept in order to deliver what the audience will enjoy and remove the conflict.

So, where does this leave us? What’s our takeaway?

First, you’re going to run into cursed problems. I certainly have. Sometimes what you envision for your story simply doesn’t work because you’ve got conflict with how those concepts or your audience fit together.

But this isn’t the end. However, it’s also not a reason to double down. Remember, there are no bad ideas … but there are bad executions. And choosing to try and meld two concepts that conflict with one another without modifying one or both so that the conflict doesn’t exist is a bad idea.

Now, with all this said, I do wish to make one last point concerning one of the above examples we discussed: That sequel story that fell apart because of cursed problems? Had it not been a sequel … could it have worked?

Well … a bit better, I think. Part of its cursed problem was that it was a sequel, and therefore had an expected promise to the audience that its conflicted concepts couldn’t deliver. But even if the audience had been taken out of the equation, the simple truth of things was that it wanted to embrace two concepts that were staunchly in opposition to one another. So even if it hadn’t been a sequel, it would have still seen a number of readers noting that the two “halves” of the story really didn’t fit together well. They were simply in conflict.

So. Summing up the above then, and asking our most important question: how can we apply what’s just been discussed in our writing?

The truest answer is to be aware of potential conflicts within our design. Even before we begin writing, we should check out plans for things that look like they might conflict. And if we find an obvious conflict, we should attempt to find a resolution before we find ourselves knee-deep in the story itself and seeing the conflict stall us out. Again though, this resolution shouldn’t be to “add more until it works.” As the original GDC talk noted, this is how you find yourself lost in the desert. No, we should look at what we are willing to cut. What pieces can we remove that will then allow our vision to be satisfied in its closest form?

But what if we didn’t see the problem, and now we’re halfway through a draft? Well, there are a couple of ways to continue.

First, we will still have to fix things and cut something to remove our conflict of concepts. We have to remove the cursed problem. But we can act in this manner in a few ways.

For example, we can drop a marker, then continue forward with the change being made, going back later to rewrite what came before once we’re in editing. Or, we can start over (I don’t particularly advise this one, as it hits a bit close to creating another problem with a death spiral, but it can work). We can also just push through the draft, leaving the problems as they are and noting them so that we can then start a new draft which avoids them by cutting something. This is similar to the first, but can use the problematic draft to help us narrow down what we want to cut.

All of these are possible. And each is a way of working past a cursed problem.

But really, the only wrong way to tackle a cursed problem is to double down and add more in the hopes that we’ll fix it, while getting lost in the desert. As long as you don’t do that, you’re good.

So, recap time! A cursed problem, at least in our context, is a fundamental problem with a story driven by conflict of what the book has as its core elements and/or what was promised/expected by the reader. These are elements of story, setting, concept, genre, theme, etc that have begun to fight one another or what the audience expects. And our solution is not to add, but to cut, to trim and reduce until the conflict no longer is there.

This can be hard to bear sometimes. Sometimes it means sacrificing a vision we had in mind. Sometimes it just means tweaking it.

But in the end, it does make for a better story. And that’s our ultimate goal. So, be on the lookout for your own cursed problems. Don’t get lost in the desert. And write something amazing.

Good luck. Now get writing.

Oh, and don’t forget that you can leave questions and comments below, or that Being a Better Writer and Unusual Things is kept advertisement free thanks to the donations of our Patreon Supporter crew: Frenetic, Pajo, Anonymous Potato, Jack of a Few Trades, Alamis, Seirsan, Miller, Lightwind, Boomer, Piiec, Wisehart, and Taylor!

If you’d like to support as well, then please check out the Patreon Page (and get access to some bonus exclusive content) or if you’re particular to a one-time donation, please purchase a book? You can even do both!

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