What is a Progressive Complication?
Progressive complications follow the INCITING INCIDENT, which has knocked the protagonist’s life out of balance. The protagonist begins taking a habitual series of steps to restore the balance that existed before the inciting incident. Each of these steps fails — or is complicated — which forces the protagonist to move to their next tactic.
4 Rules for Progressive Complications
1. The Stakes Must Escalate
The difficulties and successes the protagonist must contend with (the conflicts) must steadily escalate through the UNIT OF STORY. If we track the anxiety/conflict level for every progessive complication on a scale of 1 to 10, the progressive complications should start atthe low end of the scale and steadily increase until the CRISIS is reached.
2. The Choices Must Grow in Irreversibility
As the protagonist continues to contend with the escalating stakes of the progressive complications, each decision becomes harder to reverse. Because the situation is becoming more complicated, it is building up a spider’s web of decisions around the protagonist that eventually traps them and forces them to the CRISIS.
3. The Complications Must Connect Back to the Inciting Incident
The progressive complications cannot be random. For the narrative to make sense, complications must be directed in a way that forces the protagonist to grapple with the problem at the heart of the story — which the AUTHOR sets up by choosing the correct INCITING INCIDENT.
4. The Complications Must Exhaust the Existing Tactics and Resources of the Protagonist
As the protagonist escalates their response to the complications, they must reach a point where all of the usual emotional and physical tactics and resources have been used up. This puts the protagonist in a situation where the next complication to arise pushes them into an area where they have not been before and forces them to contend with true change in their life.
This moment leads to the Turning Point.
What is the Turning Point?
The turning point is the progressive complication that pushes the protagonist beyond their habitual responses and forces the protagonist into new territory they have not experienced before. The moment illustrates that their tactics have failed because the INCITING INCIDENT is a bigger problem than they anticipated and is beyond their current understanding. The turning point sets up the CRISIS of the UNIT OF STORY.
The turning point forces the protagonist to change. All the existing strategies to deal with INCITING INCIDENT have been used. The turning point pushes the protagonist to the edge of a cliff where they are forced to make a CRISIS decision.
The turning point is what connects the reader to the protagonist. It generates empathy between the reader and the protagonist because the reader experiences the failed attempts to restore balance along with the protagonist.
2 Categories of Turning Point Progressive Complications
Active turning points are complications that arise because of AVATAR actions. Someone does something that renders the protagonist’s initial strategy useless.
Revelatory turning points offer new information that forces the protagonist to change.
2 Valences of Turning Point Progressive Complications
An obstacle is a negative event that blocks the protagonist’s pursuit of the goal. The protagonist’s tactics fail because it is beyond their current ability to overcome the obstacle presented by the INCITING INCIDENT. For example, the protagonist is beat out by a hated coworker for a promotion.
An affordance is a positive event that gives the protagonist what they want, but not what they need, to make the change necessary to overcome the inciting incident. For example, the protagonist gets the promotion but is still not happy.
Examples of Turning Point Progressive Complications
- The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, global story
- Revelatory. Dorothy discovers Oz is not a wizard and he is incapable of granting the group’s wishes.
- The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, Chapter 24
- Revelatory. Sheppard confesses that he convinced Ralph, after the murder, to hide out.
- Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Scene 2 – “Aaron Burr, sir”
- Active. Burr advises Hamilton to keep his opinions to himself if he wants to get ahead.
- Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, full story
- Revelatory. Once Jim and his friends make it to Treasure Island, he goes ashore with the pirates. He spies on Silver, who kills one of the faithful members of the crew. Jim runs because he realizes Silver is willing to kill him too.
- Persuasion by Jane Austen, Chapter 9, Scene 12
- Active. Little Walter jumps on Anne’s back and won’t get off even though he’s hurting her.
Analyzing the Turning Point Progressive Complication
The following questions will help you determine whether a turning point—either in your own work or in a story example you’re studying—has what it needs to create a shift in the story.
- Active or Revelatory? Determine the category of the turning point. If you get stuck, analyze whether the turning point event creates new information for the protagonist to process or exposes existing information.
- What is the protagonist’s initial strategy? Identify the strategy the protagonist follows in response to the inciting incident. Find the common thread that unites the tactics the protagonist employs in the first part of the story to understand the worldview at play in the protagonist’s actions.
- How does this moment make that impossible? Effective turning points make the protagonist switch gears. To answer this question, identify how the turning point stops the protagonist from pursuing their original strategy or, if it is still possible, how the turning point has created new consequences for following the same path.
What’s Next After the Turning Point Progressive Complication?
- The Five Commandments of Storytelling by Danielle Kiowski (Portions of this article have been taken from this book.)
- In-depth Course: The Five Commandments of Storytelling
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