In well-written commercial fiction, the hero (protagonist) needs to have both a goal and obstacles. The goal needs to be unambiguous, meaning that all readers will know when he’s achieved that particular goal. For example, suppose the hero is a skater. It wouldn’t be a specific enough goal for him to simply want to become a great skater, because opinions about what constitutes a great skater may differ. On the other hand, if he wants to win an Olympic gold medal at the upcoming Winter Olympics, that’s a tangible goal that readers can envision.
Reader Emotions Spring From Conflict
A story wouldn’t be too interesting if the protagonist achieved his goal without any roadblocks along the way. The emotions a reader experiences spring from conflict. A writer’s job is to create obstacles for the hero that get progressively bigger and closer together as the plot unfolds. The more overwhelming the obstacles seem, the more the reader will become emotionally invested in the story.
Link Obstacles to the Hero’s Desire
One mistake beginning writers make is creating random obstacles for the hero. The obstacles should relate to the hero’s desire. For example, if the protagonist loses his car keys on the way to the grocery store, this wouldn’t interfere with his ability to win an Olympic gold medal. However, if he suffers some sort of injury that prevents him from practicing, this could adversely affect his chances of winning a gold medal. Use obstacles that have something to do with the hero’s specific goal to keep the plot from meandering.
Give the Hero Plenty of Obstacles
Some writers may wonder how many story obstacles are required. Hint: it’s probably more than most people would expect. Consider The Cutting Edge, the first screenplay written by Tony Gilroy, who also wrote all the films in the Jason Bourne series. The film is about a skater, Doug Dorsey, who can no longer play ice hockey due to an eye injury at the Olympics in Calgary (1988). He accepts a challenge to train as a pairs figure skater with Kate Moseley, a prima donna skater with a reputation for being difficult. If Doug can help Kate get a gold medal in the Winter Olympics (1992), her wealthy father agrees to pay him handsomely. There are many obstacles that lead to the climax of the film. In the end, Doug gets the girl and the gold, but he works hard for the victory.
Examples of Obstacles in The Cutting Edge
Watch The Cutting Edge (Ebert’s synopsis here), and try to identify the obstacles. Notice how they get bigger and closer together toward the end. Here’s a list:
- When Doug meets Kate, their personalities seem mismatched. She’s a pampered princess with her own skating rink. Doug comes from a modest background. She’s sheltered, and he’s experienced with women. He’s enthusiastic and friendly, and she finds fault with everything he does.
- Doug is a great skater, but he knows nothing about figure skating/toe picks and must study ballet to develop the gracefulness needed for the sport.
- Doug challenges Kate to play ice hockey with him, and she hits the puck into his face, requiring a trip to the ER.
- Doug gives Kate his prized possession (Bobby Hull sweater) for Christmas (a sign of his growing feelings for her), but she doesn’t understand its importance.
- Kate has a boyfriend (Hale, with an MBA from Harvard). Doug meets him at a New Year’s Eve party, and they spar.
- Kate and Doug have an awkward almost-kiss moment at midnight at the party.
- Before the Nationals, Hale proposes to Kate and she accepts, but she tries to get him to delay making an announcement about it, knowing the news will hurt Doug. Hale refuses.
- Doug claims her large engagement ring cuts into him, and he asks her not to wear it when they practice.
- Doug goes home to visit family, and his practical brother tells him that he’ll never make it as a figure skater. His brother warns that he’ll end up wearing a Snoopy costume at the ice capades.
- Doug doesn’t want to wear the frilly costume Kate picks out for the Nationals, and he wants to use modern music she doesn’t like.
- Kate breaks up with Hale at the Nationals, but Doug is nervous before the short program and starts throwing up. They end up in third place after the short program, surprising everyone, but only two pairs get to go to the Olympics.
- Doug gives Kate flowers after the short program. He compares waiting to skate in the long program to foreplay, and she tells him she needs sleep.
- They skate beautifully in the long program but score lower than Kate’s old skating partner, Brian, and his new partner, Lorie. The judges are tough, and it looks like Kate and Doug will end up in third place (the “all is lost” moment). An error by another pair puts them into the top two pairs (which means they go to the Olympics).
- Kate and Doug celebrate. She doesn’t normally drink but decides to do shots with him and gets drunk. When he takes her to her room and she tries to seduce him, he angers her when he doesn’t respond to her sexual advances. She throws him out of her room.
- Doug is drunk, and Lorie Peckarovski (Brian’s partner), goes to his room and seduces him. Kate knocks on his door in the morning to apologize, and Lorie answers the door in a towel.
- Kate seems less interested in preparing for the Olympics. Their coach, Anton Pamchenko, gives them a new move to work on that’s very difficult and dangerous to perform, but he thinks they need to use the move to beat a tough Russian pair expected to be at the Olympics.
- Kate feels unloved and laments to her father that she doesn’t know why she is skating and worries that the glass case he bought to display her Olympic medal will remain empty.
- When they arrive at the Olympics, the Russian pair creates a huge stir before the competition. Kate has to face Lorie again.
- Kate fights with Doug before the short program, because he refuses to button his top shirt button. Their scores suffer.
- Kate tells Doug that she refuses to do the difficult move in the long program, because she thinks it’s too dangerous. Coach warns that they can’t win without the move.
- Kate’s father blames Doug for the fight about the shirt button, and Doug announces that Kate is the reason that she and Brian lost at the Olympics in Calgary. Kate admits that Doug is right.
- Before the long program at the Olympics, Kate tells Doug that she is planning to retire afterward (the “dark night of the soul” moment).
- The Russian pair skates beautifully in their long program. Things don’t look good.
- Doug confesses to Kate that he loves her before the long program, and she tells him she wants to put the difficult move back in the program. Then he argues that it’s too dangerous. (Anything missing from this list? Comment below.)
Of course, they end up doing the difficult move. They win, and Kate tells Doug she loves him, leading to a big movie-ending kiss. It’s hard to watch the movie and not feel a pang of emotion when the skating couple finally gets their act together after the constant tug-of-war throughout the film.
Novel writers can use this same method of throwing obstacle after obstacle in the protagonist’s path to create a satisfying reading experience. While there is no rule specifying how many obstacles are needed, the conflict must escalate throughout the story. It’s much more cathartic to the reader if the hero has to work hard and risk everything to get the prize. Readers want to feel something at the end of a book. Writers who can give the reader a worthwhile emotional experience will create a lasting impression.
Until next time,
Write something you love! — Joanne