It won’t be news to many writers that one of the best ways of creating narrative tension on the page is to give a character a powerful desire and then throw obstacles in her way. The character’s ability to overcome obstacles and move forward is what creates the tension that will make the reader keep reading.
What we don’t talk about so often is how to select the most effective obstacles to test our character’s fortitude, and ability to overcome whatever is standing in her way. By this, I’m not asking how we choose whether the most effective obstacle is, say, a person versus a raging river (although that’s an important choice too.) Rather, I’m talking about the gravity of the obstacle, and the degree of difficulty inherent in overcoming it.
The reason I’ve been thinking about this lately is that in critiquing my own work, and the work of friends, I’ve realized that sometimes an obstacle isn’t really an obstacle. It’s more of a little hiccup in the road. At other times, what looks like an obstacle is actually an insurmountable wall for the character, and the character’s inability to conquer it can make that character seem passive or hopeless.
Of course we don’t mind if our characters have hopeless moments before they regroup and succeed, or before deciding to head home and give up on the journey having learned something about their limits. However, what we don’t want is for the character to stand in front of the wall shaking her head and seeming confused and without direction.
While desires and obstacles are a basic part of most hero’s (and heroine’s) journeys, we don’t always talk about crafting obstacles of an appropriate magnitude to maximize tension.
If a desire is too weak and an obstacle too strong, the character is likely to give up, and that will create a very unsatisfying reading experience.
By the same token, if the desire is strong, but the obstacle is minimal and easy to overcome, the reading experience will be equally unsatisfying.
By “strong” and “weak,” I mean in terms of their significance to the character. A desire for a pink party dress can be a very strong desire if there is a powerful narrative reason why the dress is important to the character, and she’ll go to great lengths and defy serious odds to achieve it.
If my character has to fight her way through an inhospitable jungle to get to safety, I might throw obstacles in her way like mountains that are difficult to climb, rivers that are difficult to cross, armed bandits chasing her etc. But I have to make it possible for her to confront and conquer, or at the very least to somehow circumnavigate, the obstacles. If I make the mountains too high, the river impassable (with no alternate routes available) and the bandits too formidable, it won’t be much of a story, especially if the setup leaves my characters dispirited and befuddled, potentially along with my readers.
It might be worthwhile at some point in your writing to create a list of obstacles and the stakes attached to them for the character to ensure that the degree of difficulty and the stakes are escalating (if that’s the effect you want) or at least the obstacles are sufficiently challenging, without being impossible for the character to confront in some meaningful way.
Even if your ultimate message is that a specific obstacle is too steep and your character has to learn when to give up, you’ll still want to match the magnitude of the obstacle with what you want the character to learn from it in terms of her narrative stakes. Whether or not your character ultimately succeeds and experiences a happy ending, versus fails and ends up losing, the desire-to-obstacle ratio should ideally support your character’s narrative arc and maintain sufficient tension on the page to engage the reader.