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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?

22 comments:

  1. Good morning, Jody!!
    I was really foward to encouraging you today! Go, Mrs. Hedlund! You're doing a fantastic job and may God bless you.

    I had to smile at the 3rd paragraph (I think). SO true!

    Excellent points, friend.

    Blessings on your day, everyone else.

    Hugs,

    Ganise

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    1. Thank you, Ganise!! I'm glad the post brought a smile to your face! Blessings on your day too! :-)

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  2. One of the mountains in my MS is the hero's ethnicity and the era in which the story is set. From 1860 to 1868, nothing got shot as fast in Arizona and New Mexico as a young, male Navajo. From 1868 on, it wasn't much better. So within the first few pages, we know who's on the run and in trouble just for breathing. My heroine is a wealthy, white woman in Boston who is treated rather poorly by her husband. There's another mountain. So we have colour, class and distance. Practically a mountain range, don't you think? And one more for the road? She's terrified of men.

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    1. Hi Jennifer! Sounds like you have your characters facing some pretty big obstacles that carry through the whole book! And that's really what we need! Also sounds interesting, Jennifer! Wishing you all the best with it!

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  3. Jennifer - it seems I'm stalking you today....

    Jody - This is a great post for me today! I'm doing (yet another) edit/revision and realized that my main characters need to have a "freak out" moment. So instead of cutting 5000 words, I added 3000... but the story is much more punchy now! Unfortunately, that means that everything that comes AFTER that freak out has to be updated/edited/revised.... What a process.

    But I'm glad I did it. I like my leading man much better now!

    Blessings,
    Becky

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    1. Hi Becky,
      Glad the post came at the right time! I've found that during editing I usually end up cutting between 5-10K. But always add at least that back in. It is indeed a process! :-) But if we're all about making our stories better, then we have to do whatever it takes!

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  4. Becky, I'll slow down my travels so you can catch up. Then we can trek around together. :)

    The "freak out" moment is SO pivotal! It's that breath-holding moment where the reader stops everything and yelps!
    Must. Read. MORE!

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  5. That's fine, but I like more of the other side of the mountain. Way too many books leave the reader wanting more romance with the couple after they have gotten together. I dislike it when the couple faces all these obstacles and finally get together- on the last page of the book. I want the book to go on longer. We want a chance to savour the romance between the couple after they are in love and have admitted it to one another. I want a wedding and a little of the honeymoon. Something relaxing and enjoyable after the wild ride of the rest of the book.

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    1. Hi Sylvia!

      Thanks for adding your perspective! Sometimes I feel the same way and want a little more to the romance too, to be able to savor their relationship! I try to really weave the romance throughout my book, rather than waiting until the end. That way the reader gets a good dose all the way through. :-)

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    2. Oh!!! ME TOO, SYLVIA!!!! I really hate in when the hero and heroine finally get together two pages before the novel finishes. Then I'm left wondering what happens and if the romance really works out for the best. Jody's book Preachers Bride, was really great at resolving the romance part of the plot without leaving the readers hanging.

      Sometimes though, if a novel is strictly a romance and not, say, a historical with romantic elements, the publisher doesn't want the romance resolved until the very last page. Because if you have no conflict, you have no more story to tell. It's a hard balance to achieve.

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  6. Hi, I'm reading a memoir that an author from She Writes put up as an ebook - she offered it for free and said that it was a memoir geared to creating sympathy for people suffering from mental illness. Because I'm writing a memoir about abuse I received and it includes therapy I downloaded her memoir. I've been reading pages and pages - it is a telling of her life's events, but the focus is not on what she implied it would be. Last night I glanced at where I was in the book and was dismayed to find I'm only a third of the way done. She is showing every detail of almost every day of her life. I'm asking myself why keep reading? I'm trying to because I want to encourage her, but it is obvious that she did not have an editor look at her book. I'm going to try and finish it, but am losing steam. While her story is important, how many times does one have to go out with a guy, get drunk, get stoned, and destroy one's life over and over again in prose. She would have done better to pick a few representative situations and show, not tell them, and then point out that this pattern was prominent for many years before .... My hope was that she was going to show how she got healed from this. I'm wondering if that would happen.

    One thing she did well was to include notes from her doctors and some journal entries. But she is not a famous actor or personality (not someone who most people will want to read tons about) and I'm afraid her book will be thousands of pages long - the e-reader won't tell me. I'm trying to figure out how to gently make a few suggestions. I don't want to hurt her.

    In my story my mother filled two notebooks of hundreds of "visits" of my father to my room. I'm including a few, but pointing out the fact that mom filled out two notebooks. The reader is smart enough to figure out the content of some of the other "visits." Since my goal is to show healing is possible, I want to keep the focus and not take rabbit trails.

    Have a blessed day.
    Heather

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    1. Hi Heather! I'm sorry you've found yourself in a difficult situation with having to give feedback on a book that isn't enjoyable. I've been in those situations before too, and it's hard (especially when they're already published and it's too late for the author to make any changes). In that case, I tell myself that I'll do my best to point out the positives, because some readers might really enjoy that author's style. On the other hand, I try to learn what I like or don't like and apply that to my own writing, which is what it sounds like you're doing. I wish you all the best!

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  7. Jody, you do such a great job of explaining these concepts. I realise now that this is exactly what was lacking in a novel I recently beta read, but I didn't articulate my explanation nearly as well as this post does. I clearly need to send that writer in the direction of this post!

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    1. Thanks for the kind words, Cally! I actually formulated this post after reading a recent book that didn't hold my attention. And I asked myself why. This post came as the result! :-)

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  8. When you first start writing, you don't realize how important those mountains are. I think in our journey to publication, we discover just how steep and jagged things need to be in order for the hero/heroine to win the day. Thanks, Jody!! Great article!!

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    1. Hi Traci,

      I think learning how to write is a little bit like learning a foreign language. When we first start, we can hardly make sense of anything and we're just putting words on the paper. But as we add in new techniques little by little, we gradually begin to understand what it takes to craft a well told story. Until eventually we've become quite fluent and the techniques flow more naturally (and we don't have to stop and think about them quite so much). :-)

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  9. Great post Jody. You're right on about the challenges, but it's the characters that keep me turning pages. If I don't love them enough, then finishing the book is going to be tough. If I do love them, I'll put up with almost anything. Sometimes, I find myself at the end of a first chapter conflicted about whether I want to keep on reading. The author has done a great job of employing in media res to drop me down in the middle of a real conflict or crisis, but there's not a character involved that I really care enough about to invest my time into.

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    1. Hi Jane,

      Some readers are indeed captured more by character than plot. And they prefer a gentler journey. But I'm afraid our modern generation is mostly growing into an action-oriented readership (which I'm guessing has a lot to do with the development of movies and TV). All that to say, even if we're writing with big obstacles, we can't neglect shaping our characters into the kinds of heroes and heroines that our readers will love. A lot of that reader empathy can happen as we develop the character's goals. :-)

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  10. Hey Jody, I read this post on my smartphone the other day and had to drop by and comment. I totally understand what you're talking about by having one giant mountain (um, with lots of little drop offs and gullies to climb out of along the way). And I really love the analogy you used to to describe a character's over-arching, impossible goal.

    I'm much more likely to see a story through to the end when there's one giant, monstrous obstacle to be overcome as opposed to several smaller ones. Although I do wonder if some of this pertains to the type of story that's being told. A journey or coming of age story might have an emotional mountain, but physical hills, if that makes sense. Those types of stories seem to string conflicts together, and can still be really effective if done well. (Just don't ask me to write one). I think Laura Frantz has done a really good job of this with her first two novels, Frontiersman's Daughter and Courting Morrow Little.

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    1. Hi Naomi! Glad you came back to share your thoughts! I love your insights! I think you're right. A coming of age story will likely have that man versus himself conflict. Some stories do well with that type of conflict, but I think it still has to be woven throughout, making the reader wonder how in the world the character will ever make peace with himself. It is much tougher to accomplish so that we can keep the reader turning the pages!

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  11. Very interesting, Jody! I believe these obstacles apply for more than one character in a story. The same obstacle may be viewed and tackled by different characters with different standpoints. Being acquitted in court may be a huge "obstacle" for the man under trial, winning this very case may be an "obstacle" for the public prosecutor. Would be glad to have your thoughts.

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    1. I agree. Each of our main characters should have obstacles. I think some of the greatest conflict occurs when the obstacles of the two main characters are in opposition to each other. But the obstacles don't necessarily have to be opposite. They can be parallel or intertwined. But having each main character "scaling mountains" makes the story even more dramatic. Thanks for bringing up the point! :-)

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