Progressive Complications: How to Create Better Conflict in Your Story
In every story, your characters need to want something. They need to have a goal.
If you’re writing a murder mystery, that goal might be to figure out who the murderer is and put them in jail. If you’re writing an action story, that goal might be to survive an asteroid headed straight for Earth. You get the idea…
But unfortunately for your characters, it’s not going to be very easy for them to achieve their goals. Because if it was easy, there would be nothing to write about. No story, right?
So, in order to write a story worth reading, your characters will have to face opportunities, challenges, and conflict as he or she pursues his or her goal.
These moments are called Progressive Complications.
In today’s post, I’m going to cover what Progressive Complications are, why they matter, some best practices for writing your own Progressive Complications, and how to evaluate the Progressive Complications in your story once you’ve finished a draft. Let’s dive in!
What are Progressive Complications?
Complications are things that get in the way of your protagonist pursuing his or her goal. These complications can be people, places, things, or events, and they can be negative or positive. So, a character might face challenges or tests (negative), but they might also receive tools and information they need (positive) to help them achieve their goal.
Now, the key to writing good conflict is to write complications that get harder and harder to deal with over time. And we’ll talk more about what this means in a minute, but that’s pretty much the gist of what progressive complications are.
Why do Progressive Complications Matter?
Well, first of all, stories exist because of conflict. If a character could get whatever they wanted at the beginning of the story, there would be nothing to write about, right? But besides that, there are two main reasons that progressive complications are important:
Reason #1 is that progressive complications can help you build tension in the reader and keep them on the edge of their seats.
The reader is rooting for your character to succeed in achieving their goal. So, when your character is faced with conflict after conflict, the reader is going to worry more and more about whether or not your character will succeed. And it’s this sense of worry that keeps readers turning page after page to find out what happens next. So, if you don’t handle the conflict in your novel well, or if the tension peaks too early in your story, then there’s nothing left to hold the reader’s attention and pull them through the rest of the story.
Reason #2 is that progressive complications can help you give the reader insight into who your character is AND how they change over time.
When a person is faced with conflict, he or she has to react and make decisions under pressure. So, these moments of conflict and pressure are great opportunities to show the reader who your character really is -- or what they value, what they believe in, and what they are willing to fight for. And this is one of those things that readers come to stories for. Readers want to see how your character deals with tough situations and how those situations affect, challenge, and change them in return.
Progressive Complications Best Practices:
To write conflict well, or for the conflict in your story to be effective, there are certain best practices you’ll want to keep in mind as you write or edit your draft. I’ve got five of them to share with you today:
Best Practice #1: Each complication needs to relate to your POV character’s goal.
Every story centers around a character who wants to achieve or accomplish something. And, as we discussed earlier, complications are the obstacles or opportunities that get in the way of your character achieving or accomplishing their goal. That means the best, most effective complications should relate to your character’s goal.
So, let’s say you’re writing a murder mystery and your character is a detective who wants to find the killer and bring him to justice. In that case, each complication should get in the way of your detective finding the murderer and bringing him to justice.
If a complication doesn’t relate to your character’s overarching story goal, the reader will probably get confused and they won’t know where to place their focus and attention. And when that happens, the emotional bond the reader feels with your character can weaken or break.
Now, of course, it is possible to push the conflict of your story in new and unexpected directions, but in that case, the new direction should have a direct impact on what’s already been established as important to your character.
Best Practice #2: Each complication needs to be more difficult to deal with.
As I mentioned earlier, the obstacles or opportunities your character faces need to get more and more challenging to deal with as the story unfolds. So, that means the complications in your story should be presented in an escalating fashion like—1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6—not 1, 2, 3, 3, 5, 1.
If you don’t present your scenes in an escalating way, the forward momentum of your story will be stalled, and your reader will probably lose interest in where the story’s headed.
In addition to presenting complications that escalate, there needs to be something greater at stake for your character with each new complication. So, using our murder mystery example, there might be a “ticking clock” or a deadline by which your detective needs to figure out who the murderer is. As time goes on, and the detective faces more and more complications, the stakes get higher and higher because the murderer is likely to kill again and that time on the clock is going to run out.
Now, imagine if the detective finally puts the puzzle pieces together and figures out who the murderer is, but needs to push “pause” on his investigation to go help his mom get her cat out of the tree. By figuring out who the murderer is, the story has just gotten pretty intense, right? As a reader, you’re wondering how this is going to play out? Will he bring the murderer to justice or not?
But by not presenting the conflict in an escalating way, you’re essentially saying -- hold on a second reader, the detective has to go help his mom save her cat who’s gotten stuck up a tree. All that tension you built will go away because the conflict isn’t escalating -- it’s actually de-escalating.
Best Practice #3: Each complication needs to require more effort from your character.
As the obstacles in your character’s path get harder and harder to deal with, the steps your character needs to take to resolve the conflict should require greater effort and more resources. That just makes sense, right?
So, kind of like we just talked about with the detective who figured out who the murderer is, but needs to take a detour to go help his mom get her cat down from the tree… Getting the cat down from the tree doesn’t require THAT much effort from your character compared to bringing down a serial killer, right? So, again, it’s just one more way to pressure test the conflict in your story to make sure you’re presenting the events of your story in the best possible way.
Another way to think about this is that with each complication, your character should be faced with another opportunity to grow and change. So, by the end of your story, your protagonist will either be someone who’s qualified to handle the climactic event -- or they won’t be, right? In most stories, the protagonist will need to do some growing and changing to become that person.
So, by presenting your character with complications that are harder to deal with, and that requires more effort, you’re essentially giving them the opportunity to adapt and change so that they can then accomplish their story goal and succeed in the upcoming climax.
Best Practice #4: Each complication needs to be unique and, ideally, "complex."
If your character faces the same kinds of conflict over and over, he or she loses the opportunity to grow and change. It also stalls the forward momentum of your story which means you risk boring your readers.
So, for example, say your character is running from the bad guys and encounters the complication of a locked door, imagine how boring the story would be if your character faced another four locked doors in a row. Not very exciting, right?
So, in addition to each complication being unique, you also need to make sure the conflict you include in your story is complex. What do I mean by that?
Well, there are two main types of conflict -- there’s external conflict that comes from outside your character, and there’s internal conflict that comes from inside your character. When you vary the types of conflict your character faces, or combine different types of conflict together in one scene, the conflict your character faces becomes “complex.”
So, if the detective in our example is chasing down the murderer that he’s finally identified (which is external conflict) all while dealing with feelings of grief over his partner that just died (which is inner conflict), the scene will be much more interesting than if he was only chasing the murderer.
So, throughout each of your scenes (and throughout your global story), you’ll want to use various types of conflict to keep things interesting for your reader and to present your protagonist with new challenges and opportunities to grow.
Best Practice #5: Each complication needs to build up to a Turning Point.
As your story progresses, you’ll have multiple obstacles or complications for your character to face. Eventually, things will become so complicated for your character that he or she will have to think of a new plan to accomplish their goal.
This last complication that occurs right before your character realizes that their original plan isn’t going to work, is called the Turning Point.
So, this could be a moment where your character does something that changes their circumstances or it could be a moment where they realize something that changes their circumstances. Either way, you want the complications in your story to escalate to this point of no return -- the point where your character’s original plan won’t work anymore and they have to decide on a new way forward.
One thing to note here is that you don’t want to use the same type of turning point over and over. Doing so can make your story predictable for the reader. Ideally, you’ll want to mix up the types of turning points -- so some will be realizations and some will be actions -- so that your story feels fresh and surprising.
The other thing to note here is that your turning points need to be specific events that you can pinpoint on a timeline. So, for example, in The Empire Strikes Back, Luke battling Darth Vader is a situation -- it’s a scene, right? It’s a collection of things that happen. The battle gets more and more difficult for Luke as time goes on. The turning point is the moment when Luke learns that Darth Vader is his father. It’s a specific moment when things change. Now, the battle has taken on a different meaning and Luke must decide what to do going forward.
How to Evaluate the Complications in Your Draft
Okay so, let’s talk about how to evaluate the conflict in your draft. This five-step process is going to be especially helpful if you already have a finished first draft, but it’s also great for looking back on individual scenes you’ve just written, too.
Step 1: Identify what your point-of-view character wants.
The first thing you’ll want to do is identify the point of view character’s goal in the scene. So, what does your character want to achieve, accomplish, or get? And then, what’s their plan for achieving, accomplishing, or getting their goal?
The next thing you’ll want to think of in terms of your character’s goal is -- What do they expect to happen when they act on their plan? So, how does your character think their plan will turn out for them? Do they expect to be successful?
It’s really important to understand what your character thinks will happen as they pursue their scene goal because part of their struggle will be figuring how to move forward when things don’t go as planned.
And this struggle your character feels is what the reader’s going to track. They’re going to keep reading to find out what’s going to happen as your character pursues their goal.
So, that’s step one. Identify what your POV character wants in the scene you’re looking at.
Step 2: List everything that gets in your character’s way.
Once you’ve identified your character’s goal (and what they expect to happen), it’s time to make a chronological list of everything that gets in your character’s way. So, that could be any person, place, or thing that gets in your character’s way.
So, for example, maybe there’s a big storm or an unexpected invite to a holiday celebration or maybe some kind of intrusive thought that undermines your character’s confidence. It could be anything as long as it’s relevant to the story you’re telling.
If you’re more of a visual person, it can be helpful to think of a straight line that represents your character pursuing their goal. If they traveled that straight line, they would accomplish their goal in the way they set out to accomplish it.
But, we know that’s not going to happen, so imagine the complications that get in your character’s way as things that distract your character away from that straight line. So, they bump your character off the “easy path” of chasing their goal.
And remember, complications can be either positive or negative, so don’t feel like everything has to be terrible all the time.
So, that’s step two -- make a list of your complications or everything that gets in your character’s way as they pursue their scene goal.
Step 3: Rank your list of complications.
Now that you have a list of complications, it’s time to rank them. So, we’re going to put them in order. And there are a few ways you can do this.
You can rank the complications from 1-10 (1 being the least complicated and 10 being the most complicated). Or you can think in terms of your character’s distance from achieving their goal. So, for example, you could use variations of the words “close” and “far,” and your ranking system might look something like this “closest, close, kind of close, neutral, kind of far, far, farthest.”
There’s no right answer, so just create a ranking system that makes the most sense to you.
The most important part of this step is to determine whether or not your complications escalate. So, do they get worse over time? Can you rank them like 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6… or do they look more like 1, 3, 3, 2, 5, 1…?
If you find yourself with complications that jump all over the place (like from 1 to 3 to 10 to 1), this is a clear indicator that you need to revise your scene. And that’s because when your complications don’t escalate, it breaks that sense of forward momentum -- or that sense that tension’s building within the scene.
So, that’s step three -- rank your list of complications to determine whether they escalate properly or not.
Step 4: Identify the turning point (if there is one).
After you’ve ranked your complications, the next step is to see if you can identify the turning point of your scene.
So, the turning point is a moment where your character realizes their original plan for accomplishing their scene goal is no longer viable. It’s the moment that forces your protagonist to face a decision about what to do next. So, think about it like a moment where your character says, “Well NOW what am I going to do?”
They’ve either just learned something that changes their circumstances, or done something that changes their circumstances, or something’s happened that’s changed their circumstances.
And, in a perfect world, the Turning Point of your scene would be the last complication on your list (or the “most complicated” thing your character has to deal with). But sometimes it’s not, and that’s okay for now. The purpose of this analysis is to gauge the current shape of each of the scenes in your draft.
So, if you haven’t identified a turning point, that’s okay -- now, at least you know that you need to build one in there.
If you have identified a turning point, the next thing you’ll want to do is ask yourself how that turning point changes things. So, what’s changed in this scene? And if there is something that’s changed, how do you feel about that change? Does it matter? If so, you’re good to go.
If not, then you’ll need to make some adjustments to your scene or maybe even scrap it if you determine that it doesn’t really add anything to the global story.
So, that’s step four -- identify the turning point of your scene. If there isn’t a turning point that changes things and forces your character to make a decision, then your scene doesn’t work and it’s time to make some tweaks.
Step 5: Consider how this part of the story affects your global story.
If you’ve made it to this step and your scene works, the next thing to look at is how this scene affects your global story. And you’ll want to do that because no scene exists in a vacuum -- they are all interconnected and they build on one another to move your global story forward.
So, if your scene works, you’ll want to ask questions like: Does it move the global story forward? Where does this one scene fall within the chain of conflict (or the chain of progressive complications) for your global story? How does this scene help create that arc of change in your global story?
And if you find that your scene does work and if it does move your global story forward and add to that overall arc of change in your global story, then you’re good to go! Move on to the next scene.
Now I want to walk you through an example of how this analysis might look using a scene from the movie Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
Example from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (the movie):
Here’s an example from the first scene in the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire movie (not counting the opening scene with Frank Bryce).
Quick scene recap – Harry, Hermione, and some of the Weasleys travel from the Burrow to the Quidditch World Cup using a portkey.
Inciting Incident – Hermoine wakes Harry and Ron up super early because it’s the day of the Quidditch World Cup. Once Harry’s awake, his scene goal becomes: go to the Quidditch World Cup. So, what gets in the way of that scene goal?
Progressive Complications –
- Ron asks Mr. Weasley where they’re headed, and Mr. Weasley says he doesn’t really know. Harry is kind of baffled but he trusts Mr. Weasley, so this isn’t all that bad. (rank: 1)
- Harry and the Weasleys meet the Diggorys who have been waiting for them. Amos (Cedric’s dad) recognizes Harry as the famous “the boy who lived.” Being recognized this way always makes Harry slightly uncomfortable, but it’s not anything new. (rank: 2)
- Harry sees a boot on the ground and asks the Weasley’s what it is. They tell Harry it’s a portkey, but Harry doesn’t know what a portkey is, or how to use it. He’s pretty unsure here and becomes distracted, almost missing the departure time. (rank 3)
- At the last minute, Harry grabs the portkey and is somehow whisked away from the little grassy hill. He doesn’t know what’s happening to him, or where or how he’s going to “land.” (rank: 4)
- While spinning in the air, Mr. Weasley tells the kids to let go of the portkey. Harry is super unsure here. This is his Turning Point moment because it directly leads to a dilemma. His Crisis question is, “Do I let go of this portkey and risk getting hurt? Or do I hold onto the portkey and risk missing the Quidditch World Cup?” (rank: 5)
Climax – Harry decides to trust Mr. Weasley’s advice and lets go of the portkey.
Resolution – Harry lands on the ground next to Hermoine and Ron. They’ve arrived at the Quidditch World Cup. He has achieved his scene goal.
So, what’s changed from start to finish? Well, his physical location for one. He’s gone from “home” (the Weasley’s) to “away” (the Quidditch World Cup). He’s also moved from “ignorance” (not knowing how the portkey works) to “knowledge” (knowing exactly what a portkey does and how it’s used). You can also say he moves from “comfortable” (at the Burrow with the Weasleys) to “uncomfortable” (after he travels with the portkey and arrives at the unfamiliar Quidditch World Cup). You can even say he moves from “safe” (at the Burrow) to “danger” (at the Quidditch World Cup with thousands of wizards).
How does this affect the global story? This scene doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it actually affects the global story in many ways. For one, Harry meets Cedric and learns how to use a portkey. During the Triwizard Tournament, Harry and Cedric help each other by sharing what they know about each task. Later on, during the last task, both Harry and Cedric are transported through a portkey to face Voldemort in a graveyard. So, meeting Cedric and learning about portkeys is a direct set up for things that happen later in the story. This scene also puts Harry in the Death Eater’s path because shortly after the Quidditch World Cup is over, the Death Eaters show up, create havoc, and shoot the Dark Mark into the sky.
So, that’s my five-step process for evaluating the conflict in your scenes. And the really cool thing about this process is that you can use these same five steps to evaluate each scene, each sequence, each subplot, each act, and even your overarching global story, too.
Now, I know that level of analysis is not everyone’s cup of tea so, don’t worry if it’s not yours -- and don’t worry if what I just said feels super overwhelming. This process is something that a developmental editor can help you with if you don’t want to do it yourself. So, if you want another set of eyes to help you evaluate the conflict in your draft, consider enlisting the help of a developmental editor. If you'd like to work with me on your story, you can click here to learn more about what I do and how I can help.
If you’re having a hard time evaluating the conflict in your own story, then I highly recommend taking a scene (or two or three) from your favorite movie and doing this quick scene analysis so you can see progressive complications in action.
You’ll learn SO much from analyzing stories that work and sooner or later, you won’t have to spend so much brainpower writing conflict that escalates -- it will start to come more naturally to you because you’ve exposed yourself to it so much through these exercises.
You can also use this as a great activity for your writing group or for you and a critique partner to do together. Maybe switch scenes and go through these five steps for the other person. Getting a second set of eyes on your pages can make all the difference!
Suggested Resources: STORY by Robert McKee, The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne
👉 Let’s discuss in the comments: How do you handle the Progressive Complications in your story? Did you use the 5-step process for evaluating your story’s Progressive Complications? How did it go?