Why Obstacles are Good for Stories: Directing Story Traffic



What is Story Traffic?

In previous posts, I discussed the importance of turning points to the development and structure of a story, suggesting that their function is to introduce new information, which should be as surprising as it is inevitable. Surprising, because it keeps the audience/reader guessing, and inevitable, because it has been deftly prepared for by the writer. Another way to view turning points is as obstacles, blocking the way to the protagonist’s goal, forcing a change in direction.

What of the Midpoint?

Typically, a story contains a beginning, middle, and end, and therefore, two major turning points — one which introduces the middle section (or act ii,) and one which introduces the last section (or act iii). But because this middle section tends to be the longest, it often needs to be split further through the use of a midpoint, also discussed previous posts, in effect, creating two more sections. The midpoint, too, may be regarded as a turning point, with one proviso — that it presents the protagonist with a moral choice, a moment of illumination, which once accepted, changes him. Henceforth, the protagonist’s actions take on board this insight, for good or ill, and guide his actions to the story’s conclusion.

What specific forms, then, do turning points/obstacles take? I offer the following for your consideration:


External and internal obstacles flow from the outer and inner journeys respectively. In the best stories, they operate simultaneously. A protagonist who is afraid of heights but has then to cross a tiny ledge on a skyscraper to save his stranded child has clearly more on his hands than the physical task alone.

Obstacle Types

Obstacles may stop the established external/internal flow of events dead in its tracks, forcing the protagonist to start again in a completely new direction, or they may deflect or expand the flow in a related direction, or they may reverse the flow completely, in a 180 degree about-turn. What type of obstacle should you use in your stories? That depends on the type of story you’re telling. Episodic, or biographical stories often stop the current flow in favour of a new option — one episode in one’s life comes to an end and another begins.

Reversals, on the other hand, have effectively been employed in a type of story called multiform narrative, such as Groundhog Day, Run Lola Run, Vantage Point and Source Code, to replay the story from the same starting point.

Deflection, or expansion, is by far the most common form of turning point/obstacle. Here the original goal is adjusted, or realigned, but still adheres to the overall parameters of the original intent. In Unforgiven, for example, Will Manny’s (Clint Eastwood) intention of killing the men who cut up the face of a prostitute, expands into killing anyone who participated in the murder of his friend, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman). The original goal, which has already been achieved, has been expanded to include an additional one, albeit in the same vain.

In Summary

Turning points introduce major new sections of your story by presenting new information that is as surprising as it is inevitable. There are three main types of turning point — dead stop, deflection/expansion, and reversal.


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8 thoughts on “Why Obstacles are Good for Stories: Directing Story Traffic

    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Will. I am merely relating Vogler’s exploration of the term where he is at pains to explain that Threshold Guardians, in the general sense, may take the form of impersonal forces that may ostensibly appear to stand in the way of the Hero, but may ultimately drive him or her to new knowledge and achievement. This is not to say that Bashir’s inflections are not useful, of course. As to the inflection between minor and major–the post looks at the general case. In both cases, there is a line to be crossed in the sense that overcoming an external obstacle implies the crossing of an internal threshold.

  1. Mark Landen

    “The midpoint, too, may be regarded as a turning point, with one proviso — that it presents the protagonist with a moral choice, a moment of illumination, which once accepted, changes him.”

    Very interesting, Stavros; I hadn’t thought about the midpoint in such a profound way. Great post.

      1. Russ Welsh

        I have to admit I was really having a hard time with this. I was freaking out because my second turning point was in my mid-point. But, since Mark Landen brought up that the second turning point CAN be in the mid-point, I’ve started calming down a lot. So, thanks for that.

        1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

          Yep. But also in the case of a strong turn in terms of plot at the midpoint, one ends up with four acts, i.e. three turning points.

  2. Russ Welsh

    Thanks for yet another amazing post, Stavros. Keep up the good work. I’m fondly looking forward to the next one. 🙂


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