Question (from my e-mail): I got a note back from a prospective agent saying, "I can't find a problem statement." Any idea what THAT means?
Answer: Well the protagonist of any story has to have a problem. If there's no problem, there's no story--no evil to be overcome. Nice things happening to nice people are the stuff of daydreams. Conflict and people in danger of losing what they want are what's needed for a real story. The problem statement is where the writer lets the reader know what the problem is, and should appear as close to the beginning of the story as is physically possible.
The sooner the reader feels involved in what is happening in the story, the better. Reader involvement happens in all kinds of successful books and the problem statement definitely should appear within the first 3 pages or so, otherwise the reader has nothing to care about.
If at all possible, the problem statement should be included in the first line's opening hook. See if you can guess the central problem of the story from these examples of first lines taken at random from my bookshelf:
"My worst dreams have always contained images of brown water and fields of elephant grass and the downdraft of helicopter blades. The dreams are in color but they contain no sound, not of drowned voices in the river or the explosions under the hooches in the village we burned, or the Jolly Green and the gunships coming low and flat across the canopy, like insects pasted against a molten sun." --James Lee Burke, TIN ROOF BLOWDOWN.
"I inherited my brother's life. Inherited his desk, his business, his gadgets, his enemies, his horses and his mistress. I inherited my brother's life and it nearly killed me." -- Dick Francis, STRAIGHT.
"He had followed her three times in a week. Today made four. Gabriella Starr decided four was enough." -- Carla Neggers, A RARE CHANCE.
"Lady Callista Taillefaire was a gifted wallflower." --LESSONS IN FRENCH by Laura Kinsale.
"'He slaughtered a mother and two children.' Hennepin County prosecutor Chris Logan was a man of strong opinions and stronger emotions. Both traits had served him well in the courtroom with juries, not always so well in judges' chambers." --PRIOR BAD ACTS, by Tami Hoag.
"When Wesley Smith's colleagues asked him -- some with an eyebrow hoicked satirically -- what he was doing with that gadget (they all called it a gadget), he told them he was experimenting with new technology, but that was not true.
"He bought the gadget, which was called a Kindle, out of spite." -- UR by Steven King.
"Her name was Gladys Melbourne and she was crying." THE VAMPIRE WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, by J. R. Rain.
All the above examples are are also best-sellers listed at amazon.com.