Novel writers hear a lot about “high stakes” and a well-defined goal for their stories. While these items are crucial, the novel may fall short if worthy complications are not also part of the unfolding story.
Writing Tip for Today: How can you figure out which complications should arise in your novel-in-progress?
Swing Dem Bones of Complications
If you think of the “bones” of your story as a human skeleton, complications should arise somewhere in the ribs area of the torso.* These complications should be like your ribs–curved, so that the story complications appear to swing from negative to positive and back again. In “The Wizard of Oz,” for instance, Dorothy encounters her first complication at the Yellow Brick Road. She knows it may have something to do with her getting home, but at first she has no direction. (negative) Then the Scarecrow helps her out. (Positive) which is good–until the trees come to life and start pelting her with apples. (negative) Dorothy see-saws back and forth like this until all three of her companions sing the famous “Yellow Brick Road” song. In your story, complications should also follow this broad pattern–from bad to good and back again. This helps keep tension in the story and keeps readers guessing. These complications are usually found in ACT II (after set-up, introduction of major goal/problem and characters) of your story.
The number of complications in your novel depends on its length. A longer book can sustain more twists and turns. But beware: It isn’t enough to simply throw in one monkey wrench after another. Each complication must in turn get your character either closer or farther away from the main story goal. Supporting characters may help by pushing your character in the right direction but they must never solve the problem for the character. One way to find the perfect complications for your novel is to make a list of all possible complications for the character. Order these complications from least dangerous to worst in terms of the story goal. You will introduce the lesser complications earlier and save the worst for the climax or place of NO HOPE. Donald Maass gives great advice in Writing 21st Century Fiction. He recommends finding actions or events the character would NEVER DO OR BE INVOLVED IN and then, of course, putting your character in that situation. Characters who are forced out of their comfort zones tend to create urgency, sympathy and tension.
Create the Worst Hard Time
In creating complications for your story, you will save your character’s bleakest moment for last. This complication must be the place of NO HOPE. If you have ordered your complications from least to worst, this should be the worst moment for your character. Readers will be expecting things to turn darkest, although they generally want things to turn out more hopeful than disastrous. Even in dystopian zombie worlds, readers want a roller coaster of complications, a worthy final battle scene (even in a romance!) and a satisfying resolution. Take a look at your novel’s complications. Do they ratchet up tension by acting as a pendulum? Do they get progressively worse? Is the climax dealing with the worst place of no hope? Answering these questions will help your story become memorable and satisfying. Try it!
I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.