Progressive Complications

I’m learning the Story Grid analysis material and have the Five Commandments of storytelling working, but my scenes still feel too blase. My editing group says things for my golem detective are too easy, that things are too obvious. I’ve heard that one way to punch this up a bit is to amp up the progressive complications leading to my Turning Point. What’s the best way to write progressive complications which organically work with the Five C’s?


Let me think about this one.

PS Can you tell us a bit more about the Story Grid approach. How have you studied it? What do you like about it?


Sure thing - the Story Grid is a novel analysis tool which presents story structure in an accessible way and helps us become better writers by identifying the necessary components underpinning every novel and including a novel’s expected genre conventions and obligatory scenes.

For example, I was a lifelong pantser and wrote the first draft of a Fantasy / Noir about a golem detective in 2014. I crossed the 55k word mark but couldn’t finish the climax. I kept setting aside and returning to it without making any progress. Four years passed like this. It was a special kind of hell.

Then I discovered Shawn Coyne’s book The Story Grid and learned one of the cardinal rules of writing—once you write your climax, you’re essentially done. It was so obvious in hindsight. I’d already written a perfectly good climactic scene and was trying to shoehorn a larger 4th Act onto the novel. That was nuts. Furthermore, my Content genre was a Thriller under-the-hood (I had a MacGuffin, red herrings, a false ending, all the components of a Thriller) but the battle sequence I was trying to add was an Epic Action scene. It’d be like adding a Horror scene to a RomCom. That was nuts.

So I killed the extra big epic action climax scene, wrote a resolution based on my existing climax, and viola!, my novel fell into place, leaner, more focused, and totally in line with the rest of the Thriller aspects of the novel.

Boiled down to its essentials, the Story Grid book posits that every novel contains fifteen essential scenes - a Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff, which each contain an Inciting Incident, a Progressive Complication Turning Point, a Crisis, a Climax, and a Resolution.

Furthermore, every novel contains genre-defined obligatory scenes and conventions. For example, a thriller will have:

  • An Inciting crime
  • A Macguffin
  • Red herrings
  • A Speech in Praise of the Villain
  • The stakes must become personal for the hero. If they fail to stop the villain, they will suffer severe consequences. The hero must become the victim.
  • A hero at the mercy of the villain scene.
  • A False ending.

It looks like a lot but once I worked through the SG book chapter by chapter, it all just made so much sense. And not just a little sense but SO MUCH sense that I can’t wait to start the sequel using these new methods.

And so now I consider myself a Plantser (as I wrote in another thread), a discovery writer who now has an appreciation and awareness of basic story structure. This has made a world of difference. Finding the Story Grid changed my writing life.


Having said all that, I still need to write scenes that pop, and I’m wrestling with things being too easy for my protagonist. I’m reading a fellow writer friend, Dawn Ross, who is at a similar place in her writing journey, and who has spectacular progressive complications. She makes it look really easy. I need to unlock that knack if I’m going to level up my craft.


Too easy, and predictable. These are common enough criticisms for many detective/mystery works especially if you are working in a Classic framework, or with Noir. In the Classic series, the detective often has a brilliant “A-ha” moment whence s/he’s deduced the name of the killers’ companion through a laundry mark particular to a small shop in East Elsy that caters to the personal service trades. Or, when in Noir, the Protag gets to the questionable walk-up and finds a superintendent grumpy, but willing to use their pass key to access the room at the end of the hall on 4. One way to keep things from becoming “too easy” is to plant(sow) the stakes early. Stakes that are relatable only on a personal level . . . and don’t make it invisible. It has to be tangible. I like to use money. My detective is always nearly broke. So, using an extra Quid to tram down to East Elsy is a hardship so . . . what the “progressive” complication. Well, rather than take a bus, or tram, he walks. But it starts to rain, so he ducks into a pub, but the mistress insists he purchase a porridge, so he leaves, is splashed my mud, the driver’s master agrees to take him to have his suit cleaned and asks where. The Protag says, why there’s a charming little outfit in East Elsy and they cater to the service… The complication needn’t be a negative. It just has to be a bother. Likewise with the building Super. Instead of a lot of meaningless chit-chat trying to convince the bloker to let us in, we find 'im passed-out drunk, but the keys appear to be within easy reach if only our detective-for-hire can get to the fire escape and shimmy through a tiny kitchen window. So, think about something that will be a constant irritant to the protagonist. He can’t stay out after nine, because he’s only 12. Likewise, in the Stephanie Plum series, she was always without reliable transportation. A favorite I read recently, the detective was blind and she had a seeing -eye dog. Needless to say, she had plenty of “complications”.


I think what they might be suggesting here is the writing concept of every scene question ending with either:

  • No, and…
  • Yes, but…

No, and… means that not only did they not succeed but things got worse in terms of making forward progress toward their goal.

Yes, but… means they made some forward progress but some consequence or complication of that success actually made things worse.


I find that listening to Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid podcast with Tim Grahl is extremely helpful. On a number of episodes, Coyne has mentioned writing a 12 item list of things to happen. The 13th will be the one to use because it is less likely the reader has seen it before.

In addition, he calls it the Point of No Return. Just like rating the value shifts on the Fools Cap, he suggests rating the ease at which the progressive complication can be changed. No matter what, the character cannot go back once they have made their decision. The complication should provide them with TWO BAD CHOICES and the character needs to make “the best bade choice.”

I find the website also more helpful than the book. It may be easier for you to read from his words than my ranting about it.


As for progressive complications—think of each conflict topping the previous conflict. Going back to Robert McKee’s work—which is quite compatible with Sean Coyne’s, he emphasizes in both Story and Dialogue that it’s not simply conflict that has to be in the way of the protagonist getting what he wants and needs, but that the conflicts need to build and build to the crisis and climax—hence progressive complications. Think of the progressive complication turning point as the big moment, the crisis then climax where the value shift occurs for the main character.


An excellent approach to consider at scene’s end.


Thanks for explaining this. I looked at the Story Grid once and it seemed complicated. I’ll go back and look again.

One suggestion I can make when things seem too easy is something Robert McKee says, which is add more obstacles. Besides the bad guys and problems with a sidekick or love interest, obstacles could be personal (internal belief or fear, for example), or societal (for example, not wanting to do something in society), or psychological or unconscious (for example, something the detective keeps doing that he is unaware of caused him difficulties). The second idea is that the obstacles over the course of the novel should get progressive worse (don’t start with the worst obstacle). For example, you could start by listing of all possible obstacles and the order then so the least difficult come first and then build (and maybe think of new ones as you write), and just before the climax/leading into the climax this should lead to the protagonist having to make a difficult choice.


Thank you, Madeline. I am trying to apply Robert McKee’s ideas and appreciate what you wrote, and also appreciate knowing the SG is compatible with McKee’s ideas (motivates me to study the SG).


Thank you for reminding me of this!