August 6, 2021

Story Obstacles: The Benefits of Taking Two Steps Back

A broken bridge leads to nowhere with the text: Making Our Characters Worse Off

This post was originally supposed to be short and announce the winners of my 11th Annual Blogiversary contest weeks ago. However, that schedule was delayed because I didn’t want to clog up your notifications with just a fluff post.

No problem. I have plenty of writing-focused things I could post about along with the announcement, right?

…and then the Olympics distracted me.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m an Olympics nut. No matter the sport, I’ll watch if it’s part of the Olympics. I mean, how can you resist the charms of the dressage “rave horse”? *grin* (Turn on the sound!)

So ignore how late this post is for announcing my winners, as I (finally) also share a recent realization that might help us with our story writing. *smile*

My realization was prompted due to progress on my newest “secret project” being slower than anticipated. I’d originally thought I’d need one month—maybe two—to implement the project, but as so often happens, the situation was more complex.

Sure, I needed to learn new stuff for the project, but that’s fun for me. However, I soon decided that to do what I want with the project, I first need to implement new tools (that require yet more new skills) beyond the project’s direct requirements. Yep, another big project is a prerequisite for making the most of my secret project.

In other words, I’m more behind than I was before I started. And the same problem of slow progress can happen in our stories to our characters. Let’s take a look…

Slow Progress Helps Our Stories

In our stories, we usually need to include obstacles for our characters to overcome. If they succeed immediately at everything they attempt, the story and characters have a good chance of being boring (not to mention making the story over as soon as it begins).

Beyond that however, while story obstacles slow down the progress of our story, they also do more to help our storytelling:

  • Obstacles add the potential of failure, which creates uncertainty and tension to keep readers interested. Will the characters succeed? Failure is inherent in obstacles, as at the very least, they mean our characters have failed to make progress along the easy, obstacle-free path.
  • Obstacles also create more “meat” for the middle of our story. Without them, our story would just be a simplistic point A to point B tale rather than an emotional journey that adds layers to our storytelling and maintains pacing and tension through the middle act.
  • Obstacles offer the opportunity to trigger consequences and increase the stakes. Our characters can fail to easily overcome obstacles, and the consequences of that failure can make the situation worse for them. These failures add to the sense of uncertainty in our story, giving readers a reason to turn pages.
  • Obstacles force our characters to change. They’ll need to change at least externally, such as by choosing a different approach to their goals. But they might also change internally as well, as they reexamine their priorities, fears, beliefs, strengths, weaknesses, etc. while facing down challenges.
  • Obstacles can force characters to make hard choices or sacrifices. In turn, these choices and sacrifices reveal truths about our characters.
  • Without challenges, our characters won’t seem as heroic. To be heroes, our characters need to show courage and/or determination in the face of failure. Each obstacle gives us a chance to show (and not just tell) their inner strengths, as they face potential failure.

Without obstacles, characters have no struggle, nothing to overcome. At the same time, “solving a problem” is a big aspect of most forms of storytelling. So in general, slowing down our characters’ progress through obstacles can be a good thing.

Two Types of “Slow” Progress

When we describe slow progress, we might use the saying “two steps forward and one step back.” The idea is that obstacles keep getting in the way, slowing down any forward momentum and avoiding a “too easy” storyline.

However, there’s another version of the saying:

“one step forward and two steps back.”

Need stronger obstacles in your story? Here's an easy way to fix them… Click To Tweet

With that version, the obstacles are so large that any momentum is actually pushed into reverse. Or maybe, like in the case of my projects, we discover that we need to do five other steps before we can even begin on what we thought was Step One. Either way, the idea is that we end up worse off than we started.

Obviously, this more extreme version of slow progress will have a big influence on our storytelling options. So let’s talk about how we can use this “two steps back” situation in our stories

Readers Can Relate to Being Worse Off

No matter the kinds of stories we write, we want our readers to be able to connect and relate to elements of our writing. Maybe they can relate to our characters, their longings, their goals, their fears, their situations, etc. Or maybe they can relate to the plot obstacles, or the setting, and so on.

The “two steps back” problem is one that readers can relate to. After all, if we’ve ever worked on a big project, we’re likely familiar with this situation ourselves:

  • Big cleaning project? We often need to make a bigger mess as we sort through piles and create new ones for “stuff to keep,” “stuff to toss,” and so on. Until we finish cleaning, the area is going to be messier than ever.
  • Big learning curve? When learning something new, we often “don’t know what all we don’t know.” So as we learn more, we become aware of more to learn, and thus end up with more on our “things to learn” task list than when we started.

Similarly, my task list to kick off my secret project exploded once I discovered new ways to implement it…that in turn required a whole new list of tasks. And I bet most of us can think of examples of “two steps back” from our lives.

The point is that this “two steps back” situation in our stories won’t strike readers as odd or cliché because we’ve all experienced it. So readers will be able to relate to our characters’ frustrations and determination in the face of the easy-path failure. They’ll be invested in our characters’ struggles to overcome being worse off than before.

Two-Steps-Back Obstacles Are Powerful

With each of those bullet points above, the two-steps-back style of obstacle has an oversized impact on our stories and characters. Whatever a normal obstacle can do to define our story and characters, a two-steps-back obstacle can do even more:

  • Uncertainty and Tension increases as the chances of success are more in question, such as when the characters are further from their goals than ever.
  • Middle of the Story “Meat” increases as the two-step obstacles are more complex to overcome.
  • Consequences and Stakes increases as our characters face more tangible evidence of failure.
  • Character Changes increase as the bigger setbacks need a bigger plan than the usual approach.
  • Hard Choices or Sacrifices increase as characters need to dig deeper to overcome the two-step obstacle.
  • Character Heroism increases as they must decide whether to give up when they’re further behind or to push through.

In other words, for as helpful as normal obstacles are for our story, two-steps-back obstacles are even more helpful. That’s not to say that every obstacle in our story needs to be the two-steps-back style, but they’re especially good to use for defining strong turning points.

No Black Moment? Try to Create “Two Steps Back”

We’ve discussed Black Moment turning points several times, as they’re one of the four major turning points in our story. They can also be one of the most memorable scenes due to the emotion involved.

Remember, however, that the name of the turning point doesn’t matter, only the function it fulfills in our story. So whether we call it the Black Moment, or Crisis, All Is Lost, or Break Into (Act) Three, the point is that around the 75% mark of our story, we need an event that steals the protagonist’s hope for a solution.

  • In some stories, this means the character will symbolically “die,” as they’re stripped of their hopes, goals, or plans. Or this is the breakup scene, or when the character has been betrayed, or when they just lost their mentor.
  • Other stories have a “quieter” Black Moment, where the event isn’t a major catastrophe but just something that makes the protagonist doubt their ability to succeed. Or they simply lose hope in potential—potential of a relationship, success, teaching humanity to be better, etc.

Either way, the characters should seem further from their destination (goals) than before. That sounds a lot like a two-steps-back obstacle, doesn’t it?

So if we’re not sure what the Black Moment of our story is (or should be), or if we’re not sure if the beat we have is “big” enough for such a major turning point, we now know an easy way to make an obstacle stronger. We can ensure the obstacle at this 75-ish% mark in the story is in the two-steps-back style.

Make your characters worse off than they were before to strengthen your story's obstacles… Click To Tweet

For a Black Moment, characters should be worse off in some way than they were before. No matter how “quiet” our Black Moment, we can at least ensure the obstacle (whether external or internal) our protagonist faces sets them back an extra step, which will help create a sense of a turning point in their journey.

For example, their new situation of being further behind can trigger them to question whether all their effort is worth it, which then adds to the sense of failure and doubt at this beat. Once they rally and push through the doubts and/or their fear of failure, the Black Moment is behind them, and we’re on to the Climax of our story. *smile*

Blogiversary Contest Winners!

And now, the part you’ve all really been waiting for… *drum roll* the winners from my 11th Annual Blogiversary Contest!

Chuck Brownman

Congratulations to you both! You should receive an email from me within the next day, so start thinking about what prize you want. Should I be worried? *smile*

Have you experienced this “two steps back” situation in your life? Can you relate to how it might affect our characters? Have you used these types of obstacles in your stories? Does this give you ideas of how to strengthen your story’s Black Moment? Can you think of other times it would be good to use this method?

Comments — What do you think?

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Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Hi Jami,
Thanks for a great, inspiring post!
I have indeed used these situations in my works. The longer the story, the deeper the pitfalls.

Paula J Peckham

I learned the “add obstacles” trick early. I traded manuscripts with a beta reader on Twitter. He hurt my feelings when he said it (this was way early in my writing journey, and I hadn’t developed that thick skin yet), but he told me “Nothing ever goes wrong. About the time I thought, ‘Ooh, this will be a problem for the main character,’ they just sailed right through it. Your book is boring.” Ouch. But, lesson learned.


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