If the complications in your story aren’t progressing, your story won’t work. Knowing how to evaluate progressive complications is therefore a pretty important part of your editing process. In this post, Kim Kessler and I have set out to do just that.
But what exactly is a complication and how can you evaluate it?
In Story Grid terms, a complication is any obstacle or opportunity that a protagonist encounters while in pursuit of her object of desire. Although we associate the word complication with a negative turn of events, here it applies to both negative and positive situations; characters are faced with challenges or tests (negative) but they also receive tools and information they need (positive) to get the thing they’re after.
To be effective, the complications in your story must abide by certain rules, namely:
They MUST progress to raise the stakes. In order to raise the stakes of a story, each complication must be greater than the one before it. Otherwise, the story will lose momentum and your reader will get bored.
They MUST escalate to a turning point. The complications continue to rise in escalation to the turning point, which is when the value shifts. To understand The Power of 10, it’s essential that you understand the concept of value shifts, so if you need a refresher check out Value Shift 101.
Each complication MUST be unique. To move your story forward, you need a series of complications that make life more and more difficult for the protagonist (in positive and negative ways). To do this, make sure that each of the complications your character faces is unique. If you repeat one verbatim, your story will lose steam and your reader will lose interest.
In chapter 41 of The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know, Shawn Coyne says that when he’s evaluating a manuscript, one of the things he does is track each progressive complication using The Power of 10. He evaluates how difficult it would be for the protagonist to reverse her decision; 1 being very easy and 10 being impossible.
He didn’t go into details about how he does this, and I can understand why. The book is already so jam-packed with information that this level of detail would have completely overwhelmed readers.
What Kim and I want to do is start drilling down into this idea of evaluating progressive complications in a story and of course, chapter 41 is our main resource. I started my examination of The Power of 10 on the Story Grid Editor Roundtable Podcast when we looked at Waking Ned Devine.
For our research for this post, we decided to look at another of the films we studied on the podcast; Jack the Giant Slayer. As we learned during that episode, the story doesn’t work and while there are a number of issues with it (including too many plot holes to count), we were curious whether studying the progressive complications might provide further clues as to why it’s so problematic.
We worked independently, developing our own evaluation techniques and analysis, before reconvening and comparing notes. Our hypothesis was that, even if our methods varied, our results should be more or less the same.
A Word From Shawn
Just as we were finishing this article, we had a chance to talk to Shawn and he suggested that the best way to put The Power of 10 into action is through the global spectrum of value for the story. But to do this, you’d have to first identify all the points on the value line between the positive and negative, and then assign each a number. In other words, if positive is white and negative is black, you’d have to figure out all the shades of grey in between.
For example, an action story which turns on the global value of life/death, might have the following points:
3. Common Cold
6. Deep Sleep
10. Brain Death
11. Life Support
The complications in the story would then progress from 1 to 12 as the protagonist’s life is ever more in danger. Even though Shawn calls it The Power of 10, the number of increments you choose is entirely dependent on your story. It doesn’t have to be ten, or even a factor of ten.
This makes logical sense, because if the character is semi-conscious (7) in act one, but only suffers a common cold (3) by the end of the middle build, the story wouldn’t be very exciting. The risk to the character’s life would decrease which means the stakes would decrease. Stakes are tied to global value.
I started at the highest level of analysis using Shawn’s suggested method outlined above. I evaluated the story’s movement along the global spectrum of value according to Shawn’s suggestion. Jack the Giant Slayer is an action movie and the global spectrum of value for an action story is life to death. I therefore tracked Jack’s movement along that line. The value line I came up with is as follows:
And here’s Jack’s movement along this line:
(1) Life: Life with Dad
(2) Hardship: Life with Uncle
(6) Minor Physical Injury: Punched in the face (bruised)
(9) Risk of Major Physical Injury: hanging from beanstalk as it grows
(11) Unconsciousness: Falls from beanstalk, passes out
(10) Regains consciousness
(7) Risk of Major Physical Injury: Volunteers for rescue mission
(7) Risk of Major Physical Injury: Climbs beanstalk
(7) Risk of Major Physical Injury: Ziplining
(7) Risk of Major Physical Injury: Jack may be pulled off beanstalk
(3) No Immediate Danger: Jack safely in Gantua
(4) Verbal Threat to Life: Roderick threatens Jack to get beans
(8) Captured: Jack caught in net
(7) Risk of Major Injury: Jack freed, but giant shows up
(3) No Immediate Danger: giant leaves, Jack undiscovered
(7) Risk of Major Injury: Jack follows giant
(7) Risk of Major Injury: Jack arrives at giant’s castle
(7) Risk of Major Injury: Jack attacks giant
(3) No Immediate Danger: Jack prepares to return to Cloister with Elmont and Isabelle
(5) Risk of Minor Injury: Bees and Sleeping Giant
(3) No Immediate Danger: Jack descends beanstalk (no reason to think he’ll fall)
(7) Risk of Major Injury: Beanstalk being cut down, he survived that height before
(7) Risk of Major Injury: Swings from beanstalk
(3) No Immediate Danger: Safely back in cloister
(7) Risk of Major Injury: Giants attack and chase Jack
(7) Risk of Major Injury: Jack has to jump to drawbridge
(5) Risk of Minor Injurry: Jack leaves battle
(7) Risk of Major Injury: General Fallon chasing Jack and Isabelle
(8) Captured: Fallon prepares to eat Jack
(7) Risk of Major Injury: Jack freed, but falling debris
(3) No Immediate Danger: Jack dons crown and commands giants
(1)Life: Jack and Isabelle living happily ever after
This exercise clearly shows that Jack is never really in any danger. There’s certainly a risk of danger, but he finishes the story (after a massive battle) with nary a scratch – he doesn’t even have any dirt on his face. Compare this with an action hero like John McClane in Die Hard. McClane starts in excellent physical health and incurs one injury after another, each one more severe than the last, until by the end of the film he’s barely standing.
True, Jack the Giant Slayer is a children’s movie, but severe physical injury and death are still on the table. Elmont is in a fistfight, is nearly drowned, skewered and baked alive, giants eat the heads off people, a monk is murdered in the first act, and four main cast members, along with a whole group of rescuers, die.
Jack, on the other hand, passes out after falling from the beanstalk in the beginning hook, but is otherwise unscathed. Because the stakes never really get that high for him, the audience never really becomes engaged.
Once this high-level examination is done, it’s useful to look at the story scene by scene, and that’s where the spreadsheet comes in handy.
Global Analysis (Valerie’s Spreadsheet)
When I first broached this topic for Waking Ned Devine, I came at it from several different angles. In the end, I found it easiest to simply list the scenes in a spreadsheet and work through them systematically. This is tedious work, but it reveals some fascinating information. For Jack the Giant Slayer, I completed Act 1 of the spreadsheet (which can be downloaded here) in full detail so you can see the process. I concentrated on the global story only (Jack rescuing Isabelle and defeating the giants) since that’s the action story.
The columns on the spreadsheet are as follows:
- Scene No.: This is simply the number of the scene.
- Function: Here I list whether the scene has a particular function in the story. For example, is it an obligatory scene, or one of the fifteen core scenes.
- Scene Event: A few key words to indicate what happens in the scene.
- Complication (Global Story): What complication(s) happens in the scene?
- → / ← : This column identifies whether the complication is an obstacle or opportunity. Although obstacles and opportunities are positive and negative, I decided to use arrows because the Story Grid methodology already uses + / – to indicate value shift. Positive opportunities bring the protagonist closer to her object of desire ( → ) and negative obstacles take the protagonist further away ( ← ).
- R°: The degree of reversibility. On a scale of 1-10, how hard is it for the character to change his climactic decision?
- Story Forward (Y/N): Does the scene move the story forward, yes or no?
- Point of Conflict: What’s the point of conflict in the scene? If there’s no conflict, the scene doesn’t work. In fact, it isn’t a scene at all, it’s exposition.
- Stakes: What’s at stake in this scene?
- Stakes Raised: Have the stakes been raised?
- Notes: Here I list anything I noticed in the scene. Things that worked well or didn’t work well, or in the case of my own writing, things I need to change in the next draft.
From this spreadsheet I can very quickly see that some of the scenes in the film could have been deleted entirely. What’s more interesting however, is that although Jack is the hero, he makes the climactic decision in only a third of the scenes. Furthermore, while the stakes do rise, they don’t rise that high and the change is incremental.
So, in addition to the obvious plot holes and terrible dialogue, this film has a passive hero who is never really in much danger. Even A-List actors like Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci and Ian McShane can’t breathe life into a story that doesn’t work.
If your spreadsheet reveals weaknesses like those in Jack the Giant Slayer, you can then drill down even further into the scenes that aren’t working. Let’s look at this example toward the end of the middle build.
Attack of the Bees
This is a very simple scene, which is typical of this film. The inciting incident is that Jack, Isabelle and Elmont arrive at the beanstalk. Their object of desire (what they want) is to climb down the beanstalk and return home to safety. The complication, which also serves as the turning point, is that there’s a giant guarding the entrance to the beanstalk. The crisis question is of course, what do they do about the giant? The climactic decision is to put bees into the giant’s helmet. The resolution is that the giant falls over the cliff clearing the way for Jack, Isabelle and Elmont to climb to safety.
This scene has only one complication which serves as the turning point. This isn’t, in and of itself, a problem. However, this is a pretty weak complication. After all, this is the least threatening of all the giants, and he’s asleep.
There’s really no point of conflict in this scene. Yes, Jack et al want to escape and the giant wants to keep them from escaping, but if they can creep up to him and pull back his visor without waking him, couldn’t they have snuck past him to the beanstalk? (And speaking of the visor, this is the one and only time a giant wears a visored helmet in the entire film. Rather convenient, isn’t it?)
The crisis moment is also very weak. Yes, there’s a decision to be made, but Jack solves their problem very quickly and in the end, it’s one tiny bee that rescues the hero and his team. No doubt this is meant to be a gag, but it falls pretty flat.
Of all the giants we’ve seen, this is the least scary one of all. He isn’t as visually imposing as General Fallon or Fumm and he’s afraid of a bee. So here, at the end of the middle build when the stakes should be at their peak, we have a scene with hardly any stakes at all.
Shawn’s method and my spreadsheet are two ways of evaluating the progressive complications in a story, but if neither of these work for you, Kim has a third!
Kim’s Method and/or Madness
Full transparency: this project took awhile for me to wrap my head around. I’d think I was clear on what I should be looking for, but then I’d go off to do my work and get lost in weeds of the micro analysis. (Give me the global story lens any day!)
What was the point of all this again?
I needed to make sure what I was doing would be useful to others, not just a glorified intellectual story nerd exercise (as much as I love those, too). So I took a step back and tried to get some context.
Is this tool different than the regular Story Grid spreadsheet?
Is it telling me anything new?
Ultimately I landed on yes. Here’s why.
The regular Story Grid spreadsheet is looking at a story scene by scene to ensure each scene turns (has a turning point progressive complication that causes a relevant life value shift). It allows us to track the the turning points, polarity shifts, and life values of each scene, along with essential continuity information.
The purpose of this tool is to analyze the story’s complications to identify how a story is (or is not) globally progressing. This is undeniably related but also different.
The progressive complication analysis is like a giant foolscap (although that may be an oxymoron). On the bottom half of a foolscap, we list the 15 core scenes for the global genre of a story and tracks how the global life values are affected by that specific scene. That is essentially what we’re doing here, but we’re doing it with every scene.
Based on that we can tell that the progressive complications tool is not meant for a first or second draft–other Story Grid tools are better suited to diagnose the common problems of an early manuscript.
This tool is for when your scenes turn, your foolscap works, you’ve got an arc, but need to make sure each element is pulling its weight to progress the story. This can mean a lot of different things. Not all scenes will relate to the global genre–they may further the internal genre or subplots–but they should still be advancing the story in important ways.
Okay, now let’s walk through how the heck I went about this.
List the scenes. First I created a linear map of events (aka a scene list). This turned out differently than our typical SG spreadsheet, partly because I made the list while taking in the film so I added breaks wherever felt natural (often a POV shift) rather than true scene breaks. But I also found for this specific task, it was more useful for me to see and assess the complications with the story broken down this way.
Find the spine. Next I determined the 15 Core Scenes that make up the spine of the story. These are the Five Commandments of the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff. I also noted the Midpoint Shift and All Is Lost moment, which may or may not be part of the 15 scenes (but often is). Knowing this information provides context for the other scenes–where they exist in the story, what they are leading to and coming from. It’s always helpful for me to keep a bead on “where we are” in context of the global story.
Identify the Complications.
Relevance. This refers to the type of complications and how they function in progressing the story. As Leslie pointed out in our Roundtable Podcast for Coco which was all about the Five Commandments, complications can be
- people, places, things, or events;
- positive or negative;
- actual or potential.
In this context, positive and negative mean closer to or further from their goal (which is related to their wants and needs, which is related to the life values at stake, which is related the genre–it’s all connected!) There are also things that seem irrelevant but are actually a set up for later.
- Obstacle – progresses the story negatively
- Tool – progresses the story positively
- Setup – potential obstacle or tool, paid off later
- Irrelevant – does nothing to further the story
I listed all of the complications (well, I’m sure I missed some) under these categories for each scene. This is a great way to get specific and concrete about “What’s on the page” to determine if your story really is conveying what you want. You can identify things that are working, missing, or distracting from what you want the reader to focus on.
Outcome. A scene may have many complications, both positive and negative, but when all is said and done, what is the ultimate outcome of the scene? I tried to boil this down into a short phrase.
Scene Value. In order to wrap my head around how the complications affect and progress the story globally, I first looked at what Life Value seemed to best correspond to the outcome phrase for that scene. I used the same values as the global life values (see a bit further down) but in this case I am just referring to the singular scene.
Degree of Irreversibility. Next I determined how changeable the outcome of the scene was. In our Waking Ned Devine podcast, I referred to this as the Pain Scale of Irreversibility, which indicates how easily a complication can be changed/undone along with its consequence/impact. If a complication can be changed easily there’s no real consequence to story, so nothing is really at stake. If nothing is at stake, the audience can’t care about what happens.
Originally Shawn mentions this in terms of a scale of 1-10, but personally my brain likes language-based values more than numerical values. Also, for me, getting this micro is tricky so I opted for five fairly broad categories that still allowed me to distinguish the values.
- NONE (reversible and/or no relevant consequence)
- LOW (reversible and/or minor consequence )
- MODERATE (Reversible but with difficulty and/or greater consequence)
- HIGH (Reversible but only with great difficulty and severe consequence)
- TOTAL (Irreversible)
You could think of these in terms of a 1-5 scale if that’s helpful to you, but remember it operates like the pH scale–the numbers are more than a simple one degree apart, they are 10 times apart.
Global Life Values at Stake. The scene-specific complications move the story along the spectrum of values, either positively or negatively. Different genres require different patterns of life values to be hit in order to work (AKA resonate with an audience) so tracking the following allows us to see how the global story is progressing.
Positive to Negative. Looking at the scene-specific outcome, does this seem to be a positive or negative complication for the global story?
Life Value Range. To track this most effectively across so many scenes, we can expand the life values for Action (Life, Unconsciousness, Death, Fate Worse than Death/Damnation) with additional gradations. This will allow us to track smaller movements between scenes.Here is the spectrum of life values I used to track Jack the Giant Slayer.
- Passive Threat
- Active Threat
- Wounded/Attacked (Individual)
- Mortally Wounded/Attacked (Kingdom)
- Fate Worse Than Death / Damnation
Does this Progressively Complicate the Story? Now it’s time to get real about what’s not working. Remember that the individual micro assessments don’t exist in a vacuum, they are interconnected and build on one another to progress the story.
Move the Global Story Forward. Yes or no? Or is it perhaps a set up for something to come? Is it related to the internal genre or a subplot?
Timing. This refers to when the complication occurs, in context of location within the story, what has come before and what is to come after. Timing is an intricate part in making the other aspects of complications work. Here I noted any issues with pacing, flow, repetition.
When the various aspects are considered together, we see that complications must progress the story with a degree of irreversibility in order to raise the stakes, but that they must be delivered at the right time, in the right tempo and pace. Too much too fast pushes the reader out of the story, too little too late puts them to sleep. An engaging story has rhythm and variety, sometimes a lunge forward and other times a chug chug chug, but all the while draws the reader forward—from hook, to build, to payoff.
Kim’s Commentary. Assessing complications will often link to other principles and tools: Conventions/Obligatory Scenes, POV/Narrative Device, Narrative Drive, Reality Genre, Style Genre, and so on. I put all these thoughts in the Editorial Notes column with an emphasis on trying to identify the real culprit, which hopefully points the best solution.
And Now, For The Results.
We knew from our previous podcast analysis that Jack the Giant Slayer doesn’t really work in a way that is ultimately satisfying, which is exactly why we picked it for this project. Here’s my assessment of the major problems (and solutions) for this story.
Of the 49 scenes/moments I identified on the spreadsheet, 13 either don’t progress the story in any relevant way and/or have an issue with timing. There are an additional six scenes/moments that I noted some other flaw such as a plot whole or repetition. So that’s 19 scenes/moments out of 49 that have issues identified. You don’t have to be a math person to see that the percentage there is not favorable.
And, not surprisingly, these flaws point to identifiable and fixable craft elements.
Point-of-View. This film changes point of view more often than a newborn changes clothes. We hop around from Jack to Isabelle to a Monk to Roderick to the King to Giants….over and over. It’s rare for a scene to complete in one pass, often intercutting with another scene and POV. I’m sure there are stories where this works, but in this case it seems to diffuse the tension rather than amplify it. Also, because of the POV switches, we don’t get to attach as strongly to our main characters. In fact, it makes it hard to pin down who that really is.
Narrative Drive. Related to rapid POV switches, the narrative drive of this story is often dramatic irony, where we know more than the protagonist. We know Roderick is a bad guy, has the crown, wants the beans, doesn’t care about Isabelle all before the beanstalk even grows. Roderick’s betrayal at the midpoint is far from compelling. It would have been better to withhold that information from the audience so it can come as a surprise. But as it is, there are no twists or surprises because we know everything. In contrast, Isabelle could have been featured more: how she escapes the house, her investigating her new surroundings, and then show her being snatched up by some offscreen thing. It’s not like we don’t know they’re going to meet giants. Follow Isabelle and let Roderick bet the surprise.
Passive Jack. Despite being the namesake of the film, Jack’s active scenes where he makes choices that significantly affect the story are far less than we’d expect. He’s wandering the woods alone for the majority of the middle build! A few possible contributors to this are the large cast of characters (and POV characters), Jack’s limited power and agency (in comparison to the King’s men), Jack’s minimal to non existent internal arc, and Jack’s lack of effective characterization. Fix any one of these things and we’d have a stronger and more compelling protagonist.
Repetition. We had multiple complications that occurred more than once but did not escalate the stakes in any meaningful way–Jack being knocked unconscious, Jack running through the woods, the King cutting down the beanstalk. All of these would be better served by occurring once, or by amplifying another way.
In contrast, the 1952 western film High Noon has progressive complications that could feel repetitive. The protagonist learns an outlaw he sent to jail has been released and will be coming in on the train (at guess what time) to confront him. Our protagonist, the beloved sheriff, requests backup from different groups in the town: the men at the bar, the people at church, his deputy, his mentor. He is denied over and over, and yet it doesn’t feel repetitive. Each one is a fresh blow. Why does this work? There are two reasons we can point to: (1) the countdown clock in this story is a huge driver. We know when the train will arrive and the protagonist has a limited amount of time to prepare before having to face the outlaw. Every time he is denied help we feel the squeeze as the clock runs down. (2) the denials grow in emotional stakes. He approaches different groups and each one is a magnitude closer in intimacy for him, and therefore the denial is that much more painful. It’s a great study for how to progressively complicate a story in meaningful ways.
Plot Holes. When the monk trades Jack for horse, he tells Jack to take the beans to the Monks of Cloister for a huge reward. Why does Jack not go there/attempt to go there before going home to his uncle? Beanstalk that falls over the castle wall. Couldn’t the giants use that to breach the kingdom wall?
Failure of Set Ups & Payoffs. Isabelle and Jack are sent to light a beacon to warn other kingdoms of the giants, but never reach that place or even seem to get close. Isabelle and Jack see a robbed grave in the aqueduct which is Erik the Great’s (the global inciting incident that happens offstage)–this comes at a strange time and only the audience is aware of the significance. Jack comes out wearing the crown at the end, not Isabelle–this does not jive with the positive talk about embracing being a princess that Isabelle has been battling for the whole story, and the remarks about her being related to Erik the Great. It seems like it should have been her wearing the crown at the end. Or at least that he tried to give it to her but she insisted he wear it. Still, I think it would be best if Isabelle came out in the crown and then chose Jack to be by her side, hand-in-hand.
Irrelevancies. Closely related to Setups and Payoffs are Irrelevancies, aspects that are brought up in the story but serve zero purpose: the faberge egg, treasure, harp, little Roddy in the final scene. These seem to be intended as insider references with the audience but miss the mark.
Undoubtedly the most difficult aspect of this process was quantifying each of the elements. How do you measure something like this? We fiddled with our systems quite a bit to find what worked best for our brains. Hopefully it translates for you. There are undoubtedly more iterations to come.
Remember, the whole purpose of this tool (and this blog post) is to be useful. You have all authority to make it your own. The point is to integrate the concepts well enough so that you can determine what it really is that is working and not working, not just get a proverbial A++ on our spreadsheets (as much as we like those).
And although we analyzed the story separately using our own version of the technique, we came to the same conclusions (we had a hunch we might) because these are observations of proven principles of storytelling.
I wish I could say the more we learn the easier this gets, but the truth is the more you learn the deeper you go in your study–the deeper you go the more connected everything becomes, making it more-than-a-little difficult to peel the principles apart and study them in isolation. Because isolation is an illusion. This can be frustrating at times, but is just further proof that nothing in Story–nothing in Life–is an island unto itself.
It’s all connected.
So no, it doesn’t get any easier, but the experience is richer and more fulfilling than ever before, and hopefully the stories we write and edit will be, too.
Finally, this is some tedious work, ya’ll. Definitely a tool to hold off using until you really need it, if/when that happens. We suggest working through the regular Story Grid spreadsheet (aka does this scene turn?) and Foolscap (aka the Six Core Questions & 15 Core Scenes) first. So much can be solved with those tools.
If after all that, your story still feels off–maybe flat or stale, maybe zooming all over like a pinball, maybe both and at the wrong times–this tool can help you zoom in on your complications, a powerful element of craft that touches, ties, tightens, and intertwines–to create our most powerful stories.
To find out more about Kim, her editing services, books, films and more, visit trenchcoach.com.