Writing Obstacles—Plotting


This is the next installment in the series on common obstacles writers face.

Some people say you can’t have a story without a plot. Others say you can’t have a story without characters. Both are true. I think characters are more important.

If we have a plot with no characters, I’m not sure what we have, but we don’t have a story.

If I have characters with no plot, I have life like we have in the real world outside the book.

In writing a story, we have characters. They can be people, dogs, horses, cats, whatever works for our story and genre. The important ingredient is they have a goal to achieve. Along the way, they encounter problems, obstacles, setback, and failures. The story is how do they overcome them or what happens if they don’t. We love our characters, but making it too easy for them to achieve their story goals isn’t good for the story or the reader.

Simplistically, plot is what the character does or doesn’t do to achieve their goal in the story.

In my first novel, Journey to Riverbend, my main character is Michael Archer. His story goal is to help a young man, Ben, achieve reconciliation with his father. This is the basic plot of the story. The plot thickens, as the cliché says when the hero, Michael, encounters obstacle after obstacle.

The first obstacle is the town hangs Ben for a crime he didn’t commit. This happens in the first chapter. Michael chooses to attempt the reconciliation on his own because it is important for him to keep his word.

Another complication is the father, Sam, threw Ben out of the house and out of the family several years earlier. He is not like the prodigal father in Bible.

Michael arrives in Riverbend to discover the prodigal father has been kidnapped by an old business partner.

Michael joins the posse where there are more complications and obstacles to overcome in the effort to find Sam. When the posse locates the kidnappers, I put Michael in the position of choosing between his two core values: he will always keep his word; and he will never kill anyone. To free Sam, he may have to kill one kidnapper.

I mentioned core values in the above paragraph. Having core values conflict within the character adds complexity and depth to their personality. The value conflict makes them more alive and believable.

Our character’s obstacles and challenges must be believable in the story’s context. And their solutions must also be believable in both the story and story world we’ve created. For example, my story is a Western. Michael can’t have a transporter beam, ala Star Trek, snatch Sam out of danger.

For the ending, we want to avoid cliches and what the Greeks called Deus ex machina—God in the machine. Usually, this refers to the appearance of some unseen or unknown character or force show up at the climax. We can’t have the cavalry ride to the rescue unless we have cavalry earlier in the book. Our hero or heroine can’t have Kung Fu skills in the last scene if they didn’t show theses skills earlier in the story. We can’t have our college professor hero know how to hot wire an escape car unless they’ve shown similar skills earlier. Unless they’re Indiana Jones.

James Scott Bell has an excellent book titled Plot and Structure for help in this area.

Steven James also has a craft book I highly recommend called Story Trumps Structure.

How have you overcome obstacles in plotting your stories?




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