Obstacles, Opponents, and Dilemmas

Nothing should come easy to your hero in pursuit of a goal. If it comes too easy, the story is boring. The more the hero must struggle, the more satisfying the eventual victory will feel.

To create problems that a hero must overcome, you have three methods:

  • Obstacles
  • Opponents
  • Dilemmas

Obstacles represent physical problems in the hero’s environment. In “Die Hard,” a simple obstacle is that the hero only has a hand gun with limited ammunition and he can’t call for help.

In “The Matrix,” the opening scene shows a simple obstacle in that Trinity must escape by reaching a phone booth. That phone boot provides a goal and she must get to that phone booth to get out and survive.

Physical obstacles alone can be mildly intriguing, such as the rising water in a sinking ocean liner like the Titanic. However, physical obstacles alone are rarely enough to sustain interest in a story. What needs to be added are opponents.

Opponents can be the villain, but can also be people actually trying to help the hero but getting in the way. In “Terminator 2,” the hero (the good Terminator) has a problem of trying to stop Sarah Connor from killing the creator of SkyNet.

More likely, opponents are villains directly opposed to the hero achieving a goal. In “The Matrix,” Trinity must overcome the physical distance between her and the phone booth. That alone would be easy if it wasn’t for the policemen and Agent Smith chasing her. By adding an opponent, even the simplest physical obstacle suddenly becomes much tougher to overcome.

Physical obstacle with an opponent can make a story more interesting, but what truly elevates conflict is when the hero faces a dilemma that forces the hero to choose based on inner conflict. The choice the hero makes is what makes the outcome vastly more interesting.

In “Terminator 2,” Sarah Connor overcomes the simple obstacle of finding where the creator of SkyNet lives. When she fails to kill him, she charges into his house and that’s when she runs into the opponent of her own son and the hero (the good Terminator) who arrive to stop her. Now she faces the toughest decision of all, whether to kill someone in cold blood or not.

Dilemmas create inner conflict within a character and that inner conflict is what truly makes scenes memorable because the decision the character makes determines what will happen next.

In “The Godfather,” Michael finally accepts his role of the godfather in the end and shuts the door in his wife’s face. All through the movie, Michael has been resisting getting involved in the family’s organized crime business but in the end, he finally makes that decision to become the godfather, and that decision creates a memorable lasting impression.

So when creating conflict in your story, think of making a physical obstacle to make the hero’s task harder. Then think of an opponent who can actively make the hero’s life harder. Finally, think of how an emotional dilemma within the hero can make it harder for the hero to choose, essentially forcing the hero to fight against themselves.

When you create obstacles, opponent, and dilemmas in a story, your conflict suddenly becomes much richer as a result.

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