Welcome to the Bite Size Edition of the Editor Roundtable Podcast. Here on the Roundtable we’re dedicated to helping you become a better writer, following the Story Grid method developed by Shawn Coyne. In these episodes we bring you some shorter solo articles and interviews on topics that interest us as writers.
In this episode, Valerie Francis and Leslie Watts discuss the progressive complications and escalating stakes of the film Whiplash.
If you listened to the episode we did on Whiplash earlier this season, you’ll have heard me oooh and ahhh about what a terrific job Damien Chazelle did with the progressive complications. So, I thought it would be fun to take a closer look at just this one aspect of the film, and Leslie graciously agreed to jump in and help me out.
Kim Kessler and I wrote a Fundamental Fridays blog post about Progressive Complications, so if you want to learn more about progressive complications, you can check that out.
Before we dive in, let me read out the summary for the beginning hook, middle build and ending payoff.
Beginning Hook – Andrew Neimann is a first year music student at the Shaffer Conservatory in New York. When Terence Fletcher, a band leader he admires, offers him a spot in Studio Band, Andrew must decide whether he’ll accept or not. He accepts and is humiliated in the first rehearsal.
Middle Build – Having been humiliated by Fletcher, Andrew decides to dedicate himself even more to developing his craft. As you’d expect from a performance story, the middle build is preoccupied with the training. When the city bus breaks down on the way to the Dunellen music competition, Andrew must decide whether he’ll find another way to the event or forfeit his opportunity to perform as the core drummer of Studio Band. Andrew rents a car and after a series of events that continue to ramp the tension up to an almost unbearable level (including a car crash in which he suffers injuries to his head and hands), Andrew goes on stage but is unable to play. When Fletcher throws him out of the band, he suffers a mental break, is dismissed from Shaeffer entirely, and reports Fletcher’s abuse to authorities.
Ending Payoff – Fletcher offers Andrew a chance to play in his new band at the JVC competition. When Andrew realizes that Fletcher has set him up to fail, and to be publicly humiliated, he must decide whether he will walk away from music forever, or go back on stage and show what he can do. Andrew goes back on stage, and for the first time in the film, takes control over Fletcher and his music. During his performance, he self-transcends and his genius shines through. He finally earns Fletcher’s respect.
Ok, so why do stakes need to escalate and complications progress?
To answer that, let’s consider what the writer’s ultimate goal is. It’s to get the reader emotionally involved in the story and with the protagonist and his adventure. We need to make the reader feel something. Raising the stakes of the story and progressively complicating the situation brings the hero closer to, or further from his object of desire. The big question the reader is asking is “will the hero get what he wants?” which means that when things get complicated and stakes get higher, we get more and more emotionally involved in the story.
What exactly is it that’s getting progressively more complicated? It’s the hero’s ability to get what he wants; it’s the journey – the pursuit of the goal. Overall, it gets harder and harder to get what he wants until it seems like he’ll never get what he wants at all (the all is lost moment). That said, it can’t only get worse and worse for the protagonist – that would be boring. Sometimes things get better and the hero gets closer to what he wants. Sometimes the complications are positive.
Leslie: Yes, because whether a complication is positive and helps the protagonist or negative and hurts the protagonist, it complicates or changes how they go about pursuing their goal. Any alteration in the pursuit, alters the landscape, even if it’s for the better.
Valerie: How do stakes tie in with progressive complications? Well, ultimately what’s at stake at the global level is Andrew’s want; his object of desire which is to be the best of the best. He even says to Nicole that he wants “to be one of the greats”.
Just as there are progressive complications and objects of desire in each unit of story, there’s something at stake in each unit of story. Although the hero has one macro want, he also has micro wants in smaller units of story. These are the various steps he takes to get him to his ultimate goal. So for example, Andrew’s global object of desire is to be among the very best musicians in the world. However, in the beginning hook (the act level) he wants to get into studio band because that’s a stepping stone toward his larger goal. But in the opening scene, his want is to impress Fletcher because that’s a stepping stone to getting into studio band.
Leslie: That raises an interesting point about one way to vary the types of complications in terms of the stakes. A character can risk the loss of something already possessed or attained as opposed to risking an opportunity or the potential to attain or obtain something.
Performance stories are about manifesting internal gifts in the external world, and as Shawn Coyne says, protagonists “are forced to display all their gifts under duress and society’s critical evaluation.” The interesting thing about these stories is how as the protagonist gets closer to their goal, they have more to lose because of what they’ve attained.
For example, in the beginning hook after a disappointing encounter with Fletcher, Andrew’s dad says there will be other opportunities. Andrew was further from this goal in the beginning hook because he wasn’t in a position to be seen by Lincoln Center’s gatekeepers, but he also hasn’t burned any bridges. In the ending payoff, with Fletcher’s invitation to be the drummer at the jazz festival, although Andrew gains a renewed opportunity for a path to Lincoln Center, he gets only one shot with the scouts, and Fletcher is out to humiliate him.
Valerie: You just mentioned something there that I want to pick up on. It’s important not to repeat the same complication in exactly the same way. I talked about that in our episode on Waking Ned Devine.
Ok Leslie, I have a question for you. We know that complications can be positive or negative; they can represent opportunities or obstacles for the protagonist. So, would you consider Andrew’s relationship with Nicole be a positive complication or a negative one?
Leslie: I think Nicole represents both a positive and negative complication because with complications there are objective facts, but also subjective meanings. In the beginning hook, Andrew follows Connolly’s lead (he’s the core drummer in that band, and he has a girlfriend), and pursues another basic human need—love and belonging—and achieves a positive result when he asks Nicole for a date. She offers positive regard, which supports his self-regard, so that seems consistent with his goals at the time. But in the middle build, when Connolly becomes a rival for the core drummer position in the studio band and for Fletcher’s positive regard, Andrew sees Nicole—and perhaps his need for love—as a threat that risks his present position and future opportunity (Lincoln Center). He doesn’t want to be like Connolly and decides he’s willing to sacrifice his relationship with Nicole because it would dilute his focus. He chooses to break up with her.
Valerie: Why don’t we look at a couple of examples from the film?
Leslie: In the beginning hook, Andrew wants to get into the studio band, so he has to gain the positive regard of the mentor/gatekeeper, and once he gains that, he possesses greater positive self-regard.
When the trombone player is humiliated and kicked out, we see what’s at stake if Andrew makes a mistake. And when Fletcher turns his attention to Andrew, we see increasingly aggressive attempts to bring Andrew into line or test his mettle: At first Fletcher seems supportive, but then throws a cymbal in his direction. Next Fletcher gets in Andrew’s face and slaps him. Finally, Fletcher ridicules him and shames him in front of his peers.
At the start of the middle build, Andrew has made it into the studio band as the alternate, but he knows this position is tenuous. He wants to be core drummer (an opportunity he later attains) because that might make it more likely that he stays in the band and gets an opportunity to go to Lincoln Center.
In our regular episodes, we like to round out our discussion with a few key takeaways for writers who want to level up their own writing craft. So what have we learned from looking at the progressive complications in Whiplash?
Valerie: This film is elegant in its simplicity. The structure isn’t overly complicated, but it works so well because every story element is clearly defined.
Leslie: I have two primary takeaways. First, the middle build of the story is where writers often struggle. I think the key to conquering the middle build is in mastering the way your complications progress, the way you raise the stakes because the middle build is where the global progressive complications occur. You have to understand the ways in which the forces of antagonism and what the protagonist really wants are in conflict. My second takeaway is that we shouldn’t repeat complications, but the ways we vary them can be subtle. The objective facts are important, but the subjective meaning–what the complications represent to the protagonist–is probably more important in terms of escalating the stakes.
Join us next week for another episode in which we’ll all deepen our knowledge of story and level up our craft.