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Stirring The Plot: Physical Obstacles

Physical obstacles prevent movement, communication, access to a person, the retrieval of an object, and necessary exchanges. 

Physical distance prevents access which increases tension.

Time limits put the tension level at full throttle.

These are the types of action scenes that leave your readers biting their nails. The harder the task, the greater the anxiety level for the reader.

1. A physical barrier, like having to break into a safe or out of a cell.

This is a key tool in every genre from thriller t0 romance. Yes, romance. In the Outlander series, there are numerous times when Jamie and Claire must rescue one another from captors. And what is a heist movie without obstacles to the theft?

2. A situational barrier, such as trying to enter an area that is off limits.

Whether you character succeeds through sweet talk or stealth, waiting for them to get past this barrier can be funny, thrilling, or heartbreaking.

3. Physical restraints, like being stuck inside a car, plane, or train. 

Or trying to break free from handcuffs or a straight jacket. Your character does not have to be a magician to use this tool. They can be tied up or boxed in. Everyone can relate to the need to escape.

4. Missing the target whether it is a boat, train, airplane, or opportunity.

This is another situation your audience can relate to. The nearer the miss, the higher the tension. Will they get another chance or have to find another way?

5. Limited mobility due to a temporary or permanent physical disability.

Self-healing thriller characters aside, when your character is shot, stabbed, or otherwise hobbled, they will have difficulty doing what comes next.

6. Misunderstanding the time frame involved or being given an impossible timeline.

The ticking clock is arguably the most intense tool in the tension toolkit. There must be an "or else" for it to work properly. Nothing is worse than setting a ticking time bomb that doesn't go off.

7. Physical distances that make accomplishing the task difficult or impossible.

Whether you character has to traverse a hall, a flight of stairs, an eighty-story building, or rush from country to country, your readers feed on the the adrenaline rush your character experiences as he tries to accomplish the impossible.

8. Being misled about the correct destination.

Friend or foe, antagonist or love interest, missing the bus gives your readers a feeling of let down. They can relate to that moment when you realize you've taken the wrong turn, the wrong plane, or walked into the wrong bar.

9. Not being able to touch.

Truly, nothing is more agonizing than watching characters who desperately want to touch each other being kept apart. It can be lovers who are forbidden to love, or a mother reaching for a child who is slipping through her hands, literally or figurative. It can be the grieving loved one trying to reach the dead or dying. This tool can gut your reader or fill them with longing.

10. Different places or times.

This tool works best in the science fiction and fantasy realms where characters are literally worlds or time periods apart. From Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series to the movie Somewhere in Time, nothing keeps people apart more effectively than being in different eras. Your characters can be placed in different planets, starships, or fairy realms. Your readers will hang on to find out how they resolve these great distances.

For more about how to craft plots using conflict check out, Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of conflict available in print and e-book and check out the free tools and information about the series on my website.

Stirring the Plot: Ability Obstacles

Ability obstacles are created by a character's need to decide what to do, form a plan, and take the necessary action. Some are able to make a plan and stick with it. Others prefer to wing it. Some make quick decisions. Others dither. Pairing opposites to get the job done creates conflict.

Every character has strengths and weaknesses. He has areas of expertise and areas of ignorance. When action needs to be taken, different characters take it in different ways.

Let's look at ten ability obstacles.

1. A character lacks the strength or expertise to perform a physical or mental task.

2. He struggles with forming a plan and seeing it through. Planning may not be one of his strengths or his need to have a plan can keep him from taking action on the fly.

3. He does not have enough or has too much time to think it through. The more a character needs time to process, the more anxious he becomes when under the gun. Does he scatter or can he pull it together?

Some characters struggle with spontaneity, others are chronically impulsive. Sometimes having too much time to think can give the character a chance to doubt the wisdom of his choice.

4. Characters differ in their approach to the problem.

Characters with differences in problem solving methods will clash. Whose method is better? Which will work in the specific instance? Can they balance each other out and succeed or drill holes in the boat and sink the effort? One needs to have a plan, another wings it. One needs to be sure of the outcome, the other doesn't care. He will build wings on the way down.

5. His natural approach fails and he must rely on his weak side.

Giving your character a task that requires him to use his weaknesses can be an opportunity to show growth.

6. He tries the opposite approach and it backfires.

Use this when you want a spectacular failure during the time when it appears all is lost. He can then tell his partner: "I told you so."

7. He invests effort in the wrong solution and fails. 

During the early part of the story, this tactic is often used. The character thinks he knows what the problem is, who the bad guy is, or where the problem lies. He wastes the first half working toward the wrong goal. At the appropriate turning point, he realizes his mistake and recalculates.

8. He is uncomfortable deciding

Your character's inability to decide can be his worst nightmare or a silent strength. Perhaps he holds back while everyone else rushes ahead and ends up being the only one left standing. He can be pushed by others into the wrong job, the wrong relationship, or the wrong cause. He can act as sole voice of reason. Others will be irritated with his dithering, but his dithering can result in him being the only one to see clearly. Or it can simply cause passive-aggressiveness that drags out the conflict.

9. His timing can be off. He decides too soon or too late.

His amorous attempts can be too little to late or he can come through at the very last minute and change his love interest's mind. He can choose the wrong girl, then meet the right one. He can decide to join the battle too late and strike out on his own to rectify his mistake. Deciding too late could save him from being collateral damage so he can solve the problem on his own.

10. He just wants the problem gone and takes the wrong action.

This is useful in the early part of the plot where you want things to go wrong for your protagonist. A story problem arises, so he make a snap decision or makes a wrong move. This sets up the conflict for the next act. He must spend the saggy middle cleaning up his mess and choosing a new course of action. This course of action often fails as well and he finds the right path in the final act.

For more about how to craft plots using conflict check out, Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of conflict available in print and e-book and check out the free tools and information about the series on my website.

Stirring the Plot: Knowledge Obstacles

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At each stage of the story problem, you have to decide what your character knows, when he knows it, how certain he is, and how hard it would be to convince him he is wrong.

Knowledge obstacles prevent understanding and complicate communication. 

How do your characters communicate?

Do they ask questions or give orders?

Do they listen to answers or brush them off?

Higher education teaches characters to think and debate, rarely does it teach them to get in touch with their feeling side. When it comes to our sweet sixteen, each could strengthen his weak side.

In previous posts, we discussed persuasion plot holes. Knowledge obstacles can create internal and interpersonal conflict. They often require your characters to persuade another to their way of thinking. When they are presented with knowledge obstacles, they can be forced to use persuasion tactics.

1. Missing information.

Some characters are fine with proceeding without all of the information. Others need lots of data to make decisions. Forcing opposites to work together or placing a character in a situation where they need to act outside of their comfort zone increases the tension.

2. Conflicting ways of obtaining information.

Some characters prefer facts, others prefer impressions. The dichotomy between solid and fuzzy data will make different characters uncomfortable. Pair opposites or force your characters to require the opposite of what they rely on. They can argue whether the information obtained was obtained correctly or incorrectly based on their opinion.

3. Receiving the same information but interpreting it differently.

Your characters can look at the same collection of facts, figures, or opinions but have completely different reactions to them. Their differences of opinion can cause low-level or explosive conflicts.

4. Conflicting information.

Information can come from conflicting resources, multiple resources, or inaccurate people. Muddying the waters will make some characters more uncomfortable than others. It will come down to who they trust or who they believe. How much do they like the person? What do they want to hear or believe? When the facts don't add up, it creates dissonance.

5. Inaccurate information.

Characters can be intentionally or unintentionally misled. How they feel about going forward with faulty information can result in guilt, recrimination, or resentment. It can result in a failure to meet their overall story or scene goals. This results in a need to gather new information or take action to fix the problem it has created. This moves the plot forward.

6. Inability to understand the information due to language differences.

Whether you are talking Mars and Venus, different ethnicity, or alien versus human, not being able to communicate effectively creates conflict. Attempts to overcome these differences can be comic, poignant, or frustrating.

7. Inability to deliver an important piece of information.

Your character can meet many obstacles when he needs to impart crucial information to another character. It could be lack of cell phone signal, being bound and gagged, or being physically prevented from approaching his target.

8. Knowing something he doesn’t want to acknowledge.

This can be a harsh reality for your character. As long as he refuses to accept the truth, he will be unable to solve the issue at hand.

9. Communicating what they know.

This comes back to persuasion techniques. He may not be taken seriously by his audience. He may not be considered a valid source of information. He may not be in a state to inspire confidence in his rantings.

10. Who he chooses to tell.

Your character can refuse to talk unless he is allowed to speak to someone he trusts. He can trust the wrong person. He can withhold important information which can lead to further conflict.

11. How and when he chooses to tell.

Delivery is half the battle. Does he try to appease or inflame the audience? Has he picked the worst possible moment to drop his bomb? Has he reached a point where he just can't keep the information to himself any longer?

Read more about persuasion techniques and pitfalls:

The Persuasion Plot Hole

Persuasion Tactics Part 1

Persuasion Tactics Part 2

Persuasion Tactics Part 3

For more information on crafting characters and plots check out my website and pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict in print and e-book.