Obstacles in Stories: 3 Ways to Turn Hills Into Mountains

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

I think most writers would agree that a good story needs to have obstacles for the characters.

I'll go as far as to say I think our stories need really BIG obstacles, gigantic steep mountainous obstacles.

But too often I see writers stringing together gently sloping hills throughout the book. Sure they give their characters hardships and introduce new problems into the plot. The hero may face a broken down car in one scene. Then the next scene he comes up against a bank robber at the ATM and nearly gets shot. And after that he faces a shark while scuba diving.

While all those scenes pose exciting problems for the hero, they're only hills in the scope of the story. And unless those hills are a part of a larger dangerous mountain climb, then the scenes aren't going to be enough in and of themselves to keep our readers engaged. After they read the shark scene and discover the hero survived, what will keep them turning the pages for more?

Those kinds of books remind me of the way some of the classics were written. In the days before TV, families often sat around the fireplace and told or read stories. A chapter was like one episode of a TV show—with its own beginning, middle, and end.

Think about books like Swiss Family Robinson, Little Women, or Wind in the Willow. Most of the chapters involve vignettes or smaller stories. In fact, many classical authors would send their stories in one chapter at a time to be published in newspapers. Then later, their books would become the compilation of all of the related articles.

My point is that while those kinds of books are fun and entertaining, they often don't hold our attention for the duration of the book. They lack a page-turning quality because the characters are climbing lots of hills, but there's usually NOT ONE big mountain that they're scaling throughout the book.

And it's the mountain that keeps our attention at the end of chapters and makes us want to keep reading to see what will happen next.

So what comprises a mountainous obstacle? 

1. First, identify the character's over-arching story goal(s). When we know what our character desperately WANTS (and needs), then we can begin to build a mountain (or major obstacle) to prevent them from reaching their goals.

2. The big story obstacle can come in a variety of formats. Traditionally, literature has divided conflict into several main categories:

• Man versus man (one or more people)
• Man versus himself (battling inner demons or physical limitations)
• Man versus nature (or a force of nature)
• Man versus society (usually religious or political structures)

(Obviously, woman can be substituted for man since man is referring to human beings.) Antagonist is the more modern way we describe the big obstacle or mountain. But as seen in the above categories, the antagonist doesn't always have to take the form of a person.

I've used 3 of the above conflict structures in my various books. In The Preacher's Bride my hero is fighting against the corrupt religious and political system of the day (man versus society). In The Doctor's Lady my hero and heroine are battling the elements of the overland trip West (man versus nature).

In my upcoming release, Unending Devotion, the hero battles against a real life villain (man versus man). Publishers Weekly said this in part of their review of the book: "The antagonist, the ruthless James Carr, and his exploits are based on the brutality of a real-life brothel owner who enslaved young girls during the logging boom, killing those who were not compliant." He's the epitome "bad guy."

3. Make the obstacle an enormous threat to your character's goal(s). Create a mountain that is jagged, rocky, and impossible to get around. The antagonist should seem unbeatable. We want our readers to wonder how in the world our hero will EVER make it to the top of the mountain and conquer it.

When we keep our characters struggling, and perhaps even being pushed back down, then readers will be sitting on the edge of their seats waiting to discover how the hero overcomes the incredible odds facing him. We should thread this challenge throughout the book until the very end. And our climax needs to result in our characters reaching the summit of the mountain.

Obviously, we can (and should) have smaller obstacles and challenges. Those hills are important for stretching tension. But they have to be woven into the overall steep climb of the mountain. By themselves, the smaller vignettes are not enough to keep a modern reader's attention.

Readers: Have you read any books lately that didn't hold your attention? Why do you think the book failed to keep you turning the pages?

Writers: How are you doing in creating a mountain for your characters to climb? Are you making the obstacle threatening enough to hold a reader's attention?

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