“The problem” is the thing you can’t figure out. Every screenplay has it. And there are so many different versions of it: your hero is unlikeable; the protagonist's objective is forced; the story situation is not plausible, etc. Whatever the case, “the problem” is always a big thing – REALLY BIG! And usually, it’s not easy to pinpoint because it’s connected to something else.
And it’s precisely because “the problem” is so hard to figure out, that most writers literally just don’t deal with it. What happens then is that because we don’t want to do the hard work to sort it out – at least not now – we figure we’ll fix it later in the next draft, or the next, or the next. But obviously, that just delays the inevitable.
And “the problem” is not exclusive to beginning writers alone. Even the best in the business find themselves avoiding “the problem”, often up through the final shooting draft. The thinking then is that somebody else will solve it: surely, the director will have the solution. But it soldiers on – often glaringly, the white elephant in the room – all through pre-production. And then principle photography begins, and everyone’s confident that “the problem” will be solved during shooting. But it festers, like a thick inscrutable residue, only now staring the editor in the face. But editing is visual writing, so surely “the problem” will be corrected there: a VO cheat, a montage, a narrative bookend, etc. But no, “the problem” in all its glory, remains unscathed. And then the movie comes out, and people go see this movie, but this movie grossly under performs because nobody fixed the damn problem.
There is nothing worse than knowing that you could have fixed “the problem” after it’s too late. Never submit your script to a reader, producer, agent, or even a contest unless you are confident that you have handled “the problem.” And the only way to truly fix “the problem” is to ask the really hard questions.
So the next time you find yourself avoiding that really crucial scene or skipping over that structural weakness, use a story questionnaire or character questionnaire to start finding some serious and necessary answers.