Obstacles, roadblocks and detours

By Joe Moore

When you write a story, whether it’s short fiction or a novel-length manuscript, there are always two major components to deal with: characters and plot. Combined, they make up the “body” of the story. And of the two, the plot can be thought of as the skeleton while the characters are the meat and muscle.

When it comes to building your plot, nothing should be random or by accident. It may appear random to the reader but every twist and turn of the plot should be significant and move the story to its final conclusion. Every element, whether it deals with a character’s inner or outer being should contribute to furthering the story.

In order to determine the significance of each element, always ask why. Why does he look or dress that way? Why did she say or react in that manner? Why does the action take place in this particular location as opposed to that setting? If you ask why, and don’t get a convincing answer, delete or change the element. Every word, every sentence, every detail must matter. If they don’t, and there’s a chance they could confuse the reader or get in the way of the story, change or delete.

Your plot should grow out of the obstructions placed in the character’s path. What is causing the protagonist to stand up for his beliefs? What is motivating her to fight for survival? That’s what makes up the critical points of the plot—those obstacles placed in the path of your characters.

Be careful of overreaction; a character acting or reacting beyond the belief model you’ve built in your reader’s mind. There’s nothing wrong with placing an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation—that’s what great stories are made from. But you must build your character in such a manner that his actions and reactions to each plot point are plausible. Push the character, but keep them in the realm of reality. A man who has never been in an airplane cannot be expected to fly a passenger plane. But a private pilot who has flown small planes could be able to fly a large passenger plane and possibly land it under the right conditions. The actions and the obstacles can be thrilling, but must be believable.

Avoid melodrama in your plot—the actions of a character without believable motivation. Action for the sake of action is empty and two-dimensional. Each character should have a pressing agenda from which the plot unfolds. That agenda is what motivates their actions. The reader should care about the individual’s agenda, but what’s more important is that the reader believes the characters care about their own agendas. And as each character pursues his or her agenda, they should periodically face roadblocks and never quite get everything they want. The protagonist should always stand in the way of the antagonist, and vice versa.

Another plot tripwire to avoid is deus ex machina (god from the machine) whereby a previously unsolvable problem is suddenly overcome by a contrived element: the sudden introduction of a new character or device. Doing so is cheap writing and you run the risk of losing your reader. Instead, use foreshadowing to place elements into the plot that, if added up, will present a believable solution to the problem. The character may have to work hard at it, but in the end, the reader will accept it as plausible.

Always consider your plot as a series of opportunities for your character to reveal his or her true self. The plot should offer the character a chance to be better (or worse in the case of the antagonist) than they were in the beginning. The opportunities manifest themselves in the form of obstacles, roadblocks and detours. If the path was straight and level with smooth sailing, it would be dull and boring. Give your characters a chance to shine. Let them grow and develop by building a strong skeleton on which to flesh out their true selves.

19 thoughts on “Obstacles, roadblocks and detours

  1. Good points, Joe. Yesterday in a workshop we critiqued some pages which had some plot issues. The writer had set things up so that too many officials would have had to cooperate in a vast conspiracy to make things work. The net effect was that the story was seeming too implausible. By changing a couple of elements, we were able to suggest a way to make things believable, and much more suspenseful.

  2. Great advice throughout, Joe. I especially love your conclusion of the plot being a series of ways for the character to reveal his or her nature. If the story reads like a journey, with growth & challenges for the character, the reader will feel like they’ve come full circle by the ending.

  3. Great point. Everything has a reason, and the character has to behave believably. That makes all the difference.
    Just thinking about my own WIP, I have one or two things in there that, in the light of today’s post, I have to go back and think a little more about. It’s not enough for it to be a good scene or a great line. It has to *mean* something to the story or it’s just intellectual throat clearing.
    I sigh and get back to the drawing board.

  4. Good advice, Joe. Hardest lesson for me to learn was to pare away scenes that didn’t add to the plot or the characters. I learned the hard way when I read my books outloud for an audio edition.

    • I know what you mean, Elaine. Lynn Sholes and I have dumped whole chapters in the past once we realized they were written for our benefit and not the reader’s.

  5. Excellent advice and so well-expressed, Joe! I edited a novel a year or two ago in which the mid-40s police detective suddenly started using Tae Kwon Do to defeat the bad guys. This seemed unbelievable to me, so I advised the author to either change that or show earlier that he goes to Tae Kwon Do lessons in his spare time – or at least used to.

    You make several excellent points here, techniques that will strengthen any novel. I’ll be sharing your words of wisdom on social media and sending my clients here.

  6. Joe–always straightforward, well-written AND useful writing guidance–thank you (I always print it out). I am writing suspense, and as I understand it, a suspense novel is not synonymous with a thriller. In my novels, the central POV character is not aware of the pending disaster: the reader is placed in a position of superior knowledge, watching my characters act in ignorance. This presents some special challenges in terms of both plotting and character development. The trick is to create characters that, when the shit finally hits the fan, will act in ways that make sense in terms of what went before. If you have any words of wisdom for this set of circumstances, I’d really like to hear them.

  7. Barry, you have described a classic thriller scenario. First, let me give a simple definition of mystery versus thriller. BTW, I believe both can be suspenseful. In a mystery, an event takes place and the central POV character spends the rest of the story discovering who caused the event (who committed the murder). A thriller is the opposite. There is a threat of an event (possible terrorist attack) and the central POV character spends the rest of the story trying to stop the event. Unlike a mystery, the antagonist in a thriller is usually known from the start. I would not categorize the main character as acting out of ignorance more than acquiring knowledge and clues. In a thriller, the main POV character must be qualified to stop the threat, either based upon past experience or gained knowledge as the story unfolds. Hope that helps.

    • Joe–thank you, but I’m afraid I must not have made myself clear. The issue isn’t thriller versus mystery, but the differences between thrillers and suspense novels. As I understand it (and as it’s been explained to me), in a thriller, the central pov character works throughout to avert disaster, or to stop one in progress. But in a suspense novel, this process of trying to stop something from happening is NOT a necessary feature. In mysteries, some crime, usually murder, has already taken place, and the story involves discovering who done it. My special interest is in dramatic irony–the reader satisfactions that come from watching characters operate in ignorance of what the reader already knows. So “suspense” in such stories doesn’t have to do with either uncovering who done it, or with the hero struggling against odds to avert disaster. It has to do with experiencing the buildup of tension that precedes a disaster, and in waiting to see how the hero deals with it.

    • I think we’re speaking the same language, Barry. The only difference is that, personally, I’ve never considered “suspense” as a separate genre. For me, it is more of a characteristic of any novel. I clearly see the difference in my mind between mystery, thriller, romance, science fiction, etc. I think all can be suspenseful. If a main character is move through the book without a goal, suspenseful or not, the book would lack a key element that keeps the reader turning pages. I don’t think a writer could build suspense under that condition.

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