No matter how bad things seem, they can always get worse. In your narrative, what else could go wrong? Ramp it up!

Obstacles Menu

Here are some quick ideas. Many of these are detailed further down the page…

  • physical barrier: wall, dead end, cliff, mountain range, the ocean, a barricade, locked door,
  • people: enemy, foe, swindler, cheat, liar, trickster, boss,
  • moral choice, right and wrong, dilemma,
  • puzzle, conundrum, riddle, mystery,
  • pandemonium, madness, chaos, anarchy, disorder, mayhem,
  • lost keys, lost way, lost partner, loss of vision, loss of direction, lost the path,
  • irritations: nagging kid, mosquitoes, the common cold, an itch, a sneeze, a blister, lice,
  • inconvenience: closed sign, out of gas, dull blade, have to shave,
  • doubt, questions, intrusive thoughts,
  • running out of: time, energy, strength, mana, power, gas, batteries, juice, ideas,
  • panic, fear, tension, anxiety, nerves,
  • inury: broken leg, swollen eye, sunburn, sore feet, blisters,
  • nature: insects, storms, the tide, blizard, snow, sandstorm, predators (sharks and bears), vines, brambles, thorns,
  • clutter: trash bins, piles of old newspapers, dirty dishes, that messy kitchen drawer where just about everything goes,
  • rubble: construction trash, old concrete and rebar, gravel piles, wire, pipe, drywall, plaster, lumber scraps, old framing, soggy plywood, uprooted trees, corrugated sheet metal, soil, corpses,

Physical barriers

  • wall, barricade, barrier,
  • hedge, bush, brambles, thicket,
  • moat, ditch, dugout, pit,
  • check out landforms and waterbodies for lots more ideas for physical barriers
  • ridge, river, rift, cliff,
  • traps, hazards, pits,
  • barricade, barbed wire, burning tires,
  • warning sign, caution flag, crime scene tape,
  • net,  fence, bars, mesh,
  • locked door, portcullis, vault door, firedoor, sealing door, airlock,
  • one of those long windy things they make you line up in at the movie theatre with the velvet rope and the stanchions.


  • enemy, foe, rival,
  • villains, antiheroes, antagonists,
  • law enforcement, military, marshal, sheriff,
  • nagging sidekick, pesky tag-along, whining child,
  • sick or injured comrade,

Illness, sickness, disease


Moral Choice


Loss is a good one.  This has such a range of possibilities.  Losing a game or match.  Losing a treasured or important item.  Losing a friend or family member in a crowd or to the Reaper.  This obstacle can produce a range of emotions, from mild irritation to feelings of devastation.  Imagine reaching a door that could lead the character to freedom, but, alas, the key has been lost; there is a hole in your pocket, sucker! Here’s a bunch of stuff to lose…

  • key, bolt, nut, nail, pin, rod, peg,
  • direction, way,
  • map, note, scroll, letter, phone number, directions, chart,
  • journal, spellbook, log, diary, recordings,
  • mind, control, sanity, sense, manners, cool, composure,
  • friendship, trust, empathy,
  • ring, treasure, trinket, heirloom, necklace, bracelet,
  • weapon, sword, knife,
  • drugs, medicine, heroin,
  • wallet, purse, coin pouch, manpurse, satchel,
  • water bottle (in the desert),


Enemies are everywhere, and they’re always there when it is most inconvenient.  For an entire encyclopedia of possibilities here, look in Creating Foes (page ***).  Enemies and foes can be the catalyst for an entire adventure or they can simply be pawns of the author in a greater tale.  If all’s going well, stick in some creep that is going to mess it all up for the characters.  Life ain’t easy.


Anything that may make a character say, “Man, that’s really cramping my style,” makes a fantastic obstacle.  It’s like a seventeen year-old who has to take his little brother along when dating his girlfriend.  Character hates loud noises, put him in a marching band.  If the shoe fits… don’t let him wear it; find a different shoe for your character to wear, one that is definitely uncomfortable.


There’s nothing like a mystery or a puzzle or a riddle to sidetrack or baffle characters.  Why isn’t something working?  How do you open this thing?  What the heck is that?  A strange noise?  A secret door?  A long-neglected path?  Curiosity killed the cat… but the cat is still curious with its other eight lives.


An author can always inconvenience the poor characters.  A flat tire in a car chase is a really pain in the… tire.  How about pulling in to a shop and it just happens to be closed for lunch, a long, long, long, long lunch.


Doubt is a beauty.  Feelings of regret.  Inadequacy.  Loss of hope.  Fear.  Prey on the thoughts and emotions of your characters.  Let them almost defeat themselves, or let them completely defeat themselves, if you wish.


And now, I am pleased to introduce a classic of the Mystery or True Crime genres… The Red Herring.  “A fish?” you ask.  No, not a fish, not necessarily a fish.  A red herring is something that leads someone astray.  A wrong clue.  The wrong suspect.  Down the wrong path because someone told you it was the right path.  Just when you were sure you had it right, you find out it’s all wrong.  Oops.  Nice try.  Start over, poor Character.


How about indifference?  I don’t really care about indifference, but here it goes anyway.  The character may be very excited about a new discovery, until everyone he meets says, “So?”  This is especially the case if he is applying for funding.  Characters meeting indifferent people can become very frustrated and irate even at times.  Imagine traveling a long way to see a great wise man, and his disciples say that he has no interest whatsoever in seeing you.


Characters will often flounder when out of their element.  Put them in a land where they can’t understand anything.  Not a single word.  Put a tough guy in a room with a few harem eunuchs and have him work out a concern in an amiable fashion, without offending the ladies.  Stick a cop in prison, or a citified hard-nosed corporate lawyer in an organic farming commune.  This not only acts as a frustration point for characters, but it also acts as comic relief.


Another fun way to irritate your characters is with an irritation.  That’s right.  For example, you know that itch that you feel right now… yes, that one…  don’t you want to scratch it… go ahead.  It’s that simple—if they’re in the woods, throw mosquitoes at them.  Perhaps a nagging headache won’t leave that account executive alone, or that athlete’s foot keeps bothering the third-base man.  Life is full of little nuisances.


Inclement weather can be an annoyance when there is work to be done.  The environment can wreak havoc on the characters’ lives.  Darkness falls; lighting storms cause power outs; an earthquake breaks one’s concentration.  And there aren’t many to whom one can complain.  Make do.


Very often, in desperate situations, time is not on one’s side.  It need not be on the side of the characters in your story either.  Not enough pressure on them?  Turn up the heat by giving them a time limit.  Not only do they need to find the bomb, but they need to find the bomb and defuse it in less than five hours.  No more slacking off!


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