This week Valerie opens our eyes to the principle of Progressive Complications as we analyze the hilarious 1998 British-Irish village comedy Waking Ned Devine. This sleeper hit was written and directed by Kirk Jones.
Genre: Crime > Caper
Although I’m calling this a caper, the first act definitely reads like a mystery (as Jackie et al try to discover who the lottery winner is). The overall story though is a caper as Jackie enacts his plan to defraud the government of nearly £7M.
Jackie O’Shea doesn’t have much of an internal arc to speak of. At the end of the film, he’s pretty much the same as he was at the beginning.
Before I move on, I want to take a minute to contrast this with Mad Money, which is also a comedy caper. Both require a fair degree of suspension of disbelief, but in my opinion, Waking Ned Devine (while not a perfect film, but is close enough for jazz) pulls it off in a much better way.
- Beginning Hook – When Jackie O’Shea learns that someone from his village of Tullymore has won the Irish National Lottery, he sets out to discover who it is so he can share in the winnings. After discovering that his friend, Ned Devine, won then died from the shock of it, Jackie abandons his pursuit of the money.
- Middle Build – After dreaming about Ned, Jackie develops a new plan to claim the money and share it amongst all 52 inhabitants of Tullymore. When Lizzy Quinn blackmails Jackie for more than her share, he must comply with her wishes or risk being charged with a felony. He ignores her threats and continues with the scheme as planned.
- Ending Payoff – When the money has finally been received, Maggie (a local townswoman and single parent) must decide whether to reveal that her son, Maurice, is Ned’s heir and is rightfully entitled to 100% of the lottery winnings. She decides that more than money, Maurice needs a father in the form of Pig Finn (who thinks he the Da anyway), and so keeps her secret.
- What does it mean?
In chapter 41 of The Story Grid, Shawn talks about commandment number two, progressive complications. He says that conflict in a story has to escalate by degrees, which means that the plot has to get progressively more complicated. The issue facing the protagonist (whether it’s an obstacle or an opportunity) has to be greater than the one before, and can’t be a repetition of something that’s come before.
To track a story’s progressive complications, Shawn uses something he calls The Power of 10. We haven’t talked a lot about it on this podcast or in the Fundamental Fridays posts so I thought this would be an interesting thing to look at.
Basically, the premise is that you list out all the complications in the story and assign them a number value based on how difficult it would be for the protagonist to reverse his decision; 1 being an easy switch back and 10 being absolutely irreversible.
A character reaches the POINT OF NO RETURN when, no matter what he decides, he will be irrevocably changed by the experience. There’s no turning back.
“Progressive complications must move the story forward, never backward. They do so by making life more and more difficult (in positive as well as negative ways) for [the] lead character” (TSG p.166). The stakes are always getting higher.
- Why do writers need to know this?
When a story becomes progressively more complicated, readers/viewers stay interested. It’s that simple. When the stakes are constantly being raised (through encounters with obstacles and opportunities), the reader is compelled; he’s wondering what will happen next, or how the protagonist is going to get out of the situation. It’s about creating narrative drive.
- How does a writer use this concept to create a great story?
To progressively complicate a story, a writer must present the protagonist with unique obstacles and opportunities that raise the stakes. Always raise the stakes. Backward movement (that is, a complication with stakes lower than the one previous) will make the story lose momentum.
I use the word “unique” for two reasons.
They’ve seen it before in other stories: First, it reminds us to innovate. What obstacles and opportunities can the protagonist face that the audience hasn’t seen before in other stories? Innovation also help keep reader interest.
They’ve seen it before in your story: Second, progressive complications (whether they be obstacles or opportunities) can only be used once in a story. If the protagonist faces exactly the same situation twice, it’s boring. They’ve seen it before in your story.
Re Waking Ned Devine: I thought Waking Ned Devine might be a good film to study the Power of 10 because there’s no internal genre to speak of, and the sub-plot (the Maggie and Pig Finn love story) is essentially a set up for a complication that is paid off at the end.
In order to analyze the film’s complications and whether or not they progress, I created a spreadsheet (it’s what we story nerds do!). You can download the PDF, and you’ll see that I analyzed the beginning hook in detail. It was a wonderful learning experience but also quite time consuming. So for the middle build and ending payoff, I did apply my version of the Power of 10, but didn’t do a complete analysis.
- Why is this film a good example of the writing concept?
On the spreadsheet I tracked the global story only. That is, Jackie’s pursuit of the lottery winnings. I think that overall, it demonstrates the use of progressive complications extremely well.
Remember, the Power of 10 is a way of analyzing whether a story is progressively complicating, whether the stakes are being raised, whether there’s s mix of obstacles and opportunities and generally, whether the story is being moved forward (i.e., narrative drive). It’s not about the number system; it’s about the analysis. So, although I used consecutive numbers (rather than specifically using a Power of 10), I was still able to see how the writer progressively complicated Jackie’s pursuit of the lottery winnings.
I strongly encourage you to download the spreadsheet. It’s hard to talk about the specifics on a podcast because this is not a visual medium. But it was an extraordinary exercise and a tool I’ll be using in my own work from this point forward.
In a nutshell:
- Complications worked well on the micro (scene) and macro (act) levels
- There was a lovely mix of obstacles (indicated on the spreadsheet by a negative sign) and opportunities (indicated on the spreadsheet by a positive sign) and each one either brought Jackie closer to his want, or further from it.
- Complications progressed incrementally for the most part, but there were a couple of times when there was a jump. For example, at the Midpoint Shift (which is also the Point of No Return as well as the inciting crime obligatory scene) when Michael impersonates Ned for the first time. This really complicated the situation for Jackie and Michael and so you’ll see a big jump in the numerical assignment. [NOTE: the number assignment is subjective and imperfect. It isn’t about finding the precise degree of complication. It’s about getting a clear idea of whether the story is progressing or regressing.]
There’s one area where the plot did not get more complicated, and that’s in the ending payoff. I think this is worth looking at because there’s a lot to be learned by it.
The filmmakers spent a lot of time setting up the Maurice-as-Ned’s-son plot line, but they didn’t pay it off very well in my opinion. Once again I’ll refer you to Anne’s excellent Fundamental Friday’s article entitled Storytellers Assemble, which is all about setups and payoffs and if you haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to do so. I’ll put a link the show notes.
As Ned’s heir, Maurice is entitled to all of the lottery winnings, not just 1/52 of it. This is a pretty significant plot point and one that you’d expect to be paid off in a big way. Instead it sort of fizzles.
Lizzy Quinn is established as the biggest force of antagonism in the story. It’s fairly easy for the villagers to pull the wool over Jim Kelly’s eyes, and no one knows that Ned had a son – including the audience. So when we see Lizzy making her way to the phone booth in the ending payoff, tension starts to rise. When she goes over the cliff, the villagers, and the audience, cheer. This should be the climax of the story.
Instead, we then cut to the pub where Maggie reveals her secret. This kind of comes out of nowhere and while it’s definitely an obstacle, it’s dealt with so quickly that it doesn’t carry the same weight as Lizzy calling the lottery. As such, at this is the one spot in the movie that the complications regress rather than progress.
A word to the wise: The inherent risk in analyzing a film you love is that you’ll see the flaws in it, and for me, that has been the case with Waking Ned Devine. This is a lighthearted, family movie; one that I’ve watched with my kids for years. I’ll keep watching it because I still love it, warts and all.
Anne – So true! But on the up side, when a story you love reveals its flaws, you really learn the story principles involved. I always gain more as a writer and editor from seeing what doesn’t work than from seeing what does. I had fond memories of this film, but they were vague and non-specific, and after this analysis, I understand why nothing but the phone booth scene really stayed with me. It had charm and humor, but the ending insured that it wasn’t really enduring.
Valerie – A couple of areas (other than Maggie’s reveal) that I thought could have been stronger are:
The dream scene as the inciting incident of the middle build: dreams are cliche so this crowd-pleaser would have been even better if the writer had dug deeper and come up with something more innovative.
The beach scene when Jim Kelly arrives early from Dublin: It does complicates the plot and so doesn’t weaken the story from that perspective. However, there’s no reason for Jackie not to introduce himself as Ned. He’d planned to play the role all along, and had studied Ned’s personal details so he could easily have started the charade then and there.
That said, Ian Bannen and David Kelly were such marvellous actors, the characters are so charming and the sight gag of a naked Michael Sullivan on the motorbike is so funny, that as an audience member, I’m more than happy to believe that Jackie simply choked. As clever as he is, he was caught unawares and his natural instinct was to default to the truth.
Finally, our main protagonists (Jackie and Michael) have very little to do in the ending payoff. The old priest returning to Tullymore and dealing with the Lizzy Quinn issue comes very close to being a Deus Ex Machina, but it isn’t because the young priest has told us earlier in the film that he’d be returning. It plays as a satisfying gag and gets our heroes out of danger. What’s less satisfying is that the ending payoff crisis and climax are Maggie’s and not Jackie’s.
These weakness notwithstanding, I still think Waking Ned Devine is an excellent example of progressive complications (that are both obstacles and opportunities).
Jarie– One of the best things about a great story is now it moves forward from guideposts to guideposts. This movement is achieved by great progressive complications. Great story tellers know this because it’s what makes the reader keep reading until the crisis, climax, and resolution.
Waking Ned Devine has some excellent examples of progressive complications that leave you wondering, what could happen next?
As Valerie skillfully presented, Waking Ned Devine has a lot of scenes that progressively complicate by orders of magnitude or powers of 10. The reason these shifts are so big is because of an important aspect of a story — the set and setting.
Tullymore is a sleepy Irish town that has 52 residents. It’s the classical coastal Irish town that gives the viewer an expectation as to how the town residents will behave. This makes the ensuing progressive complications that much more complicated.
The town anchors expectations and allows the viewer to wonder how many more shenanigans the town can get into.
Another aspect of the film that is good for writers to pay attention to is how there is a build up to more and more progressive complications that are subtle but then explode. The best example of this is when the Lotto Man Jim Kelly finds Jackie and Michael on the beach. The next moment, Jackie is taking him to Ned’s house while Michael, naked, is racing to Ned’s house on his motorcycle. The whole scene is borderline unbelievable except for the fact that you’d expect that from Jackie and or Michael since before this, they were trying to make Ned’s body less weird looking.
The naked riding scene is just one example of set and setting that amplifies the progressive complication even more. If that scene was on a hippy commune, it’s impact would not be as great.
It should also be noted that the age of Jackie and Michael also play an important role in amplifying the progressive complications just like the town does. If they were younger men, it would not be as shocking or amped up. Just like in the Full Monty, if the guys were hot, it would not be as big a deal.
Testing the Proposition
Leslie– You would certainly want to avoid repetition or progressive complications that don’t represent increasingly difficult obstacles, but I think it’s important to avoid throwing in the kitchen sink, including random obstacles that aren’t directly or indirectly related to the central conflict in the story. Also making the obstacles too intense too fast, or making them too final too soon, can be a problem because you risk introducing tangents that take you away global story.
To innovate PCs, it’s useful to look at (1) the character’s wants and needs of the global story, (2) the human needs tank that’s at stake, (3) the essential action, or the character’s scene goal, (4) the levels of conflict (extra-personal, interpersonal, and inner), and (5) the nature of the scene antagonist. That sounds like a lot to track, and it is. My rule of thumb is to move from macro to micro until you find the real challenge for you in the story.
Kim – The first thing we wanted to discuss is the story principle itself. Shawn has referred to the “Power of 10” as a tool to evaluate that which is subjective in an objective way (which is of course what Story Grid is all about). Shawn and Tim have a good talk about it on the podcast episode about Higher Concepts which we’ll link to in the show notes.
One thing Anne and I discussed this week is that for a lot of writers, the idea of assigning numbers to aspects of their story can be a bit daunting. One thing we hear a lot about the Story Grid method in general is that it can feel intimidating to approach, there’s a steep learning curve, etc. It reminds me of the way I feel about Scrivener. Apparently it’s got all these really helpful tools that are life-changing but due to overwhelm I can’t get past the basics.
Anne – Story Grid tends to be attractive to the more analytical type of writer, and worrying about specific, accurate numerical values, like powers of ten and exponential increase, is a perfect form of resistance for people like us!
Meanwhile, the more right-brained, inspiration-driven writer can be put off forever by some of the scary left-brained tools of Story Grid, and miss out on all the benefits of the method for editing. The point is, MAKE THESE TOOLS YOUR OWN.
Kim – For clarity purposes, and so we don’t get too bogged down in the idea of quantification, I propose we refer to this tool as the Pain Scale of Irreversibility 🙂 It reminds me of one of one my favorite blogs from Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh where she redesigns the Pain Scale graphic in a way only she can. On a scale of 1 to 10, how reversible is this? 1 is totally reversible, 5 is reversible but there are consequences, 10 is totally irreversible. And all the degrees in between.
Rather than thinking of it as 1-10 for all the scenes, think of them in relation to one another. [suggested method…15 core scenes first? Then BH, MB, EP? Macro/micro level up stakes and irreversibility , discuss subtle increases vs bigger turning points]
One thing to note is that what counts as a 10 in story will be vary based on genre, the Life Values at stake, and also uniquely defined based on the specifics of the story. So before you start evaluating your scenes on the Pain Scale of Irreversibility, consider the elements of your story’s scale. This is another example of why defining “What’s the Genre” is so important: it applies to everything.
The other thing we wanted to mention about this tool is that it’s not something you do in the outlining or first draft stage. This is a second draft to eleventh draft tool. So don’t worry about it until it is the precise time to apply it.
Anne – Jarie makes an excellent point about set and setting–because when he says that a naked motorcycle ride would have less impact in a story set in a hippie commune, he’s really talking about contrast. There’s no absolute value of either “progressive” or “complication.” The question is, “Compared to what?” And the answer should be “compared to the previous complication” AND “compared to what the reader expects from this type of story.”
I agree with Valerie that Waking Ned Devine does a better job of a Crime/Caper story than Mad Money, which we looked at in Season Two. But I think that might be because Ned is set in a world that I personally am not familiar with. In some ways, Tullymore is a fantasy world for me. I’ve spent a total of two weeks in Ireland in my life and can easily look at village life there as an unknown world where anything goes. Though this film is set in Ireland, it was written and directed by a British filmmaker. Much of the comedy that helps all of us suspend disbelief for the duration of the story comes from that outsider POV, the world looking slyly in on a quirky, exotic place. I wonder how much extra leeway a non-Irish audience grants to a story like this for that reason.
Is the “village story” a unique subgenre on the Reality leaf of Shawn’s genre clover? Roger Ebert seemed to think so, listing a whole slew of “delightful village comedies that seem to spin out of the British isles annually.” And if it is, do we let certain conventions slide for it?
All I can go on is my own feeling at the end of it: it was, at best, kind of cute. I was willing to suspend disbelief and step over plot holes because I was having fun, but I can’t argue with Valerie’s conclusion that the final reveal, about Maurice’s paternity, was of much lower dramatic OR comic value than the complication and payoff that preceded it, where nasty Lizzie was going to blow the whistle on everyone in town.
If I were editing this story, I might honestly suggest deleting the whole paternity story. The ironic ending, where gosh, there was a legitimate heir to the lotto fortune all along, isn’t really required of a Caper, and I think I’d have enjoyed the story more, not less, without it.
Kim – For the majority of the story I wasn’t sure what the point of the Maggie’s subplot was. It didn’t feel developed enough to stand on its own or integrated into the main plot. One article from the Irish Times when the film came out in 1998 referred to it as:
An even more threadbare subplot involves Maggie (Susan Lynch), a young single mother torn between two prospective husbands, one of them Finn (James Nesbitt), a pig farmer with a personal hygiene problem. “If it wasn’t for the pigs, we’d be settled by now,” laments Maggie.
But for me, rather than cut it, I’d look for ways to develop it more and weave it in. I was certainly confused as to the relevancy of the plot thread throughout because there was not enough understanding of what had happened between Maggie and Finn, but even so I still thought the payoff at the end when Maggie tells Jackie that Ned is Maurice’s father worked. I was surprised and delighted in several ways.
If you’ll humor me a moment I’ll run through the dialogue and then explain.
Maggie: Jackie, would you say Maurice needed a father more than 7 million pounds?
Jackie: I’d say he needed a father more than 50 million.
Maggie: That’s what I thought.
Jackie: But what are you saying? How would he be entitled to the money?
Maggie: Ned does have family, Jackie.
Maggie: You’ll not tell a soul now.
Jackie: Maurice is the millionaire?
Maggie: Yeah. He treated me better than any man before.
Jackie: You must take it all, Maggie. Take it all. Put it away for yourself and the boy.
Maggie: No, no. Maurice can do without it. Besides, Finn would know he wasn’t the father. I can do without the millions, but I can’t afford to lose Finn. Sure 130,00 each is plenty.
Rather than trying to convince Maggie to let them share it, Jackie tells Maggie to take it all, put it away for herself and Maurice. But Maggie would rather have her son have a father than money. It’s not about it being an obstacle, it’s the moment that shows the change that has occured for Jackie, Maggie, and the whole town.
We don’t have a strong internal genre but if I were to pick one I would say Status-Sentimental, which interestingly was also our opinion on Mad Money—I’m always on the lookout for internal/external genre pairings, and now we’ve seen two examples of Crime>Caper and Status>Sentimental.
When a sympathetic protagonist, with a steadfast will but naive worldview, encounters a challenge or opportunity and has a supportive mentor of high moral character, he can rise in social standing.
In this case, it’s Jackie, Maggie, and the whole town.
Sympathetic protagonist with steadfast will but with naivete masked as sophistication worldview = Jackie
Encounters an opportunity = a chance to claim Ned’s winnings
And has a supportive mentor of high moral character = Annie (who reminds him of the risk to others, especially his best friend Michael)
He can rise in social standing = pulls off the ruse and the town is able to split the winnings
In Status stories, true Success is at odds not just with Failure but with the negation of the negation, Selling Out. In order to reach Success, the protagonist often must change their definition of what Success is. For Jackie, it’s changing from taking the winnings for himself to sharing it evenly with the whole town. Rather than being something that drives the town apart, the shared wealth brings them together.
I also liked that it came after Lizzie crashed on the beach in the phone booth. That obstacle was gone, but the greatest of all–an actual heir entitled to the winnings–was revealed. Except that it wasn’t a obstacle at all, because Maggie’s definition of Success was about love not money.
Anne – I think the writer could’ve given more weight earlier to the paternity story, and possibly made it work better as the ending payoff for the whole story. This is something for writers to think about: be sure you introduce ALL the key elements of your ending payoff in your beginning hook and early in the middle build, and introduce them in a way that engages the reader’s emotions.
So how to bring all this back to novelists? The basic point that Valerie and Jarie are making is unassailable: complications must progress, and you “measure” that progression by assessing how reversible each obstacle or opportunity is for your protagonist. It’s pretty simple. But not easy! It’ll take some work and experience to get a feel for it, and a good way to practice is on the single-scene level.
Watch out for what I call “bobbing boat syndrome” where the tension or difficulty goes up, then down, then up. Practice rearranging events within your scene so that they ratchet up, up, up like a boat cresting a huge wave, which is the crisis.
THEN, when you get the hang of it, you’ll be able to apply the lesson to your BH/MB/EP, and finally see it in the global story. Have patience with yourself. It’s like learning to drive–you practice and practice and one day it clicks.
Kim – Yes! I was talking with Courtney Harrell, another SG Editor, yesterday about a story and how frustrating this stuff can be and all the study and toil, and she said “but this is how we get there, right?” Yes, this absolutely how, the only way how. Remember what Tim said about flailing: flailing is how we move forward. Embrace flailing!
Anne: I’d also add this: remember that your reality and style genres, as well as your content genre, are going to have a lot to say about what constitutes a complication in your story, based on whether the stakes are life and death, or justice and injustice, and whether a fantasy setting lets you play with your reader’s expectations about the reality of your world, as I think they’ve done in this movie.
I agree with Anne’s point about the Maggie/Finn subplot: if it was deleted, the overall story (Jackie’s pursuit of the winnings) wouldn’t change.
Re Kim’s idea of dumping “The Power of 10” moniker (in favour of “The Pain Scale of Irreversibility”), I actually did something similar. In fact, I went one step further and nixed the “degree of reversibility” language too. I just got too confused. Instead, I began asking myself, “How hard is it for Jackie to dig himself out of this hole?” It amounts to the same thing of course, I just found it easier to wrap my head around it this way.
Leslie – Since two of you have opted to rename the “power of 10”, we at the Story Grid Editor Roundtable are putting forward the motion that “The Power of 10” henceforth to be known as:
VALERIE: How hard is it for the hero to dig himself out of this hole
KIM: The Pain Scale of Irreversibility
ANNE: Reversibility factor
JARIE: Spinal Tap Drummers Fate or How to Kill Kenny
- After the analysis, do we think that this film is indeed a good example of this writing concept? Why, why not? If not, is there another film that is a better example for listeners to study?
All-in-all, I think Waking Ned Devine is an excellent film to use when studying progressive complications. The complications do progress, there’s a mixture of obstacles and opportunities (with no repeats), the stakes are certainly getting higher. Even the last scene, which doesn’t work well for me but does for Kim, is an interesting study of progressive complications; it’s like a mini case study.
Jarie – The way I think about raising the stakes on a scene or rather making the progressive complication even better is to think of the best line in Spinal Tap:
“When you need that extra push over the cliff, we turn it to 11.”
That’s the way to think about if your scenes progressively complicate to 11. Waking Ned Devine has a lot of scenes that do that. While some of them don’t work or fall flat, the overall progressive complication of the entire movies goes from push over the cliff to literally pushing Lizzie over the cliff. How can you not like that?
To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. This week’s question comes to us from Kristi Garrett in the Story Grid summer Level Up course. Kristi asks:
Is it necessary for BOTH of the lovers in a love story to be involved in a triangle? Alternatively, could one of the competing love interests be something other than a human, such as a man “in love” with his job or himself — which also threatens the relationship?
Kim: I don’t think it’s necessary to have both lovers in triangle, to me the convention/Story can work without it. But it probably is more common than not because the purpose of the convention seems to be to make each lover desirable to another person. It shows the stakes in that there other options for the characters, putting their union at real risk.
Pride & Prejudice for example, Darcy’s rival for Elizabeth was Wickham who she was interested in at one point, but Elizabeth’s rival for Darcy is…Caroline Bingley? His cousin Anne? They certainly don’t get the same page time development.
As far as the rival being something else/non-human, I say yes absolutely. In Kramer vs Kramer it is his job, he’s in advertising and trying to make partner. Bridges of Madison County, she is married but her rival is his career and life of travel, his love of freedom/independence.
If you have a question about Progressive Complications, or any other story principle, you can ask it on Twitter @storygridRT, or better still, by going to storygrid.com/resources, clicking on Editor Roundtable Podcast, and leaving us a voice message.
Join us next time to find out whether Kim can make the case that the 2013 romantic comedy-drama About Time is a great example of a commercially successful story with internal global genre. Why not give it a look during the week, and follow along with us?