We all know that characters encounter obstacles in stories, but how do we write really good ones? What sets a bad obstacle apart from one that enhances the story and leaves the audience desperate for more? Read on to find out.

Perfect obstacles get bigger throughout the story, they reveal character, they are closely related to the main objective of your protagonist, they require your character to learn something to overcome them, and they are inevitable and yet unexpected.

What are the Different Types of Obstacles in Life?

Characters face obstacles in stories just like people do in real life. Story obstacles are things that get in the way of the character achieving their objective and they can be anything at all. For example, it could be a car that breaks down, or an evil dark Lord who wants to kill your character.

How do I Write Meaningful Obstacles for my Characters?

Meaning in story often arises when an event is significant for your character, they learn something, or the event resonates with theme. An obstacle is significant if it leaves a lasting impression on your character, they learn something if they grow as a person, and a thematic argument helps.

A thematic argument arises when your script comments on the events of your story in a certain way, and encourages the audience to take a certain meaning from the events, or a certain range of meanings. Another way of saying this is the moral of the story.

What are Some Examples of Obstacles?

An obstacle to finding true love might be lack of self belief. An obstacle to finding happiness might be an abusive step mother. An obstacle to wealth might be disadvantage in early life. An obstacle to making a sandwich might be lack of bread.

Think of a desire for your character, and then put something between them and the desire!

What does Intention and Obstacle Mean?

Intention and obstacle is a way of expressing a basic organising principle in stories. Story is frequently understood as depending on this formulation in order to be compelling. It refers to when a story features a character with a powerful desire, and a force in their way.

What are Some Good Obstacles in Romance?

To find good obstacles in any genre the solution is the same. Think of something your character wants, and think of something they will have to overcome to get it. For romance, think of Romeo wanting Juliet’s love, but both of their sets of parents standing in their way.

Do Story Obstacles get Bigger?

Tension in a story should go up! What makes it go up? Obstacles and challenges getting bigger. The land gets more hostile. The food runs out. The enemies get stronger. The resources to tackle each diminish. Strength fades. The odds of achieving the objective become insurmountable.

Tension rises! 

How do Obstacles Reveal Character?

How your protagonist deals with a crisis, or obstacle, tells us who they are. There are ten people standing around in business suits: how do we know the character of these people? By showing how they react when the bomb goes off.

Do they flee for their own safety? Do they immediately think of helping others? (remember a hero is someone who sacrifices themselves for others) Do they worry that their clothes will be ruined? Do they immediately start the search for justice and revenge? Or do they crumple up and die? 

Where Do Obstacles Appear in a Plot?

Obstacles that do not contribute to the trajectory of the main story line in some way often feel contrived and inconsequential. The pace slows, and the audience’s interest dwindles if the obstacle your protagonist is facing doesn’t arise out of a desperate need to achieve their objective.

Let’s say someone needs to take their child to the hospital because the child is suffering an asthma attack. If on the way to the hospital the protagonist drives past their old high school, and stops the car to discuss some unresolved high school drama, this is going to feel weird.

How Should a Character Overcome an Obstacle?

Great obstacles require the protagonist to learn a new skill to conquer them. The value of friendship, or the ability to conquer fear, or perhaps even something like using a grappling hook … obstacles build your protagonist into a better version of themselves.

How do I make Obstacles Inevitable yet Unexpected?

Things that emerge in your story, like obstacles, should be inevitable yet unexpected. What in the world does that mean? Well, things should be unexpected because then they are more thrilling! That seems straightforward.

What about inevitable? Take Lord of the Rings for example (LOTR spoilers): the perfect example is Gollum jumping on Frodo as he attempts to throw the ring into the Crack of Doom.

Nobody sees that one coming, and yet of course! It’s exactly what Gollum would do. It’s why he’s been following them all along, and what other choice does Gollum have in that moment? Unexpected yet inevitable.

Take a look at how to turn rejection into a win every time here!


Oliver Adams

Letter Review was founded by Oliver Adams, who is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing, casual academic, and guest lecturer at the University of New South Wales. Oliver Adams has had short stories published in leading literary journals such as Overland, Southerly, Seizure, and TEXT. He has had novels long listed for major awards such as the KYDUMA, has received government funding to produce plays from Create NSW and screenplays from Screen NSW, and has performed / produced professional work at major theatrical venues such as the Sydney Opera House.

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