Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #6: Internal and External Obstacles

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Yesterday we talked about the first piece of creating conflict – character motivation. Today I want to talk about the second piece – obstacles.

Obstacles are anything that gets in the way of the character’s goals. Obstacles come in all shapes and sizes. Think back to your high school English class when you learned about man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. self, and all that jazz. Obstacles can be anything!

The Internal Obstacle

External obstacles are much easier to get right. You throw an antagonist or a tornado or a ticking time bomb at your protagonist and he scrambles around to try to best it. Internal obstacles, on the other hand, are easy to overlook.

Every main character should have an internal obstacle — something within themselves that stands in the way of achieving what they want. This usually takes the form of an unfortunate character trait, such as being overly fearful, jealous, arrogant, selfish, etc.

This internal obstacle is (usually) not nearly as apparent in the novel as the external obstacles, but creates an extra level of depth. Consider Indiana Jones’ fear of snakes. It doesn’t hold him back in every scene, but it creates exciting and complex tension when it does.

The Beauty of Multiple Obstacles

Unlike multiple motivations, which can clutter the novel and confuse readers, multiple obstacles make for a more interesting and exciting novel. What’s more intense than two ghosts? Three ghosts! What’s more intense than a sword-wielding skeleton? A majorly huge giant right behind him!

Stacking obstacles until your character is in a situation that seems impossible to escape is an excellent way to keep readers hooked.

But it is possible for obstacles to be too big:

Watch Your Scale

In a movie, an epic battle between hordes of alligator-people can be super intense, visually striking, and so terrifying you bite your fingernails. But it doesn’t work the same way in novels.

Books aren’t visual, so the more soldiers, bad guys, or monsters you throw into the scene, the harder it is for the reader to relate to or keep track of any individual one. There is also a point where, as humans, we can no longer process the scope of an event on an emotional level because there is no intimacy. If I tell you that a thousand people were murdered, it won’t have near the impact of drawing you into a death scene for a single girl.

Obstacles in books work much the same way. A bad guy blocking each of the exits will often be a much more intense obstacle than a battlefield full of villains. Once you’ve lost the intimacy of an obstacle, tension is reduced.

If huge epic battles are an obstacle in your novel that cannot be removed, make sure to focus tightly on the main characters during the scene. Don’t rely on sweeping descriptions of the antagonists, but focus in on a few key baddies. And don’t forget to describe emotions!

Obstacles Should Increase in Severity

I talked about this a little bit during the First Page Promise lecture: you do not want to put your most intense obstacle at the beginning of the book. The obstacles your character has to face should increase in intensity and severity over time.

If they fight a twenty-foot space alien in chapter one, then a dust bunny monster in chapter thirty, the dusty bunny monster will seem so tiny and insignificant in comparison that the reader will struggle to feel any sense of tension.

A great way to increase the severity of obstacles is to increase the number of obstacles the character has to face at one time as you approach the novel’s climax.

The Best Obstacles Challenge the Character

Of course, all obstacles challenge the character, but I’m talking about the sort of obstacles that challenge the character on a personal, internal level.

Let’s say your character is deathly afraid of the dark. Use this fear against your character by placing his small child in a pitch black room with a giant monster. Suddenly your character has to face a fear in order to save his child. That’s a lot of complexity and depth for what could be a mediocre scene.

Here’s another example: Your character’s child is being held hostage. The only way to save the child is to shoot the captor, but your character doesn’t believe in murder under any circumstances.

A scene like the ones above will have the reader on the edge of their seat. What’s he going to do? How can he overcome this obstacle despite being scared or against murder? You can practically feel the terror in the character’s heart.

Obstacles that feed off of your character’s darkest issues will be the most captivating.

An Obstacle Should Exist in Every Scene

Just like with character motivation, an obstacle should be present in every scene. Without an obstacle, there is no conflict, and without a conflict, there is no reason for the reader to keep reading.

Note that obstacles do not have to be huge in every scene. They don’t even have to be huge in the novel as a whole. They just need to oppose what the character wants (his motivation), and they need to increase in intensity over time.

The most riveting novels will introduce a new obstacle before or immediately following the elimination of the previous obstacle. You do not want your character wandering around with no obstacles for long periods of time. This can cause the novel to stagnate.

Obstacles are Only Obstacles if the Character Cares

An obstacle must get in the way of a character’s goals. If it doesn’t work against their motivation, or if the character really doesn’t care all that much about it, then it is not a true obstacle.

Obstacles can’t be created by having a character temporarily care about something they ordinarily wouldn’t care about (this goes back to character motivation and how the plot should not dictate it).

If the character has never had an issue with their mother bossing them around and then suddenly (with no explanation/change) views their mother as an obstacle in the way of their independence, their mother will not come across as a legitimate obstacle. The reader will ask, “Who cares? It was never an issue any of the other times!”

For something that was not an obstacle to suddenly become an obstacle, something must first change in the character internally (such as a decision to no longer tolerate their mother’s bossiness).

If you’re struggling to come up with obstacles that truly stand in your character’s way, ask yourself: what is the worst thing that could happen to this character? Chances are you will initially come up with things that are too extreme, but scale it back further and further until you’ve got an obstacle of a reasonable size for the point in the story you’re working on.

Homework: Improving Your Novel’s Obstacles

This is another big homework assignment that might be too extensive for most participants to accomplish over the course of boot camp. Just get started and do as much as you can.

Go through each scene (not chapter) of your novel, and ask yourself the following:

  • Does this scene have an obstacle? If not, you must choose whether to add one in or delete the scene. (Remember that scenes should only be kept if they advance the plot.)
  • Could this obstacle be made more intense? If your character is thirsty, why not also make it hot outside? Oh, and they’re also running. And a lion is chasing them! And they’re wearing a parka!
  • Could this obstacle create conflicting feelings in the character by preying off of their darkest issues? Note, you do not want this to be present in every scene or it could grow tedious. Putting something like this around the climax is a great idea (it facilitates the character arc, which we’ll talk about later).
  • Is the obstacle truly an obstacle? Does the character actually oppose it in some way? If the obstacle gets in the way of an intangible character motivation (independence, acceptance, being loved), was this motivation clearly articulated earlier in the novel?

Now consider your novel as a whole (an outline would be helpful for this but isn’t required):

  • Do the obstacles get more intense over time? If not, you’ve likely got some restructuring to do.
  • Is the obstacle at the climax the most intense of the entire novel? If not, consider making the obstacle personally challenging for your character to add extra oomph to the scene.

Connect with Other Novel Boot Camp Participants

Need a writing friend? Got a question? Need a shoulder to cry on? We’re there for you!

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I will be answering writing and editing questions on our Twitter hashtag as time allows. Due to the insane volume of emails I’m receiving, I cannot provide free advice or assistance via email. Thank you!

What is Novel Boot Camp?

Novel Boot Camp is a free online novel writing course focused on identifying and correcting problems in your novel. Learn more about Novel Boot Camp and find past (and future) posts here.

9 thoughts on “Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #6: Internal and External Obstacles

  1. Linda Vernon says:

    I’ve always read the character needs to have a goal and a conflict that prevents them from getting that goal in each scene, but I never really put two and two together that conflict is created by an obstacle put in the way of the goal. I just assumed I knew what a conflict was. But did I really? It’s such an obvious point and yet . . . .

    As soon as I read this a light bulb went off in my head! Not having a clear obstacle in the way of my character’s scene goal is exactly what’s wrong with the scene I wrote yesterday! I couldn’t put my finger on it, but now I can! Thank you for saving me God only knows how much writing heartache, Ellen!!

  2. Julie Griffith says:

    Very helpful lecture! I tend to make things too easy for my protagonist. There are obstacles, but they are not that hard to overcome. I have a feeling bad things are coming my protagonist’s way, poor thing.

  3. Rebecca says:

    I realised that while I have some great obstacles in my novel, which the protagonist cares about and which increase in severity, they aren’t present in every scene.

    Referring to the first dot point of the homework, are you saying that a scene can’t advance the plot without having an obstacle in it?

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