Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal. ~ Henry Ford
It happened in slow motion. I’m on the interstate going 65 mph, traffic was heavy. All of a sudden, a wheelbarrow fell off the back of a pickup truck in front of my car.
I was in the far left lane. Swerving to my right lane wasn’t an option, it was full of cars. The left shoulder was narrow and led to a steep drop off. I gripped the wheel and had a split second to weigh my options. If I maintained my course, the wheelbarrow would burst through my windshield. If I went to the right, I could cause a multi-car pileup. There was a car tailgating me, so I couldn’t hit my brakes. This was the biggest obstacle I’ve ever encountered on the highway.
In order to grab my reader’s attention and keep it, I need to throw some wheelbarrows in my character’s direction. I can’t have him reach his goals without a hitch; he’s going to have to work for it. This work will add conflict and tension to my plot and keep my reader’s turning the page. Real life is full of conflict; my character’s life shouldn’t be any different.
The first wheelbarrow he will encounter will be at the start of the story, a critical situation that changes his life. It will relate directly to the character’s goals causing major shifts in his life. It will force him to experience the story’s events.
I want to avoid stringing together bombs and car chases placed incorrectly in the narrative structure. Of course, those things are exciting and bring hardships to my characters, but they are only tiny wheelbarrows in the scope of the story. Unless they are part of the huge wheelbarrow racing toward him at 65 mph, then the scenes won’t be enough to keep my reader engaged.
By making sure my obstacles are logically and intricately connected to everything else that’s happening in the story, my characters struggle, without being predictable. I want my readers to be surprised and wonder how my character overcame the wheelbarrow.
I still think about that day on the interstate. I’m unable to explain how I guided my car around the wheelbarrow. If I hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here writing this post. God took over the wheel that day and for that, I’m grateful.