Tuesday, 8 March 2011


Every novel needs goals and obstacles. Or, rather, the main character does. So, I thought I'd offer you a practical lesson in this, in case it's something you haven't properly thought through. It may not just be the main character who needs goals and obstacles - there may be a secondary (and tertiary) character to focus on, too, though it's fair to say that minor characters don't have to have major goals and obstacles, or not obviously.

Ask yourself some questions:
  1. Is my MC's goal interesting and important enough for this genre and for the readers I aim to snare? For example, the MC being desperate to own a dog might be sufficient goal for a gentle book for six-year-olds but not for most other readers. (Though it's not beyond the bounds of possibility that a good writer could create an exciting story out of this premise, by adding a great deal of extra interest.)
  2. Have I put sufficient obstacles in the way of this goal? Have I paced them well, increasing suspense? Do the obstacles hang together within the story, rather than being completely random-seeming?
  3. Do my readers care sufficiently about my MC that they are desperate for him or her to achieve the goal? The creation of a rounded character who we have strong feelings about is essential to keeping us reading. We must care and believe.
  4. Have I created enough complexity by having more than one goal, and perhaps by running a sub-plot which will conflict and even become part of the obstacles? Secondary characters can be very useful in this. 
Let's look at different types of obstacle. They can be:
  • caused by the MC's own mistake
  • caused by the MC's enemy
  • caused by a secondary character accidentally getting in the way
  • caused by external influences
  • caused completely by accident - don't overdo these or you'll end up with a mishmash of things and the reader will think you're just making it up as you go along. Which of course you are, but not in a good way. 
Obstacles should be:
  • interesting
  • relevant
  • congruous
  • sometimes seeming insurmountable
  • frustrating for the reader but not too frustrating - you don't want the reader screaming at you. Much.
  • generally increasing as the MC reaches the goal
  • overcome at just the right speed, generating the amount of suspense you want. Too quick and it's a let-down; too slow and it can become frustrating.
One of the problems I most often see in aspiring writers' work is lack of focus on the goal and the obstacles, lack of real effort to ensure that this goal is genuinely interesting and exciting for the reader. You must define and sharpen the goal and obstacles otherwise your story becomes a walk in the park instead of the gripping adventure it usually needs to be.

So, leap out at your MC and give him the shock of his life. But make the readers suspect you're going to leap out, so that the reader hangs around, fingers over his eyes, hardly daring to read on and yet being unable to stop.

Get the goals and obstacles right and you end up with a novel that is likely also to have suspense, pace and narrative thrust. And most novels benefit from an awful lot more narrative thrust than I see in most unpublished (and some published) work. In fact, it's one of the main things I'll be talking about in my workshops and talks over the next months - including at the York Festival of Writing.

Talking of workshops, there are no spaces left at my What's Wrong With your Manuscript evening in Edinburgh but there ARE spaces on the Secrets of Writing for Children and Teenagers one. If you come to that, you will get an invitation to the launch party!


Ebony McKenna. said...

Fantastic post once again.
Make the reader care, and they will keep reading.

Also with goals (on account of attending a 'goal, motivation and conflict' workshop last year) you can have multiple goals and the MC may achieve some of these along the way - or change their mind along the way and replace an initial goal with a goal of more importance.

To continue your 'I want a dog' theme, it could begin with a selfish goal of wanting a dog, to grow bigger eg: the MC saving a whole barking pound of dogs destined for horrible things . . .

catdownunder said...

Oh right..."I want a dog" - a guide dog or gets to train a guide dog/puppy...or a sheepdog (again which needs training) - gah, now what have you started? As a cat I object! Wants a dog indeed! Miaou!
But yes, to turn human again, I do understand what you are saying!

Anonymous said...

Great post. Made me consider my own stories and whether the goals are strong enough and the obstacles realistic enough. Something I need to go over again, I think. Thanks!

Charmaine Clancy said...

Thanks for this post, very informative.

Paul Anthony Shortt said...

This is an excellent post!

Dan Holloway said...

There was a great episode of New Tricks where dog ownership was absolutely key - it centred around the capacity for a dog's liver to concentrate the toxins from the livers of other animals, and therefore be used as the perfect poison for dispatching the owner's wife. I don't know if that counts as lots of extra material, but it was utterly gripping

Nadia Damon said...

I recently revised my MS with this in mind and found myself moving a lot of things around simply because some of the suspense reveals just seemed a little too contrived - eg, guess what else I discovered etc!!!

I've found it quite a challenge to try and put myself in a reader's shoes so that I can judge the plot as I would someone else's novel - but hopefully I've managed to do that.

It must be an amazing feeling to know that somebody couldn't put your book down...

J.L. Campbell said...

Good questions I need to think about and work out for my MC's. It's important to have goals that don't lag halfway through the story, leaving a gap that's hard to fill as the book comes to a close. I think I read this somewhere recently as well, the fact that writers sometimes don't have enough of a storyline to sustain an entire novel, so lack of interest sets in the further the novel progresses.

Fran Hill said...

This is really helpful. Thanks for the advice. I shall try to reassess my book in the light of it ....

Anonymous said...

This should be mandatory reading.

Stroppy Author said...

I am very disappointed. I thought it said 'goats and obstacles driving your plot'. I was looking forward to the goats. Better learn to read, I guess, then writing may follow.