Conflict is the heart of every story and what creates conflict are obstacles. The purpose of any obstacle is to keep characters from achieving their goals. The four types of obstacles include:
Physical obstacles are the simplest and simply involve an inanimate object getting in the character’s way. What makes physical obstacles important is when they force the character into a life or death decision. In “127 Hours,” the hero is trapped in a canyon by a boulder that’s pinning his arm. Now he must eventually decide to cut his arm off in order to live.
Social obstacles are problems created by others. In “Green Book,” a white man is hired to drive a black pianist around the Deep South during the time of segregation. So many of the obstacles these two characters face involve dealing with society’s prejudice against blacks.
Personal obstacles involve one character confronting another. This often involves the hero and the villain such as the hero confronting the villain’s henchmen or the villain’s henchmen confronting allies of the hero. In “The Karate Kid,” the hero and his apartment handyman go to the dojo to confront the villain (who has been bullying the hero) and the villains’ karate instructor. Personal obstacles are often the most interesting types of obstacles because it involves two people fighting each other.
Internal obstacles are also interesting but often overlooked. An internal obstacle forces a character to face his or her own choices and make a decision. Often this involves overcoming a deep-seated belief or idea. In “Terminator 2,” the hero (the good Terminator) is torn between his programming to kill and his orders from John Connor not to kill. In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the hero is torn between his desire to leave his small town and live an adventurous life, and his feeling of duty to keep the savings and loan going to help his friends and neighbors. Internal conflict can enrich any story by letting us see characters constantly forced to choose between what they want and what they believe. Romantic comedies typically involve a decision where the hero and his or her true love belief they can never be together.
In every scene, make sure you have conflict and that means making sure you have one or more types of obstacles. Ideally, load every scene with multiple obstacles. If a scene has no obstacles at all, that scene either needs to be dumped or rewritten.
Obstacles create conflict and conflict is the heart of any story. So keep throwing obstacles at your characters and that will always give your story conflict.