Stories need structure. You don’t have to outline your story but the structure must be there. One of the essential pieces of story structure is the story obstacle or antagonist. As a writer, you know you need a strong obstacle to make a super story, but how does that work on paper?
The Power of the Goal and Problem
Your character’s goal and his problem must be powerful enough to engage your reader for the length of the story. Thus a short story problem is short and simple. A novel-length story problem is longer and more complex. And a series of novels have even more complex story problems.
How do you know your story problem is strong enough for a novel?
The answer to that question is in your story structure.
Your story starts in the protagonist’s normal world. He has a goal but hasn’t pursued it for internal reasons. If he achieves his goal without difficulty, you have no story. Enter the obstacle or opposition. The obstacle can be one or many things. It can be internal. It can be physical disabilities or challenges. Environmental things such as distance or weather can be an obstacle. Or the obstacle can be a person or creature whose goal is in opposition to the protagonist. For the sake of clarity and brevity, I’m going to call the opposition the antagonist from now on.
The Job of the Antagonist
It’s the job of the antagonist to force the protagonist into action by pursuing his own goal. In a short story, an antagonist may only exist to stop the protagonist, but it likely won’t be a story with resonance. The antagonist has his own reasons, his own goal, and problem. His problem and goal do not have to be direct opposites of the protagonist. But his goals mean either the protagonist or the antagonist will win. Not both.
These strikes are called Pinch Points in Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. Other writers call these events a crisis.
During the course of the story, the antagonist will make at least four attempts to reach his goal. One attempt for each quarter of the story. The antagonist’s actions will make the protagonist’s quest more difficult directly or indirectly. And each strike results in higher stakes for the players (antagonist and protagonist).
If the protagonist wins any of these encounters with the antagonist, it must be a false victory. A false victory is when the protagonist thinks he won at the time but soon learns he was mistaken.
There can be other obstacles within the story but those are often red herrings or subplots or complications.
The Protagonist Must Choose
Each of the antagonist’s actions must force the protagonist to make a choice. Every choice the protagonist makes has consequences. The most compelling will be the antagonistic actions that force the protagonist to choose between two “good” things or two “bad” things. Choosing one “good” over the other means one “good” must lose and that loss must cost the protagonist in some way. The choice between two “bad” things means the protagonist will pay either way.
The Final Battle
In the final quarter of the book, the protagonist and antagonist must have a face-off. This is what your reader has been waiting for. The protagonist may still be the underdog or they may be evenly matched. The stakes are at their highest for this battle. It’s win or lose time.
This final battle for the goal must be on the page or your reader will be disappointed. Make your protagonist and antagonist go at each other with everything they have. The battle and the reason for the victory or loss is the big payoff for your reader. Make sure it counts.
A strong third rail to your story (see Because There are Lies, Secrets, and Scars for more about the third rail) and strong antagonist mean writing the middle of the story will be easier. The structure of the battle between the protagonist and antagonist gives your story movement. That movement is what keeps the reader turning pages. That’s why strong obstacles make a super story. It’s why stories need structure.
If you need more help understanding obstacles and antagonists, I recommend reading Bullies, Bastards & Bitches by Jessica Page Morrell and Conflict and Suspense by James Scott Bell.
Use structure and create strong obstacles to make a super story. You’ll enjoy writing it and your fans will love reading it.