One Problem Too Many

Ok, writers, let’s talk about “one problem too many”

In this, the writer has set the stakes, usually pretty high, say, “the world will end if this McGuffin doesn’t get put in the right spot”

That’s a pretty big problem. So we go along, watching our heroes work to overcome this. Inevitably, though, I’ve seen the “one problem too many” problem.

Which needs a better name.

The point of this new found problem is to increase tension, raise the stakes… but the stakes are already raised. You already have the world at stake.

To give an example, hopefully spoiler free, both Sunshine and Interstellar do this, and in the book, The Martian, it comes pretty close. The problems in Sunshine and Interstellar are high, impossibly high. And yet the movie still devolves into stacking additional little problems, which nearly overshadow the purpose.

This is not to say that you should make it easy for everyone. But rather that once you start stacking impossible problems on top of each other, the point where overcoming them is believable is left behind pretty quickly.

An example: Armageddon (yes the movie). They go to Mir to get gas, no big deal, meet the Russian, and then before we know it, it is a crisis and the station explodes.

Because the on-coming Texas sized asteroid isn’t enough.

Then one of the crew goes space crazy, or whatever, and starts to shoot the machine gun, which I’m still not sure why is there, and they have to duct tape him to a chair.

Because the on-coming Texas sized asteroid isn’t enough.

Then there are problems with the drilling, but that devolves into the group dividing in two and fighting over how they should proceed.

This. This is fine, this is the right kind of problem escalation. This is related to the on-coming Texas sized asteroid.

Then! at the end, someone has to stay, sentimental scene, the others take off, but NO, THAT ISN’T ENOUGH. The ground shakes, he loses the thing, it goes to the last second…


So, when you are looking at your scope, think of your problems. The Texas sized asteroid was enough. It was always enough.

To counter, think of Star Wars. The Death Star is there, coming to destroy the base on Yavin. The base is in orbit, and once it is in line, the base will be destroyed. As the fighters get in close, the Empire launches fighters, one of which is Darth Vader himself.

Vader, however, is not one problem too many. He is simply an extension of the station defenses that have been plaguing the fighters. The problem is the Death Star.

There are not sudden betrayals, random broken parts, ship crippling solar flares, or the like to cloud things.

When you think about your climax, your overall plot structure, when you think about everything, make sure you aren’t stacking too many things on top of each other.