25 March 2013

O is for Objectives, Obstacles, and Outcomes

I had read many books in my life before I discovered I wanted to write fiction. Here are some of the ones which are memorable for me. Check them out if you like. It is my belief the books we read contribute to the development of our psyches. I also invite you to research your timeline of memorable stories and tell me if they have contributed to the development of your spirit.

Curious George, age 6 
Corduroy, age 7 
1984, age 16 
Various Harlequin Romances and occasional erotica, ages 15-24
Misery, age 25 
The Alienist, age 30 
False Memory, age 38

What was profound at a particular age isn't necessarily profound later on in life, but if it sticks with you, there’s a reason. Something in that story spoke to you. So go the stepping stones in our understanding of literature and fiction. Why have these stories been ingrained in my memory for so many years? What did I yearn for and what kept me reading to the point I got it and kept it? While delving deeper into my thoughts, I pondered closure. And then I realized I still had not come up with a topic for the letter O.


When I start my journey with a set of prose, I expect to know what the objective is, whether it's character development, a vessel for back-story, an introduction of a new character, or a plot twist. A reader anticipates these things in order to decide how to spend time reading that chapter. To coddle or to skim? Sike. I never skim.

If I like the protagonist, I want to read about her development. So, if I know the objective of the chapter is to introduce a situation which will tax my protagonist, I'll be more likely to stay engaged and immerse myself into the chapter.

Don't wait until mid-chapter to reveal the objective. It’s like treading water and the hum drum pace will give me a chance to dog ear the book and come back later. If I know the objective right away, I'm not likely to dog ear until the end of the chapter because I'm focused on the objective. If your reader dog ears in the middle of the chapter, the last impression they have of your chapter is what? There was no objective, what's the point in returning? That would be terrible!

Every chapter should have an objective and it should be apparent from the beginning what that objective is. You can vary the types of objectives from chapter to chapter, whether introducing a new character or plot twist, etc, so that you have a mixture which appeals to the diversity in your readership. Not every reader wants to follow your world descriptions, and not every reader cares about your protagonist's development. Some may just care about learning how the plot unwinds or picking up clues as to who did it. I agree, lazy readers!


Where you have an objective in your chapter, you must also have an obstacle. Otherwise, you may as well be writing an entry for a recipe book. Do recipes tell you how to deal with a grease fire? Or what to do when your soufflé collapses? These are obstacles which may occur in your quest to building a meal. Excluding these possibilities will not harm your recipe. However, excluding obstacles in your chapters will harm your fictional stories.

 Obstacles need to be present in fiction because you don't want to leave your reader an ending with a drabness for which you will never be forgiven. You want to introduce your objective to an obstacle in order to create conflict and friction for your characters. Together they create results—surprising and delightful results. To keep from having "expected" results, and thus boring the hell out of your reader, you must have obstacles.

Contrary to my line of work as a software developer, where expected results are the far better outcome, fiction definitely is more rewarding when the results are skewed.


This was originally titled Oh Nos. What are Oh Nos? Something I made up to have a third O word to share. Seriously. Imagine your favorite protagonist met an obstacle you felt they might not be prepared to deal with. You go, "Oh no!" Then after I wrote this third O element, I realized I was discussing Outcomes and so now my short lived “Oh Nos” is obsolete.

What is an outcome? They will survive the ordeal, or they will perish. Not every obstacle results in an outcome this extreme, but in some form or another, they either have a positive outcome or a negative one. By the time I reach the end of a chapter, I need to know the outcome of the objective. It's very important to me in moving to the next chapter, because if you don't have closure in one chapter, at least closure for the chapter's objective, then how is the reader supposed to trust you with future chapters?

If the objective is for Nancy to retrieve a magic scroll and the obstacle is she becomes lost in the forest, you absolutely cannot end the chapter at this point. She must fight her way out of the forest. She must retrieve the scroll, yes, but the outcome of her meeting that objective must further the story or end it. She retrieved the scroll. What's the outcome? Did the magic scroll unleash an evil spirit she must fight in the next chapter? Did she uncover a healing potion she will need in another chapter along the way? That outcome is what ends the chapter and invites a new chapter.

So, what makes you stick with a story, chapter by chapter? Have you noticed a pattern in the stories which rivet you to your seat and stick in your mind throughout a lifetime?

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  1. Great post! I think I'm most riveted to stories where the resolution of one obstacle leads to two more, and the protoganist is always surprised by new challenges that stand in the way of the objective.

    1. Two steps forward and one step back. I like creating new gotchas, all while my protagonist is getting stronger to deal with them as they come along.

  2. Loved this post! I've read a handful of the books you did.

    1. Glad you enjoyed. There were so many other books I wanted to share (too many).

  3. I have obstacles and outcomes but the objective is something I like the reader to kind of mull over and piece together like a poem. Just me I guess. I'm weird. Stop by the luau for some cocktails (recipe) and bring your friends.

    1. Woot! I'm up for a luau! :D

      Can I have a decorative, miniature umbrella in my cocktail? I got my copy of Penniless Hearts and am waiting to read it. Can't wait!

  4. Great post, Diane. I really like your book list at the top too.

    1. Thanks Kelly. The book list can reveal a lot about your life when you start reading the reviews of each. Kind of made me reflect quite a bit.

  5. Aweswome post, Diane. Obstacles are SO super important and I wish more writers understood that. I always scream at my TV when something gets in the way of the character and what he wants, but I know it's needed. If the character just tra-la-la gets what he wants immediately and without consequence there's no story! Nice :)

    1. The way I like to explain obstacles, but couldn't in the post...it's like a guy pursuing a slut. The objective is for him to have sex. If she's a slut and gives it up right away, his objective is met, boring story over. :D

      Now, the typical romance that keeps me going? One, she's a virgin. Obstacle! Two, she's a spitfire and puts up a front that she's offended by him, while deep inside she's on fire. Obstacle!

  6. Love the list. So similar to mine at the beginning and yet so different at the end. I love seeing that for some odd reason!

    1. I was actually puzzled at the last few titles I chose to share, but once I looked up the reviews, I wasn't surprised they stuck with me.

  7. I remember reading of all things, The Secret Garden, for the first time as an adult, for a children's lit class. For some reason at the time it really spoke to me; I think I could have related to the sense of aloneness to this girl early on in the novel.

    1. Intriguing. I'll have to check out The Secret Garden. Thanks!


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