Alright, men and women. Day Two of Boot Camp!
You have your novel idea. Now it’s time to fill it page in and page out with various events that keep the reader’s interest. How exactly do you do that?
Novels don’t just spill themselves onto the page (or at least they shouldn’t!). It’s best to make sure that on every page, in every scene, and in the novel as a whole, every character has their own set of goals that they’re striving for and obstacles in their way.
Goals and obstacles. Goals and obstacles. It’s crucial to know what your characters want and what is thwarting them.
Step 1: What does your protagonist want? It could be to save the world, it could be closure on an especially difficult issue, it could be romance, it could be to finally figure out who the Cylons are no seriously this time. But even better if your protagonist wants more than one thing, and these things could very well be at odds with each other at times. The ultimate, most important thing they want should be achieved (or not achieved) in the climax.
Step 2: What is standing in your protagonist’s way? Obstacles reveal the true personality of a character. Are they ingenious? Stubborn? Clever? The way someone deals with conflict and adversity shows a great deal about their true character. Placing roadblocks in front of your characters at (nearly) every opportunity will show you and the reader who they really are. The biggest obstacle in their way should be faced in the climax.
Step 3: What do they value the most? Your protagonist should be in conflict not just with the world, but also within themselves. The battles and travails along the way should reveal the things that they care most about and their true qualities. Best of all, they should have to give up something important in order to get the thing they want the most.
And don’t stop with your protagonist! Every character should have their own set of goals, obstacles, and ultimate values.
Jonathan Franzen is a master of goals and obstacles. If you look at nearly every scene in Freedom, every character has a goal that they approach a scene with (and it’s a goal that the reader clearly understands), and we read on to see if they will obtain it. Often they are blocked by not only another character, but also by themselves.
When in doubt while you’re writing your novel: throw an obstacle in your protagonist’s path. Your reader will thank you for it.
For further reading:
What Do Your Characters Want?
John Green and Dynamic Character Relationships
Sympathetic vs. Unsympathetic Characters
Setting the Pace
Character and Plot: Inseparable!
Christine Macdonald says
This is a great post — thank you for these questions. Obstacles kill the spark, yet we all come across them. Reading this post is perfect timing for me today. Thanks.
Great post. This is precisely why I go into NaNo with an outline. Makes the whole experience more enjoyable and far more productive.
Thanks! I have an outline going, but these reminders strengthen it.
I'm reading FREEDOM now, so I understand what you're saying. I always think of the major goals in threes. You know, classic fairy tale style. Three big efforts, two big disappointments, and then the big finale. I have to remember those smaller goals in between.
I still have no idea what I'm doing for Nano! Kid trades corndog for spaceship? Nah! It's been done!
Do you start a book with obstacles in mind or do the obstacles come to you as you write? I think I know my main character, but I might not after 30K words. How much flexibility and uncertainty do you let yourself have when writing under pressure?
Very helpful. I'm working hard to have a goal and resolution for each scene, too.
Your paragraph on Step 3 gave me one of those Dr. House epiphanies. One of those ideas that pushes over one domino, starting a thrilling chain reaction, and suddenly it all makes sense.
Great info, Nathan. Thanks! This falls right in line with where my 5th-grade students are in their Nanowrimo Young Writer's Program "100% awesome, non-lame workbooks." I think they will appreciate this post.
PJ Lincoln says
It takes a brave soul to do NaNoWriMo. I'm not quite ready for that challenge, just yet, but I want to wish everyone that is doing it good luck!
Nathan is a great teacher in the University of Life, which I attend daily and have huge student loans to pay because of.
I don't know what that means either.
But damnit if I'm not feeling much more prepared for Nov. 1st.
J. T. Shea says
Day Two!? You mean this boot camp lasts more than one day! Yikes! Can I do the slipper camp instead?
Traceybaptiste, kid trades corndog for spaceship? Yes, it's been done. But the wrong way. The kid should start with the spaceship and give it away for a corndog. Kid are always hungry and you can't eat a spaceship (at least not a whole one). Add zombie ballerinas and you've got The Next Big Thing.
Call it JACOB WONDERBAR AND NOT SO MUCH OF THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW BUT TUTUS AND ROTTING BITS FALLING OFF INSTEAD. JWANSMOTCSKBTARBFOI for short.
Great Boot Camp so far. Although I'm mostly more of a "I have it in my head" pantser than a write-it-all-out planner, I like having tips like these to prod my brain in the right direction.
Kayeleen Hamblin says
Thanks for a great post, Nathan. Even if I wasn't planning on doing Nanowrimo, this is a great reminder for what a good book takes. Looking forward to tomorrow's post.
Josin L. McQuein says
I wish I could hand out copies of the little book I found years ago that had all these scribble exercises in it for story development. It asked all sort of questions about the characters' past and motivations, and their likely reactions to given situations that make plotting smoother (at least for me).
I've never looked at story-prep the same way since.
And just an FYI for anyone doing NaNo this year, Scrivener – the awesome of awesome when it comes to writing software – has released a beta version that's Windows compatible through Dec. 12. (it's free, but doesn't have all the Mac. features.)
Some of the things, like the cork board, make setting out the specifics of the who, what, when, etc. more visual for those of us who have trouble with linear thinking.
Thank you, Josin! I'm too poor to own a Mac, and I've been lamenting the free software I'm unable to use. I'll go check it out.
Marilyn Peake says
I love that you mentioned the Cylons and Jonathan Franzen’s FREEDOM in the same Blog post! Perhaps Jonathan Franzen is a Cylon – I mean, seriously, how does a human being ever become that crazy good at writing anyway?!!? OK, now I must completely forget about Jonathan Franzen in order to work on my Science Fiction novel and get geared up to start a YA Paranormal novel in NaNoWriMo. Every time I think about how damn good the writing in FREEDOM is, I freeze up, thinking that, if FREEDOM is an example of writing, then clearly I must be spending hours doing something that is nowhere close to writing. Perhaps I am just scribbling on my computer or something. 🙂
Jeff S Fischer says
Nathan, you're the best. And ah, sir, yes sir, sir. I think.
The Red Angel says
This is a great guide for me to use as I continue to develop my characters, especially my MC. 🙂 Thanks, Nathan, this boot camp is extremely helpful!
That's a scary picture. I hope that never happens to me. It looks cold.
I like this post – I especially like your point about internal conflict. I love what you said about how the protagonist can get in their own way. Although sometimes I can find it irritating when the protagonist is just being dumb. I think that's my daily plea to writers – please don't create obstacles by just making your protagonist dumb. That's really irritating.
Another thing you said that I especially liked was about multiple goals that often conflict with each other. The best books I've read recently have so much going on, it's just great fun to read them. It totally hooks me to wonder how it's all goin to get resolved.
I realized I wrote this post more as a reader than a writer. That's because I'm not sure that I'm a fiction writer. I write other things – non-fiction for one. And I actually have a request, Nathan, that you might consider a post or two about how to write non-fiction. Most of what I see about non-fiction on agent's blogs have to do with platform. I see very little about how to craft non-fiction. As a wonderful non-fiction writer yourself, you might have some good ideas about this. If this interests you.
Okay, that's it. Thanks. Good post.
I'm so glad I stumbled across "Boot Camp". This is my first NaNoWriMo, and so far these posts have helped a lot. Some of the tips you've given I'd never even thought of; some have confirmed what I've already suspected, which is just as valuable.
My only other completed novel took me almost three years to finish, mainly because although I had a strong plot thread, I didn't have well defined character goals at the outset.
This time I'm making sure I know what everyone wants at the outset (subject to characters' nasty habit of doing whatever they feel like as opposed to what you want them to, of course!).
Chris Phillips says
Good post. I'm getting myself in shape with finger flexes and wind typing-sprints.
Kristi Helvig says
Oh, I miss the Cylons. My current wip is chock full of obstacles but you just gave me a great idea for my pitch. Thank you! 🙂
Spot on for everything except the climax. Narratives have two separate climaxes: a readers' emotional climax and a climax internal to a narrative. Readers' climax occurs in an ending. The internal climax occurs closer to the midpoint.
Four factors distinguish an internal climax: All information about the main dramatic complication is known. Efforts to address the complication are greatest. Antagonism forces are in greatest opposition. And outcome is most in doubt.
Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, for example, without giving away the plot, the main dramatic complication is the illicit affair. The novel's internal climax occurs when the illicit affair is revealed to all concerned parties.
Kristin Laughtin says
My main issue lately is not using the same kinds of obstacles over and over. I have obstacles I plan for the characters to address over the long arc, but as I'm still toward the beginning of my WIP I find myself tempted to just have attack after attack. It's lazy writing. And adding Cylons would be cool, but probably not helpful.
Thus: gotta think some more about what would challenge these characters.
Ryan Field says
Great post and good advice.
Jan Markley says
Good advice as writers gear up for NaNoWriMo (aka the month when people write a lot and talk about how they are writing a lot)!
Diane Amy says
Fantastic post. I can't wait for Pt. 3. I mostly know this stuff already, but you are telling it in a way that opens my eyes all over again. Here's to a successful NanoWriMo – my first!
Linda Clare says
Loads of great reminders, loads of great comments. Since it's Halloween Week,have you written body language where the body (parts) take on a life of their own? If so, you could be falling victim to Zombie Gestures. I'm blogging about it over at Linda Clare's Writer's Tips.
Ishta Mercurio says
Okay – I'll read FREEDOM, already. 😉
Excellent post – thanks for the reminder that goals and obstacles are important not only for the broad story arc, but for each scene, as well.
Ishta Mercurio says
J T Shea: I want to read JACOB WONDERBAR because I want to know about the person who traded the spaceship to the kids for the corndog. Nathan, I am SO looking forward to your book!
I'm usually a lurker, but I had to step up and tell you how great this post it. Everyone advocates "conflict" in every chapter, but you've put it in a much more comprehensive way. Thank you!
Buy Generic Levitra says
United States History question: What obstacles did sojourner truth overcome to reach her goals? Became a famous speaker in black and white churches.
Aah, gee, Nathan, I'm going to have to disagree. I hate reading about obsticles and conflict. There's too much in my life already. And I think focusing on these things manifests them. I want to read about wish-fulfilment and fun, exciting and beautiful places, imaginative scenarios, amazing and charismatic/kind people, charm, goodness – things I can learn from, not things that create more worry and consternation. I don't find these exciting, just a drag.
I know that what you've mentioned is the established line in how to successfully create a story, but I wish someone would diverge from this well-trodden path.
I can't spell without a word checker. Everyone else has written 'obstacles' so that must be the way it's spelt – Unless. Could obsticles be the Australian way? *g*
Travis Erwin says
Nathan, my apologies for having a bit of fun with you at the tail end of my latest blog post.
J. T. Shea says
Ishta, the spaceship was secondhand, after all. And I bet the alien guy was behind on the payments, or had stolen it. And the corndog might be the Great Corndog Of The Gods on his planet. The One Corndog To Bind Them All.
Wendy, wish-fulfillment, fun, exciting and beautiful places, etc. etc. I love such things too, and I've put as much of them as will fit into my WIP, but also obstacles and conflicts. They are not mutually exclusive.
It is the nature and scale of the obstacles and conflicts that matter. My young protagonist faces sea monsters, saboteurs, storms, U-boats, plane crashes, minefields, murderous alien Fascists, snow giants, giant airships, torpedo planes and shipwreck. Not exactly the everyday concerns and worries of most people. Perhaps the line is not so established nor the path so well-trodden as you think.
Trading corndogs for a spaceship is a variation on the token payment exchanged for a wish granted. Be careful what you wish for you just might break the universe.
J.J. Bennett says
Very nice. Much like David Farlands take on outlining…
Great advice. I love this time of year because everyone is posting wonderful writing tips.
NaNo or not, these tips are what people need to know to improve their writing.
Leslie Rose says
This post is an awesome writing and teaching tool. Many thanks.