Obstacles and goals in Sex Education

1024 576 Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

You’ve probably noticed editors and writing teachers are always banging on about the importance of obstacles in fiction. That’s because if you give your characters exactly what they want right away, they won’t have anywhere to go from there. Characters need to have clear goals and it’s your job to dream up conflicts that stop them achieving those goals (you big meanie). Obstacles create tension, increase excitement, force characters to make decisions, reveal their personalities and give your protagonist the chance to change and grow.

I watched Netflix teen comedy Sex Education earlier this year (such an excellent show) and the main romantic plot jumped out at me as a perfect example of goal vs obstacle. Here’s the timeline of this particular plot thread [Spoiler Alert!] which focuses on lovely, awkward teenager Otis and his bad-girl crush, Maeve. Protagonist Otis’s goal is obvious: get the girl.

  • Otis and Maeve start a business together and become friends, although Otis wants to be more (GOING WELL)
  • He doesn’t think he stands a chance, particularly when Maeve starts sleeping with school football star Jackson (OBSTACLE), so he keeps his feelings to himself
  • There’s clearly a spark between them, though, and Otis reckons maybe he does have a chance after all. But just as he’s getting up the courage to do something about it, Jackson declares his feelings for Maeve in front of the whole school and the two start dating  (OBSTACLE)
  • Things start fizzling out between Maeve and Jackson but just as Maeve looks like she might be noticing what a great guy Otis is in comparison, she discovers Jackson was paying Otis cash in return for advice about how to get Maeve to like him, and she is super mad at Otis (OBSTACLE)
  • Otis realises he has to get over Maeve sharpish and starts getting close to another girl, Ola (GOING WELL)
  • Maeve breaks up with Jackson and realises she has feeling for Otis, but when she goes to his place to tell him, she sees him kissing Ola (OBSTACLE)
  • Otis and Ola start dating and Maeve tries to tell Otis how she feels but backs out because, deep down, she doesn’t think she’s good enough for Otis (OBSTACLE)
  • Eventually, Maeve confesses her love for Otis but her timing is so bad he gets angry and tells her it’s too late (OBSTACLE)
  • But of course it’s not too late! He loves her too! So once he comes to his senses, Otis leaves Maeve a voicemail saying how he feels. Hurray! (GOING WELL)
  • But another boy listens to the message first and deletes it from Maeve’s phone because he loves her too. Noooo! (OBSTACLE)

End of season two and Otis still hasn’t achieved his goal, but because it always feels as though he’s right on the edge of getting together with Maeve, we keep watching and waiting for it to happen. And of course, the characters are developing and learning about themselves all the time, too. Otis is becoming more confident with girls and finally has his first kiss, while Maeve is realising she needs to stop going for the wrong boys because she deserves better.

If Otis got the girl in episode one, we wouldn’t need to tune in again to follow his journey; it would just be a programme about a happy teenager in love. That’s very nice and everything but it’s hardly compulsive viewing. So, if you think your protagonist has things too easy, throw another obstacle at them and see what they do. I know it feels mean, but it’s the only way they’ll learn.

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes is a developmental editor working with middle grade and YA authors. She specialises in speculative and genre fiction, particularly horror, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi and anything with a dash of magic or macabre. She is a member of the SfEP, EFA, ACES, British Fantasy Society, Horror Writers Association and SCBWI. She has an MA in Novel Writing and an MA in Children's Literature.

All stories by: Siobhan O'Brien Holmes