My current WIP, as you can see in the sidebar, is called Desolation. Basically, a giant dinosaur appears on earth and starts stomping things. This is what you might call a big problem. The plot follows logically– someone needs to solve the big problem.
Of course, given a simple plot, I messed it up. I gave a thirty year period between the coming of this beast and the happenings of the story. One thing that time has proved about the human race is its adaptability. Even if the problem is as big as this beast, humans have survived for thirty years– they have obviously adapted. And if humans have adapted, it means they no longer truly have a big problem.
That means I don’t have a plot anymore.
That’s the problem with a big problem– give it enough time and what once was shocking and thrilling becomes mundane. A plot that once followed logically all of a sudden doesn’t matter. After all, if they survived this long and didn’t solve the problem, what can this lowly main character do?
For me, this was as bad as not having a big problem at all. It’s one thing to have the threat of Sauron destroying the world as you showcase your spectacular world– it’s quite another to make all that walking interesting without it.
At first glance, it doesn’t seem as though this is such a big deal– the big problem is just one style of plot, right? But actually, all plots boil down to big problems that need to be fixed. The main character is always fighting an uphill battle, because of the big problem. The main character is sometimes allowed to be capable, because of the big problem. The entire story exists because of the big problem. It doesn’t matter what the plot is– the big problem is essential.
Thus, the timing is essential as well. The movie Armageddon– where an asteroid threatens to crash into the earth– would be a whole lot less tense if the asteroid took a year to arrive, and we didn’t come into the story until six months after the discovery of the asteroid. We miss the panic, we miss the preparations; we arrive just in time for waiting, and waiting, and waiting… and probably, many people will have already dismissed the threat. Sure, it’s going to kill us all, but life goes on until then. Might as well enjoy it.
If you’ve got a big problem coming, make sure it’s as new, or at least as important, to the characters as it is for the reader. They’re just discovering your story– the characters should also be introduced at the beginning of the actual story, with the most conflict possible.
Also, bonus pitching tip: boil your story down into its biggest problem! If you believe your plot is most interesting, the big problem will be more interesting than anything else. Anyway, that’s that.