Writing Tips: No Easy Obstacles – Suffering is Good for Your Story

I will never forget when my daughter, author Amanda L. Davis, once told me that she had come to a halt in her writing. She wasn’t sure where to take the story next. I said, “Make your hero suffer.” That simple advice broke the logjam and allowed her to continue. It also helped her make her story more gripping for readers and difficult to put down.

This piece of advice came to mind recently while I was watching a series called Extinct on BYU-TV. I turned it on because I was told that the story promotes solid family values and is free of sex and profanity. This much is certainly true. I greatly enjoyed that aspect of the series. It is wholesome and uplifting.

Yet, the story is not gripping.

Why? The writers allowed the main characters to overcome obstacles with too much ease. They encountered problems, to be sure, but they overcame them quickly. Simply put, the characters didn’t suffer enough.

For example, whenever the heroic characters became injured, they had water creatures called sparks that could repair any injury, so viewers never worried when any injury occurred. Whenever the characters needed help or to find someone, that help was always nearby or the person was easily found. On one occasion, two characters had to search for a settlement and hoped to find a little girl who might guide them. Lo and behold, they found the girl hiding in a cave in the midst of a vast territory. They didn’t follow a trail or a sound or smoke rising from a fire. They just stumbled upon her. How convenient is that?

I also watched a Netflix series called Stranger Things. In contrast, that series is filled with sexual immorality and excessive profanity, making it hard to enjoy. I cannot recommend it because it is so morally compromised.

Yet, the story is truly gripping.

Why? Because the characters suffer greatly, and their problems are much more difficult to solve. The obstacles are often pure torture and extend over several episodes, allowing viewers to worry about the characters. There are no easy answers, which strengthens the heroic and sacrificial aspects of the story.

A gripping story allows characters to suffer horrific pain, both physical and emotional. Solutions are not right around the corner. Readers need to worry. Anxiety is crucial. And when children suffer, as they do in Stranger Things, anxiety is heightened to the heavens. Anyone who has a shred of empathy will surely worry about these characters and hope for their escape from their tortures.

The bottom line: We need writers who can create a gripping story through empathetic suffering while maintaining wholesome content that will support moral foundations. That is certainly what I strive to do. Unfortunately, this combination is, for the most part, lacking in both mainstream and religious-oriented media.

For more on creating obstacles, see this post. And this post.

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Edit to add:

In a comment, one person asked about adding suffering too soon. And wouldn’t too much suffering frustrate readers? Great questions.

If you add suffering too soon, readers might not yet care about the character enough to find the events gripping. Start with situation ordeals that are more passive, such as a character stuck in a prison cell or always alone at home. This provokes sympathy for nearly anyone. Then give readers a reason to cheer for the character by showing positive attributes or a goal that is praiseworthy.

Once you have readers emotionally connected to the character, then you can heighten the suffering in more active ways that include both physical and emotional suffering.

Allow characters to have some victories over strife to show that escape is possible. Also show by maiming or killing off other characters that disaster is also possible, that the author isn’t afraid to inflict a character with permanent harm.

Readers need to hope for escape but also feel the danger.

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What do you think? (I am not interested in a debate on the morality of Stranger Things, though I welcome comments on how this program makes its content gripping.)

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26 replies

  1. This is very helpful advice! Thank you! I haven’t watched Stranger Things despite many people prodding me to, but now I know I probably won’t be😋. Thank you for your honest opinion on that point.

    – EH

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  2. Great stuff! No one likes to be uncomfortable but it’s mandatory in storytelling.
    That’s something God’s been challenging me on as a writer. He pokes at me to investigate the tension when I write but it’s uncomfortable to go there. Getting into the head of hurting or warped character often bangs up against stuff in me that I’d rather not notice. But I need to notice if I’m going to write a real character.
    I’d rather write fun adventure stories and enjoy myself. Indulging myself doesn’t make good stories though. Real adventures in fiction and real life are full of danger and suffering. We have to honesty explore our scary places in order to convey it in our stories.

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  3. The “nothing bad will happen” thing is something that leads to me being bored during some shows and books for kids. I think this issue comes to a head in TV shows because the writers want to keep the cast alive, but some could certainly do better. At the very least, fearful characters can help to show the viewers that the characters are afraid they will be hurt.
    Star Wars Rebels is a decent example of this. While the show, in my view, tends to handle named villains better than the new films (Some of those villains would mop the floor with Kylo Ren), they do extremely poorly with the stormtroopers, who are so laughably bad at their jobs that the characters and the audience don’t take them seriously. It’s obvious to everyone that the Stormtroopers are completely incapable of being threatening, which lowers the tension.
    However, the show does well with the major villains. In the first season, one of the characters(Kanan) was tortured. In the second season, he got blinded during a dual. Being a Jedi, he was able to learn to live without his eyesight eventually, but the scars are quite visible, a reminder that the characters are in danger, at least when there’s a major villain involved. This has now ramped up the tension as fans wait for the end of the final season because we know full well that, though the minor villains are pretty much harmless, the major villains are capable of hurting characters, and many fans believe that Kanan will not survive the season finale.
    I guess that in the end, Rebels is a good example because it shows both sides of the issue, with some good and bad examples in the same show.

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  4. Great advice. I used to be far too easy on my characters. I think I was afraid that I would write my way into a corner and get stuck with no way out, so I shied away from true suffering. Slowly, I’m getting better at that! I could see the change in my most recent novel. 🙂

    I’ve heard a lot about Stranger Things, but I hesitate to try it because of the content. Are there any other movies or shows you would compare it to content-wise? Just trying to get a frame of reference.

    This whole discussion reminds me of The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer, a series of sci-fi fairy tale retellings that I read last year. The conclusion, though long, was gripping from beginning to end because the odds were stacked high, the characters were separated and vulnerable, and in some cases, were used by the antagonist to hurt each other.

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    • Tracey,

      Stranger Things reminds me of the movie Super 8. Have you seen that?

      I assume the writers included a lot of profanity in an attempt to be “realistic,” but they failed miserably. First, most kids in 1983 did not cuss as much as these characters do. Second, those who did had no problem using every profane word in the book.

      Yet, these characters, who might use the “s” word ten consecutive times, never use the “f” word. In real life, the people I know who use profanity use the “ing” form of the “f” word as an adjective for nearly every noun in existence.

      Therefore, these characters are not realistic at all. Literally no one curses like that. It’s really kind of goofy and silly.

      The sexual immorality bothers me even more. Every main character who is post-pubescent and unmarried commits fornication with the except of one semi-main character, and she gets killed off nearly right away.

      Also every marriage portrayed is dysfunctional to the point of nonsense. The writers created a parody of marriage and seem to be mocking it.

      The program is morally bankrupt. Yet, again, it is gripping, which makes its poison easier to consume.

      A strong Christian won’t be affected by it negatively, but I fear that our general culture will be.

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      • I haven’t seen Super 8 either.

        Swearing for the sake of “realism” bugs me too, especially when there are better ways to convey grittiness and emotion. I agree, that example doesn’t sound realistic to me either.

        The rest of the content sounds unfortunate as well. If I had Netflix, I might try one or two episodes, but I don’t… I’d have to go the old-fashioned route and but the season on DVD. And I’d rather not pay for something I may not want to finish. Oh well. There are other shows to watch! Speaking of which, have you seen The Flash show? While not perfect, I LOVE the character interaction. It’s one of the greatest causes of suffering too, beyond getting beat up by the latest meta-human. 🙂

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        • I used to watch The Flash, but when it joined the “Everyone Fornicates” parade, I stopped.

          I also got annoyed by all the time travel, but that was more minor than the blatant statement of immorality.

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      • For those who are interested in writing “realistic” swearing, here are my observations.
        In my ranching region, as a kid, I heard the s word a lot, as well as many of the other PG-13 swear words. (Some of the old timmer cowboys had somewhat salty language.) However, I didn’t learn the f word until I was fourteen and saw it online. (I would guess it’s a word that is not used in the company of women and kids, or it’s a word they save for very special occasions.)
        I rarely, if ever, hear the older generation in my region use the f word, even if they use quite a few other words. However the lower moral types of my generation use it all the time, and yet rarely use the other bad words.

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        • The thing you brought up about the ranching region is interesting, and I think it also brings up the idea that everyone swears differently, too. And that’s something to remember with all writing, not just swearing. Even two people from similar walks of like will have slight differences in speech patterns and habits.

          One time, for instance, I was watching a movie review and the reviewer was commenting on how he thought sometimes movies censored kid’s language a bit too much, implying that most kids actually talk a lot worse and adults just don’t realize it because they think their kids are little angels. He was probably saying that based off his personal observations and perhaps his own behavior as a child. To be fair, a lot of kids do have fowler language than adults will acknowledge, but it is a mistake to act like all or even most kids are like that. I know my language was extremely clean growing up, and even now that I’m older and less freaky about that stuff, the only words I really use are damn and hell.

          In general, I think people have their ‘favorite’ words and phrases that they use, both in terms of cuss words and regular words. They don’t always know they have ‘favorites’, but those favorites are still there in the form of words they use a lot. Or, as you mentioned, the person may have personal rules about what words they will and won’t use.

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          • In my current WIP, I have a pirate girl whose language is somewhat salty. In the Christian market, the amount of profanity allowed in a YA book is practically zero, so even the “mild” words that I am adding are risky.

            She mentions “pissing” in a pot, and she says “Screw you” to someone. Also, I portray “Blazes” as profane in that world, so she and other kids say this frequently.

            I think it would be unrealistic for her to always speak with clean language, but I also don’t want to offend my readers or their parents. One type of message I often get from parents is that if my name is on a book, they can trust that their kids can read it. I don’t want to lose that.

            This expectation is tough to live up to when I don’t know everyone’s standards.

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            • Yeah, especially since everyone has different ideals and some people are so strict that they can’t be pleased no matter what. I’ve heard of some people that don’t even think the word darn is acceptable, because it makes them think of the word damn.

              Really, people should expect that a book meant for teens and adults will be a little grittier often enough, simply because at that point the story should be allowed to deal with more sensitive topics, which really need to be discussed, though not too graphically. I primarily write fantasy, so I can usually dodge the issue by making up swear words to replace some of the worse swear words, that way I can achieve a similar effect without offending people as much.

              Funny story. I was visiting my aunt and she was looking through jewelry charms online, and she would dramatically cover her eyes and look away as she scrolled past charms that had skulls on them or were colored red. She said red was the devil’s color or something. But I also heard her say sucks several times. Sucks is a weird word because when we look at the meaning, it is a bad word, but a lot of people use it commonly and treat it as a minor word. I think part of the problem is that half the people don’t actually know what it means, though.

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              • Since I am old enough to remember how “sucks” originated, I don’t use it. Yet, I don’t give people a hard time about it. Words often change their meanings over time. For many, it just means “stinks” or something similar.

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                • Yeah, I don’t give people a hard time about it either. Now days, hearing swearing tends not to bother me at all, actually, provided the words aren’t directly addressed toward me or another person. It’s just ironic when someone uses it even though they are very uptight about other things. It’s something sexual, though I don’t think I knew that until the last couple years. Thankfully I never got into the habit of saying it either.

                  As a side note, a lot of times I see people start separate pen names or publishing imprints when they start writing new genres or things that they think will alienate their current audience. Not sure if that has any relevance for you, it’s just what I notice in the industry.

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                • This tangent on profanity is longer than the suffering discussion, but it’s interesting. And it is relevant to me, because I am considering using another name for my novel “The Scent of Her Soul” because of a few instances of profanity.

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            • In this case, another option would be to make up swear words that properly fit the universe. If those are done wrong, they look like lazy replacement words, but if done right, they can add a good flavor to the universe and help deepen character voice. In one book I read, the main character, who was a street rat, used “starving” as a sort of profanity, such as “Starving idiot’s going to get himself killed,” or something along those lines. I would guess that to her, calling someone that would be considered an insult, and it helped deepen her voice.
              I’ve actually beta read a story once and suggested the author think seriously on the swearing, because the characters were using profanities that are related to Biblical terms, and those don’t make sense unless the characters believe in Hell.
              In a similar way, I think using an f-word in sci-fi wouldn’t fit. Because people who use profanity now use it so often, I believe it will lose its punch to the point its use as a swear word will go out of style.

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              • Yeah, people really do need to think of how well the swear word fits in their world. I think the f word thing could go any number of ways in sci fi, depending on the futuristic world being portrayed(fifty years from now vs thousands of years in the future, for instance) Depending on the circumstances, the f word could still be in use, but as you said, lose its punch. In the future, it could be seen as benign as words like darn and heck, for all we know.

                I don’t think it’s always unrealistic for atheist characters to use religious swears, depending on how pervasive that religion’s influence is in society. Atheists in real life use swears based in Christianity all the time in real life, after all.

                When coming up with swears, I think we should also break down what makes swear words work in real life. For me, that means inventing shorter words that have a bit of bite to them. And then sometimes when I’m by myself I’ll practice saying them and kind of see how they fit and if saying them feels natural. People often use swear words to vent anger, so I imagine my characters angrily using those swear words and see if they would feel rewarding enough to the characters using those words during their rants.

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                • I know I’m coming late to this discussion, but I feel I must say something. Foul language and immoral behavior is becoming more and more accepted not only in the media, but in everyday life. There is a Biblical fine line we as Christians must walk and the line leaves no room for situational ethics.

                  I was listening to a sermon from one of my favorite pastors, John McArthur, about 1 Corinthians 6:12. “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful, but I will not be dominated by anything.” We have tremendous freedom in Christ, but we must keep in mind the fellow brothers and sisters that might be weaker than us. John McArthur puts it like this: Guy A can drink alcohol and has no problems with alcohol abuse or getting drunk. But Guy B has had trouble in the past and it’s difficult for him to be around alcohol without caving. Therefore, Guy A doesn’t drink around Guy B so that he “doesn’t cause his brother to stumble.”

                  Bottom line: our words, especially if we are Christian writers, are powerful and we are doubly accountable to the brothers and sisters we write for. We don’t have to “be dominated by anything”, especially what the culture, (or even what our stories) might want to dictate.

                  But at the end of the day, this opinion is simply my standard and what I hope is the Biblical one. If you’re a Christian, I urge you to seek the Lord in this matter for yourself. Please don’t take my word for it.

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  5. I agree with this post so much. Happy stories have their place, but even those tend to need some level of conflict to be enjoyable.

    I’m actually reminded of how I felt at the end of one of the seasons of Legend of Korra. Spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t seen it. But, yeah, Korra loses all her bending except for airbending, if I recall correctly, which is devastating since, as the Avatar, she is supposed to have all four elements and may feel like a failure that can’t protect the world without them. But, she easily gets all four elements back at the end of that season, and I was disappointed. The idea of an Avatar that could only wield one element would have been fascinating to explore, and I would have loved to see the character development that would have emerged from that. The ending to that season was ok, just…sort of a let down for me.

    A lot of times, though, I don’t think it’s as simple as just adding conflict to the story. There are multiple types of adversity and each has its place. There are of course random challenges that come out of the blue to endanger the characters, but those are often not nearly as powerful as other types of adversity. The challenges that have the most impact seem to be the ones that affect the characters psychologically. To me, that tends to be obstacles that get to the core of who someone is and almost relentlessly and systematically challenge and dismantle those things. A second type of psychological obstacle is one that builds slowly over time, often without the characters realizing it at first, until it turns into a big mess everyone has to wade through.

    Obstacles that get down to the core of who someone is force us to understand the character more, and often make the character understand themselves better, too. In the super hero story I’ve slowly been plotting out the last year or two, these obstacles occurred as the character debates between his inclination for constant vigilance and his desire to just relax and be happy.

    He was raised in a way that his best friend would view as paranoid, and his upbringing is often both an advantage and disadvantage for him, though he often sees it as an advantage. But he also starts to relax eventually and let his guard down a bit because he wants to be happy and enjoy life, and he does for several years and lives happily with his wife and daughter. He and his wife enjoy a lot of success as they secretly help those around them. But then he loses it all in the most devastating ways possible, and not only does he deal with grief, but also bitterness toward the idea that when someone like him lets his guard down and enjoys success too long, it’ll all crash and burn. He doesn’t always know if he’d rather be happy for brief periods and lose everything or just put permanent walls up so that he doesn’t have to be in that much pain again.

    As for the idea of obstacles building slowly over time, seems easier in a longer story, and one of the first ones that comes to mind is Itachi’s plotline in Naruto. I’ll just pick one part of it and talk about his relationship with his parents/how he seems to have eventually felt about receiving constant praise, especially from his father. He loved his parents, even at the end, but circumstances put them on two ends of a bitter conflict that destroyed their family.

    Itachi was a good, kind kid that was considered a prodigy in his village. He caught onto lessons quickly, and his father would often praise him with phrases like ‘That’s my boy.’ and ‘As expected of my son.’ It looked like Itachi was alright with this at first and even liked it, and he enjoyed training with his father. But that gradually changed when some tragedies happened and tensions between their clan, (the Uchiha), and the village grew more severe.

    When Itachi awakens his sharingan(an ocular ability that is important to the Uchiha), it happened on a mission where he seemed to be the only survivor, and even though he was calm and collected on the outside, he was shaken and grieving on the inside. He encounters his father shortly after that incident, and his father only acts proud of him, reminding him of the influence the sharingan has in the village, complimenting how soon Itachi awoke his sharingan, etc. Inwardly, Itachi is shown to be bothered by the fact that his teammates just died and all his father could do was smile and act proud of how good Itachi was at being an Uchiha.

    As things get worse between the Uchiha and the village, things get worse between Itachi and his parents. They still care about each other, but Itachi avoids them a lot. This is very interesting as we think about why and what is going through the character’s heads. The anime doesn’t explain it as deeply, but my theory is that, after a while, Itachi really started to dislike hearing his father’s praise so often.

    Around that time, Itachi was about ten to thirteen years old and probably starting to form his own identity, and forming beliefs that did not align with his parents’. His father took to saying things like ‘Don’t run away from your Uchiha destiny’ around that time, so when his father said ‘That’s my boy. As expected of my son.’ it probably didn’t feel like a compliment anymore. Instead, those words would have only served as a reminder that Itachi was expected to fulfill a role for his clan that he didn’t want to fulfill. They reminded Itachi that his parents were trying to force him onto a path that he didn’t believe in, and maybe, simultaneously implied that his skills and identity meant nothing outside pleasing his father and the Uchiha.

    Having a complex thread like that woven into a bigger conflict can add a lot of emotional weight and angst to a character’s arc. In Itachi’s case, it narrated and highlighted the bigger issue that was building: choosing whether to side with his family or the village. It created a gradual psychological obstacle in the form of conflicting emotions toward his own family. This conflict would have highlighted the fatal flaw Itachi noticed in the Uchiha: valuing the glory and welfare of their clan over the welfare of the village.

    Those things seem to be easier to write the more we know our characters and the more we develop their interpersonal relationships. I find that imagining positive and negative side effects to every decision, as well as coming up with positive and negative dynamics between most of the characters, really helps in developing these things.

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    • Autumn, you are right that physical obstacles and suffering are far from the only kind we should address. Just inflicting physical pain is easy. Diving into the psyche is far more difficult. Yet it is crucial and far more relatable for many people.

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      • I agree. Physical pain can work, but mental pain is often worse. Sanderson especially likes mental anguish, which is often heartbreaking. One thing he’s done more than once is having a character who got in a position where he killed his wife, which is certainly a lot more painful for those characters than any physical injury.
        Even though I often have trouble relating to married male characters, Sanderson did quite well making me feel very sorry for them. What was inspiring is, even after all the pain they went through, they keep going instead of running off an island full of porgs so they can hide from their problems.
        Of course, it takes a good writer to pull off the mental aspect. Sometimes, if a writer makes it too obvious that he/she is trying to make the reader care by harming characters, I start to get annoyed because it feels like a fake attempt to pull my heartstrings.

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  6. This post is definitely compelling, and I agree whole heartedly, but I have just one tiny question; is there such a thing as too much suffering too soon?

    Stories that put the protagonist and friends through trials is a great way to keep the reader stuck in their seat, but is it safe to have them [the characters] facing trial after trial with no end in sight? To me that would grow tiresome and boring, but at the same time too much complacency and peace would grow boring as well. Where is the balance?

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    • If you add suffering too soon, readers might not yet care about the character enough to find it gripping. Start with situation ordeals, such as stuck in a prison cell or always alone at home. This provokes sympathy. Then give readers a reason to cheer for the character by showing positive attributes or a goal that is praiseworthy. At that point, you can heighten the suffering in more direct ways.

      Allow characters to have some victories over strife to show that escape is possible. Also show by maiming or killing off other characters that disaster is also possible.

      Readers need to hope but also feel the danger.

      These are great questions, and I will probably add the discussion to my original post.

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  7. The characters in Stranger Things definitely suffer a lot, especially poor Eleven. That picture just makes my heart break for her. I can’t recommend Stranger Things enough! It’s my favorite show right now!

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  8. All I can say is, best advice ever.

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