Set Up Challenging Roadblocks And Obstacles

When the protagonist encounters barricades in her path, our interest quickens. What will she do—climb over them or trip over them? Suddenly the outcome is in doubt, the tension is heightened, and we become eager to find out what happens next

In my short story, The Hitchhiker, a middle-aged woman named Carol, unaccustomed to traveling by herself, is driving to a distant city. Having just ended her marriage, her goal is a safe, uneventful journey to the place where she will begin her new life. But she complicates things for herself when, lonely and restless, she impulsively picks up a shaggy young man with his thumb out. Her imagination starts clicking and her quiet ride is over:

One heard such awful stories about hitchhikers... Carol noticed her knuckles were white, she was gripping the wheel so tightly. She took ten deep breaths; usually that helped her relax. He'd been in the car for ten whole minutes and nothing had happened. Her handbag was safe beneath her seat...

"Are you a student?" Carol asked. There were a lot of colleges scattered through this part of the state.

"Nope, a working man."

He drummed his fingers on the armrest. "Odd jobs. Nothing interesting."

I might find it very interesting, thought Carol, but she didn't press. Perhaps she was better off not knowing. He could be a house painter, an auto mechanic, something like that. Or a cocaine dealer, snickered a little voice inside her head. A hired killer.

It's been said that the author's job is to get the main character in trouble and then get her in worse trouble. In fact, this is the protagonist's whole reason for being. The word comes from the Greek: proto means "first, or chief'; agonistes means "to engage in combat"; thus, the protagonist is the story's number one combatant. The word agony derives from a related root, and conflict is what puts agony into protagonist.

It can be hard to make life for your main character as difficult as it needs to be. Chances are, you're fond of this person. She's someone you'd enjoy having as a friend. Perhaps she is you in disguise, her mask only the thinnest of veils. You don't want to be a bully or torturer, inflicting deliberate pain on either your friend or yourself. No doubt you're a nice person-gentle, polite, and kind. It goes against your nature to be mean.

Do it anyway. A common reason why short stories don't work is that the author pulls his punches. He refuses to let the protagonist confront and deal with the challenges that face her. In trying to soften the blows, the author diminishes the conflict and unintentionally robs the story of its tension and energy. The issues of the story go unresolved, and readers are left feeling unsatisfied.

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