After creating a rough story outline, a hero, and a villain, the next biggest obstacle may be creating relevant obstacles to get in the way of the hero. In a bad movie, these obstacles come out of nowhere and feel fake and contrived. In a good movie, these obstacles seem integral yet still surprising. Here’s how to make your hero’s obstacles unique.
Imagine a man trying to get to the top of a hill. We could create any number of obstacles to slow him down. A tornado or blizzard would be one way, a rabid BigFoot or lion would be another obstacle. Still another might be an army on top of the hill with guns. Which one of these obstacles would work best for your story?
Use two criteria here. First, your obstacles should fit within the world of your story. If you have a war movie, then an opposing army on top of the hill would naturally be a logical obstacle. However, having a bunch of lions at the top of the hill in a war movie might not make any sense or feel contrived. What keeps an obstacle from feeling phony is its relevance to the rest of the story.
Suppose your story is a war movie in Africa. Then a lion on top of a hill might make a good obstacle. What’s more important though is creating the toughest obstacle for your hero. Physically, you can always create an absurd obstacle for your hero. Imagine a soldier trying to get to the top of a hill and Godzilla suddenly appears. That’s a tough obstacle, but it’s a meaningless one if it isn’t set up properly for the audience to expect Godzilla.
Here’s a better way to create obstacles. Don’t just create bigger physical obstacles, but think about your hero’s weakness. Suppose your hero is afraid of mice. Then putting a mouse in front of your hero can stop him from achieving his goal. Since a mouse is relatively weak, make the hero afraid of something more sinister like snakes, and then pile on the snakes and make them poisonous as well such as in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Even if we aren’t afraid of snakes, we are afraid of lots of poisonous snakes.
What makes this scene work is that Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes, so seeing masses of poisonous snakes compounds his fear. The snakes alone are scary enough, but when your hero is emotionally weak at dealing with snakes, now the stakes get pushed up even higher.
Going back to the opposing army on the hill example, suppose the opposing army is being led by the man’s son? The man has to get up the hill but his son is leading an army opposing him. Just having an army opposing you is bad enough, but toss in the emotional component of fighting against your son too and the stakes get raised even more.
That’s how you raise the tension of any obstacle. You make it both a physical obstacle and an emotional one. The physical obstacle is bad enough such as snakes or an opposing army, but then you give the hero an emotional dilemma to grapple with as well. This is hitting your hero hardest where your hero is the weakest, and this makes your obstacles much stronger and terrifying.
How will Indiana Jones deal with a roomful of poisonous snakes? That’s scary, but now how will he survive when he’s also afraid of snakes too?
Notice that Indiana Jones finds a way out of the snake-infested room whether he was afraid of snakes or not. However, his fear of snakes makes the scene much tenser for us to watch even though it’s basically nothing more than Indiana Jones escaping from a room. The physical details of his escape are trivial, but it’s his emotional fear of snakes that makes the scene far more interesting and memorable.
When writing obstacles for your hero, go ahead and make them physical enough to scare everyone, but toss in the emotional weakness of the hero to make your obstacles even worse just for that hero. That will help make your obstacles that much tougher for your hero to overcome, and you won’t have to go to wild extremes to do it.