The 3 Best Tips on Plot Structure, Tension, and Obstacles - #WriteTip

If you’re serious about being a writer, then like me, you’ll love discovering new ways to hone your craft. I get excited whenever I learn something new that will make me a better storyteller. And I’m very passionate about sharing it with other writers, too. This industry is always evolving and is never stagnant. 

In order for the plot to be interesting and keep readers flipping the pages, you need some obstacles throughout the narrative. In a way, it is like problem solving or fitting the pieces of a complex puzzle together. Make sure your main character has a clear dramatic goal to reach, and then make it practically unattainable. That's how a lot of writers create a bestseller.

For example, the main character must solve a mystery or figure a way out of a bad situation, but whenever he tries to improve things more terrible occurrences befall him. The reader will become intrigued because they’re curious as to “how” the hero will overcome these obstacles. 

So here are the 3 Great Tips on Plot Structure, Tension, and Obstacles for a fiction novel!

Goal. Motivation. Conflict. 

These are three central parts of story structure: goal, motivation, and conflict, which are the key elements that drive a plot.

For example:

How will Martha prove that aliens abducted her before her family commits her to psychiatric hospital? 

How will Sara find her missing son before the kidnapper kills him? 

How will John get to work on time in the heavy traffic after his boss warned him that he’d get fired if he was late again?

Now come the obstacles.
Before these characters can move forward, something else is thrown into their path that hinders them from reaching their goal. These are obstacles, and they can big or medium. Pour on the troubles, and readers will feel frustration along with the character as they set out on their journey and encounter each roadblock.

Martha's goal is to prove that aliens exist. But she can’t prove anything unless she faces her own fears
(obstacle) and tries to make contact with the scary extraterrestrials. Martha does not want to get locked up (motivation) in a mental ward.

Sara's goal is to rescue her son. However, she can't help her son when no one believes her and the police claim he’s just a runaway (conflict). Since Sara is her son's only hope (motivation) she decides to rescue him alone.

John's goal is to get to work on time, but now he won't make to work by eight o'clock because of an (obstacle) accident. John can't lose this job because he's already behind on the rent (motivation) and he doesn't want to become homeless.

I know some writers that like their characters so much that they don’t put up any roadblocks or give them any difficult situations to face. Create some conflict in their lives. Please. Make your characters suffer, even just a little. Not only does it make them more likeable, but the reader will
also start to root for them. They’ll want to keep reading just to find out if Timmy is able to find (goal) his runaway dog, Fido, before the mean dogcatcher does (motivation), and Fido ends up being sent to the dog shelter (conflict and stakes).

To be honest, a story without any conflict or tension or opposing force is, well, boring. All great novels need to have some type of dilemma for the hero to overcome. (I find so many New Adult novels lacking any real conflict or tension. Not even character goals. To me that equels a snooze-fest.) 

Just think of every blockbuster movie ever made. The hero is not only on a journey of self-discovery, but bad things kept happening to him along the way. He might even feel like giving up at some point, but then something else occurs, which gives him a spark of renewed hope to keep going. And then he faces any new challenges head-on and starts to defeat the opposing force. Now, that’s good storytelling! 

The phrase, “One step forward, two steps back,” applies to plot structure the same as it does in real life. Just when a person might think they’re moving forward, something happens to cause them to stumble backward. Whatever happens causes the person (character) hurt, tension, stress, or apprehension. The character must fight those setbacks. And the more a character wants something (goal), the harder they should fight to attain it (conflict). Don’t make it easy for them.

Don't create passive characters without any goals or "wants" because those types are just boring. Don't write passive characters without any conflicts or tension. Don't let passive characters without any stakes drift through scenes.

The hero has to have major obstacles standing in the way of achieving his goal. Even if they’re medium, annoying problems, these dilemmas must keep him from doing whatever it is that he has set out to do.

He/she shouldn’t drift through scenes without facing some problems, even his own inner-demons. Virtually every main character(s) must suffer from some type of moral dilemma or weakness (character ARC / flaw) besides all the obstacles that are tripping the MC up from obtaining their goal. 

Let your hero make bad choices and then learn from them. Allow him a few mistakes that ruin his chances of obtaining a goal. Throw huge obstacles in front of him that cause tension and conflict within his world. Raise the stakes to avoid a "sagging middle" story.

There is no plot or story if the character doesn’t have any goals to achieve or obstacles to overcome.

Some plot devices used in books:

Striving toward a goal
Overcoming obstacles in pursuit of goal
Solving a mystery
Resolving a problem
Bringing order to chaos (return to equilibrium)
The Hero’s journey
Flight and pursuit
Coming of age (from innocence to experience)
Personal growth

Let’s say your hero is a cop who’s terrified of heights (fatal flaw). Then add a scene to show where he has to climb a tall ladder to rescue a kitten from a high rooftop (conflict) and he’s totally freaking out. Then add another scene where if he doesn’t scale a building (obstacle) to catch a bad-guy, then the man who murdered his wife will go free (stakes). This poor cop has a major case of vertigo and he must find a way to overcome his phobia (motivation) by the end of the story. But all these obstacles like his fear of heights are standing in his way of getting justice (goal).

Or it could be as simple as your character desperately wants a job promotion to be able to pay the mortgage (goal) on his dream house after his wife loses her own job. But this other guy, a kiss-butt jerk, in the office wants it, too. So the hero has to find ways to prove to his boss (motivation) that he’s the right man for the job, but the butt-kisser keeps trying to sabotage (obstacles) all the hero’s good deeds at work.

Besides a clear Character Arc (flaw) that causes the hero to grow and change as the story progresses, there has to be conflict, too. Even an emotional journey needs some tension and problems to overcome, otherwise there is no plot. There is a big difference between plot and character ARC, so I highly recommend that new writers study basic plot structure and the hero's journey.

I recently read “TAKE YOUR PANTS OFF” by Libbie Hawker and it has improved my writing skills by leaps and bounds. I have read tons of books on plot and I’ve tried to outline in the past, but this handbook made it seem so clear and simple. I’ve always been more of a pantser and I struggled with fixing plot holes in almost every novel. It was my weak spot, but after reading this book, I was able to fix a novel that I knew had some major plot holes, and then I even wrote a detailed outline for a new book within three days. 

Plot is driven by characters in conflict or friction. Look at it this way, ALL stories have the same basic plot structure: the hero has a goal (want or need) and something hinders them from obtaining it. It’s really that simple.

Need to know what impels your plot forward? Look to the themes of: Man Versus society. Man versus his fellow man. Woman versus nature. Man versus himself. Woman versus the supernatural.

All plots need tension, conflict, character goals, and an opposing force to become a good story. The “opposing force" doesn’t have to be a crazed mass murderer or an evil villain. It could even be nature, like a deadly tornado about to wipe out the hero’s hometown (conflict), and he has to find a way (goal) to save his elderly mother (motivation), or they'll lose their home (stakes). Or a 300-pound young woman trying to lose weight (goal), but she lives in a world filled with chocolate (conflict), and everyone keeps offering her sugary treats, but she knows she must resist (motivation) or she'll die from an eating disorder (stakes).

Obstacles, tension, and conflict can take many forms. 

A few examples from my own novels:

BEAUTIFULLY DAMAGED: The heroine, Serena, is a college student trying to join an exclusive sorority (goal) to make her dad happy so he won’t cut her off financially (motivation), but she’s worried they’ll discover a dark secret she’s hiding (conflict/stakes). 

WITCHY WICKEDNESS: Shiloh's a demon hunter with a fear of the dark (fatal flaw) and evil only comes out at night (conflict). She trains to expand her supernatural powers to become stronger (goal) because knows she must protect her friends (motivation) before more of them turn up dead (stakes).

IMMORTAL ECLIPSE: Skylar just inherited a haunted house from her uncle, who was mysteriously murdered. She wants to find out how (goal), so she moves into the mansion. After a few more strange deaths, she becomes determined (motivation) to solve the mystery, but someone residing within the mansion wants to kill her (conflict). She needs to expose the killer, but he strikes again (stakes). 

LOST IN STARLIGHT: A self-conscience (fatal flaw) teen girl, Sloane, falls in love with a mysterious boy, but their relationship is forbidden by his family (conflict). Sloane wants to discover the truth about the boy's mysterious powers (goal), so she investigates his family for the school paper to help her college resume (motivation), but instead she uncovers a shocking secret that might end up getting her memories erased (stakes).

Even romance novels have conflict and obstacles preventing the two young lovers from finding their HEA, because that makes it a great story. The reader wants to know "how" the lovers will overcome their own differences, or inner-struggles, or the opposing forces that are trying to rip them apart. It is these elements that drive the plot.

So, PLEASE, because I need more amazing books to read, make your beloved characters undergo some form of torture or problems. The bigger, the better. The harder to overcome, the better. The more dire the situation, the better. Pile on the complications and turn your story into a page-turning, un-put-downable read!

These blog posts are awesome at explaining plot structure in more detail and how to write a page-turner. Please visit these blogs: "Throw Obstacles at Your Characters"  and "Two Things Every Novel Needs" and this one "Five Plot Structures for Bestselling Novels" by author Katja L Kaine on Cate Hogan's blog.

Also, read THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO PLOTTING A NOVEL for more inspiration!

Awesome Tips on Crafting a Riveting Story that instantly Grabs Your Reader...

This manual offers amazing techniques for creating stronger beginnings and ways to write a page-turning plot for your fiction novel. Writers will learn how to make their first pages so intriguing with chapter “hooks” that the reader won’t be able to put the book down.

Easy to follow step-by-step instructions on creating a comprehensive plot with the three-act structure using the dynamic templates provided in this guidebook, whether you’re a plotter or more of a pantser. Each chapter provides comprehensive tips on storytelling, which every writer needs to plot like an experienced pro without a complicated outline.

Topics in this book include...

    6 Popular Genre Plot Templates
    3 Extensive Character Templates
    Tools to Create a Page-Turning First Chapter
    Advice on Writing Scene Hooks
    Simple Breakdown on Story Structure
    Advice from Bestselling Authors on Plotting

Also, writers will gain the tools needed to blend character goals within any scene to improve pacing, and instantly strengthen the narrative. Plus, bonus advice on self-publishing and genre word counts. Whether you’re writing an intense thriller or a sweeping romance, all novels follow the same basic outline described in detail within this book.
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If you have any questions pertaining to plot structure of a fiction novel, please leave a comment.

 So, how do you torture your characters?
What types of obstacles do they face?
Does your story have enough tension and conflict? If not, then find ways to add more!
Does your hero have a huge flaw to overcome?


  1. A very helpful article, thanks. I tend to write from the seat of my pants, but have learned --the hard way-- that following a loose outline and plot structure can save my editing budget down the line. I recently featured a post on my blog with 5 key plotting techniques, which you might find interesting. http://catehogan.com/how-to-write-a-novel-plot-structures/


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