How to Create Meaningful Obstacles Via Conflict

How to Create Meaningful Obstacles Via Conflict

How to Create Meaningful Obstacles Via ConflictConflict is one of those terms frequently used as a catch-all for compelling storytelling, when it’s really just one aspect of what makes a strong story. We use it even though we really mean the scene needs a clearer goal, or more tension, or a better character arc, but saying “this scene needs more conflict” sums it up in a convenient—if confusing—way.

It doesn’t help that so much advice out there (mine included) describes conflict as “the obstacle preventing the protagonist from achieving the goal.” This is technically true, but also false. The obstacles in the way of the protagonist’s goal are the challenges that need to be faced, and usually, there is conflict associated with overcoming or circumventing those obstacles, but an obstacle in the way isn’t all conflict is.

3 Examples of Why “Stuff Happening” Doesn’t Equal Meaningful Conflict

This misconception can lead to stories that look conflict-packed, but actually bore readers.

To be fair, there’s nothing inherently wrong with random obstacles, and they can make for some fun storytelling. Overcoming a random obstacle can show an aspect of the character or reveal a skill. Sometimes a scene just needs “something in the way” to achieve the author’s goal for that scene, and that’s okay.

The problem occurs when the majority of the conflict in a story is a series of random obstacles that do nothing but delay the time it takes for the protagonist to reach and resolve the problem of the novel. They serve no purpose and could be swapped out or deleted, and the story would unfold pretty much the same.

For Example:

  • Imagine the fantasy protagonist who must navigate the desolate wasteland to reach an oracle with answers she needs. While the wasteland could contain conflicts, if nothing has changed for the protagonist between entering the wasteland and leaving the wasteland, she likely faced no conflicts.
  • Picture the romance protagonists who always have “something come up” to keep them from kissing or getting together. While this might work once, or even twice if done with skill, the “near miss” is a contrived obstacle that doesn’t create actual conflict, because nothing is truly keeping the two lovers apart.
  • Consider the mystery protagonist who speaks with multiple witnesses and no one has any information to move the plot along. While speaking to people of interest is a critical part of a mystery, if nothing is ever gleaned, suggested, or learned from those conversations, they were only a delaying tactic and did nothing to create or affect the conflict. Speaking to one witness or twelve doesn’t change anything about the story or character.

It all sounds like conflict—overcoming the thing keeping the protagonist from achieving the goal—but it’s not.

What Meaningful Conflict Does Not Look Like

Let’s explore this further with the fantasy wasteland example:

Getting through dangerous terrain is a common trope for the genre. The protagonist’s goal (to reach the oracle) is on the other side of a set of trials and obstacles, and odds are getting through that wasteland will be quite the adventure for the protagonist.

Say the protagonist’s first obstacle is that she must find water or she’ll die. It’s not easy, but she figures out how to get water.

She travels on until wasteland monsters attack. Again, it’s tough, but she prepared for this and fights them off and keeps going.

Then there’s a storm of some type, forcing her to face off against the elements. She hunkers down, waits it out, and emerges when it’s over.

Finally, she reaches a chasm she must cross. It takes effort, and she nearly falls and dies several times, but she gets across.

At long last, she reaches the end and consults the oracle to get her answers.

At first glance, this sounds like a story with tons of conflict, and it’s possible to give all of these obstacles real conflict, but look closer…

2 Questions to Ask About Your Conflict

1. Do Any of These Challenges Intentionally Try to Stop the Protagonist From Reaching the Goal?

Nothing about the obstacles in the above example shows anyone actively trying to prevent the protagonist from reaching the oracle. Any random person entering the wasteland would have encountered the same issues she did.

And even though these obstacles seemed hard to overcome, were they really? Was the reader ever in doubt the protagonist would overcome them? A good conflict would have come from an obstacle that created a personal challenge to overcome, one that mattered to the protagonist.

2. Does the Protagonist Make Choices That Change Her View or Force Her to Struggle to Find the Right Path?

Nothing about the obstacles in our example challenges the protagonist mentally or emotionally. No hard choices were made to find water or beat a monster. There was nothing really at stake and no soul searching to choose the right path to the oracle. She just dealt with whatever appeared in front of her.

The segment would have been stronger if overcoming these obstacles required internal struggles, or caused a change in viewpoint or belief that made facing them matter to the protagonist’s character or growth.

From a larger story standpoint, the external challenges (physical problems) didn’t do anything to affect the plot or character. Similarly, the internal challenges (mental or emotional problems) didn’t exist. This series of obstacles were just things in the way. They provided no conflict to the goal, even if they did provide obstacles to the goal. Reaching the oracle wasn’t hard, because no matter how difficult those obstacles might have seemed, they caused no struggle or challenge to the protagonist on either a physical or emotional level.

And that’s the difference between conflicts and “something in the way” obstacles.

Remove any of these obstacles and the scene of the protagonist consulting the oracle unfolds exactly the same, because the obstacles did nothing but kill time until the scene could occur.

Conflicts involve struggle. They’re about facing a challenge and having to decide what to do about it—and there are consequences to making the wrong choice and losing (and, remember, death isn’t a real consequence, as protagonists rarely die). If nothing about the challenge is physically, mentally, or emotionally challenging, it’s merely an obstacle and not a conflict.

Conflict encompasses such a wide range that it’s easy to misunderstand. To avoid the common conflict pitfalls, all you have to do is remember it’s how both the external and internal aspects of the plot work together to challenge the protagonist.

Understanding Conflict Janice HardyLooking for more tips on creating conflict? Check out my latest book Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), an in-depth guide to how to use conflict in your fiction.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How do you feel about conflicts that don’t provide meaningful obstacles to the protagonist? Tell me in the comments!

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About Janice Hardy | @Janice_Hardy

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, and multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Planning Your Novel: Ideas, and Structure and Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft. She's also the founder of the writing site Fiction University. For more advice and helpful writing tips, visit her there or or @Janice_Hardy.

Comments

  1. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Janice!

  2. Great article for its insight. I would also add that an obstacle that causes the MC to sacrifice something, a wish, a person, another goal also adds meaning to the conflict and the journey.

    • Janice Hardy says:

      Thanks! Absolutely, there are plenty of ways to make an obstacle meaningful. Sacrifices are one of my favorites, especially for internal conflicts.

  3. Ms. Albina says:

    My character Leilani first one was when she was little getting biting by a shape shifting power. The priestesses did not know if she was going to say but she did not she was terrified for a fortnight and had nightmares and cried herself to sleep then her visions/sight, healing, and started to awaken.

  4. Great stuff here. Suitable for tattooing on my arm.

  5. I hope I can remember this. I can imagine a story becoming 100 x better if the conflict is meaningful and she loses something important to her if she doesn’t win.

    • Janice Hardy says:

      That’s what bookmarks are for! When things matter, readers are much more likely to care about the outcome of a scene or story.

  6. I think another way to look at it is: Does the obstacle include human drama? As you noted, Janice, a storm or a drought doesn’t intend to kill a character. It isn’t malicious. It’s nature, but without framing it the right way, it is not particularly interesting as a story conflict.

    There’s a classic SF story called “Cold Equations” and the “antagonist” is space, and how hostile it is to human life. Okay, but no drama there. Where it does get dramatic is when the pilot of a small ship carrying critical supplies notices he’s losing more fuel than he should be, and realizes he’s got a stowaway on board.

    There is not enough fuel to get pilot and stowaway to their destination, and the delivery of the package is literally a matter of life and death — it includes medicine and supplies for a group of explorers on a hostile planet. It has to get there, or those people die.

    So the pilot knows this stowaway, whoever he is, will have to be spaced out an airlock.

    But as he finds the stowaway in a locker, he realizes it’s not a man. It’s a kid, a scared young girl who missed her older brother and thought she was just hitching a ride to this planetary outpost to see him. She didn’t know that she’d forfeit her life as soon as she stowed on the little ship, didn’t know that the “cold equations” left room for no more weight aboard.

    So now this pilot is faced with a heartbreaking decision. Does he save the girl and allow the explorers to die without their supply drop, or does he stay on course and space a terrified young girl who doesn’t understand the consequences of her actions?

    I thought that was a great example of taking something impersonal and implacable, something that can’t be stopped or reasoned with, and using it to set up an agonizing example of conflict.

    On a somewhat related note, this is why Game of Thrones is pivoting to the White Walkers now — they’re an existential threat, but they’re not particularly interesting. They don’t speak. They don’t have court intrigue, betrayals, incestuous relationships, power struggles or any of the stuff of the show’s regularly juicy drama. So it looks like the show’s writers are gonna have the Walkers dealt with first, and the series will end with the survivors fighting until one of them is queen or king of the ashes.

    • Janice Hardy says:

      That is a good way of thinking about it. What a great example of conflict! Now I want to read that short story and see how it turns out. High stakes, personal consequences, and no “bad guy” to be found, but tons and tons of conflict over what to do.

    • That’s an incredible example of conflict that drives the story. I need to grab a copy of this story now; thanks for the tip!

  7. Overcoming obstacles should involve overcoming fear or uncertainty. The best stories really show character growth. So, in crossing the chasm on the fantasy wasteland, she must overcome her fear of heights. The wasteland is a haven for diamondbacks, and she’s always had a fear of snakes. This is where courage comes in, and the character’s determination to succeed, because the stakes are high.
    The Walking Dead is a great example of how many characters grow and change. Carol was an abused wife, and now, she’s a zombie-killer, survivor, loner. Carl changes many times as he grows up in this world. Etc., etc.

    • Janice Hardy says:

      Exactly. I think this is much easier in stories that do have character arcs, because there’s inner conflict to work with. But it’s gets much harder for genres where there really isn’t much character growth.

  8. I never considered the different between obstacles and conflict before, but this article has shed light on a problem in my writing I might have been missing this whole time. I’m definitely going to plot my future work with this in mind. Thanks for the tip, Janice!

    • Janice Hardy says:

      Most welcome! It’s a subtle difference, but I’ve found simple changes in how I look at something often makes a huge difference in underrating it–and working with it.

  9. Conflict vs. obstacles wasn’t really something I’d considered. Not that my story is completely lacking conflict but I can think of a few places where I’ve used obstacles thinking the obstacle was the “conflict” in a given scene. Thanks for the insight.

    • Janice Hardy says:

      I think we all do it, because “put things in the protagonist’s path” and “what obstacles does the protagonist have to overco0me?” are common (and good) tips for creating conflicts. But there’s more to it, and we don’t always consider if it’s just an obstacle or something more meaningful.

  10. This is a solid article, but I would have loved to see a final example of the wasteland story, that DID have meaningful conflict.

    You can’t teach someone to fish by only showing them how NOT to fish…

    The ‘two questions to ask yourself about conflict’ are helpful, but they are telling, not showing.

  11. David Muwanika says:

    Quite a handful of useful ideas to consider presented in one concise article and its accompanying responses. I will put them to excellent use to perfect the plot of my novel and modify its synopsis

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