Commandment Number Two

How does one know when a story isn’t working?

After more than ten thousand hours of publishing books, reading submissions and being pitched both fiction and nonfiction, here is just one of the criteria I use to separate the wheat from the chaff.

I simply track the story’s progressive complications…the escalating degrees of conflict that face the protagonist.

How do you do that?

Take this pitch as an example:

An ambitious actor/lawyer/chef/programmer graduates from Julliard/Harvard/Culinary Institute of America/MIT and looks for meaningful work. After months of rejections, the actor/lawyer/chef/programmer decides to take a side job while continuing to look for what will ultimately make him happy.

The inciting incident of the story arrives (at long last) when he gets a part time job as assistant to a casting director/judge/Michelin star restaurateur/editor-in-chief of Wired magazine. As he works for the casting director/judge/Michelin star restaurateur/editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, he is exposed to all of the best new projects in Hollywood/Washington/New York/Silicon Valley and even gets to help out by being a reader during auditions/doing paralegal work/sous cheffing/writing code. The casting director/judge/ Michelin star restaurateur/editor-in-chief of Wired magazine notices his talent and decides to promote him.

By dint of hard work the actor/lawyer/chef/programmer gets the big job the rewards that come with it—status and money. But after a while, the actor/lawyer/chef/programmer grows weary of the big Hollywood grind/legal profession/food work/writing code and decides to go back to his first love, the theater/pro bono work/artisanal cheese making/new app innovation. He then auditions/takes up a cause/makes cheese/devises a new app that no one takes seriously let alone buys into. Until, at last, he gets a small time director/not for profit/cheese monger/software company to take on his life’s work. The performance/cause/cheese debut/app launches, but to little acclaim. The actor/lawyer/chef/programmer loses his shirt on the project, but learns a lot about himself. He decides that his happiness is dependent on his relationships and not the fantasies of finding meaning through work. The End.

And yes, the above is indicative of the kind of material that floods literary agencies and publishing houses. A very talented prose stylist could actually make the above rather entertaining too. And he’d also be able to hide behind a pseudo-genre like “literary slice of life” to boot. But no matter the writerly artifice, this story doesn’t work. It may prove commercially viable depending upon the tenor of the times, but it will never last as a work of art. Let’s assume the writer is not a celebrity or the hottest young thing to come out of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. So extenuating commercial potentialities are not in play here. That is, the literary agent can’t sell the story based on just the identity of the writer. She has to sell it on its story.

Beyond the fact that there is no clear antagonist in the above, other than some vague hinted sense that the lead character is having “inner turmoil.” Not to mention the fact that the execution of the inciting incident—getting a job—is a flaccid cliché.  [There are a great many novels/screenplays that deal with Miniplot inner slice of life conflict with soft inciting incidents that do work. Madame Bovary/Lost in Translation anyone?] The fatal flaw of the above story is that the difficulties and successes that the protagonist must contend with (the conflicts) do not escalate. They remain boringly similar from derivative scene to derivative scene and from derivative act to derivative act.

If you had to assign a number from 1 to 10 for each complication in this and its anxiety/conflict level, and tracked the numbers from beginning to end, the result would look something like this…and I’m being generous:

(2) Graduation

(3) Quest to find meaningful work

(4) Not finding meaningful work

(3) Finding a part time job instead

(2) Having success at part time job

(3) Getting promoted at part time job

(3) Finding more success at job

(4) Leaving job to get back to quest for meaning

(5) Failing

(6) Getting the big break

(7) Failing

(3) Resigning oneself to meaningless work, for the sake of meaningful relationships

You’ll see just by following the numbers (2, 3, 4, 3, 2, 3, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 3) that the story just kind of slogs along. It goes back over the same old complications too. The stakes are boring as Hell. The lead character faces rejection when looking for work until he decides to lower his standards and accept a lesser status job. While at the menial job he gets the break of a lifetime and successfully takes advantage of it. Then he becomes disillusioned by his success and decides to shuck the entire career and start afresh. Then he goes back to trying to get work in his old career and faces yet more rejection. At last he gets a big break that turns out to be disappointing and then goes back to settle for something in between his dream and punching the clock.

It’s not surprising that the above “story” sounds like the banal professional choices we all make at one or more times in our lives. But just regurgitating dull universal experience does not make for cathartic reading or viewing.

And inevitably if an editor were to tactfully point out that the story seems a bit undercooked and that the writer should think about committing to a genre or mixing two or more genres to ground some finer focused idea/theme…well you probably know how that usually ends. The editor would get a terse reply back. Thanks for reading, but that’s not the way I work…I don’t believe in formulaic genre hackwork.

But every now and then, an editor will find a pro, someone open enough (or desperate enough) to get back to basics. A writer interested in creating an inciting incident at level 10 with conflict/complications that progress from 11 to 100 by story’s end.

Progressive complications move stories forward, never backward. They do so by making life more and more difficult (in positive as well as negative ways) for your lead character. In other words, you cannot have your protagonist stare down the same dilemma in Act III or Act II that the character already faced in Act I. You must progressively move from one dilemma to a more trying dilemma to a bigger problem to an even bigger problem etc.

The payoff is when the lead character is faced with the limits of human experience—life and death. Cool Hand Luke, Sophie’s Choice, Network, Unforgiven, Gates of Fire…walk us to the precipice of human experience and allow us to peer into the abyss. And we don’t have to leave our comfortable seats to do it, either. That’s called art.

So how can you be sure that your story does the same?

Ask yourself the simple question…how difficult would it be for my character to reverse his decision? Could he go back to his old life without any repercussions? A few repercussions? Or is there no turning back?

You’ve hit the Point of No Return when no matter what decision the character makes, he will be irrevocably changed by the experience. If he does one thing, he’ll put himself in great danger (either physically or psychologically) and if he doesn’t, he’ll be tormented by his inaction, incapable of functioning the way he used to.

The trick to remember when evaluating the reversibility factor is how difficult will it be for the character to go back in time if they make a certain decision. That is, can they make a decision and not have it affect their worldview? Can they go back to the way things used to be and not suffer any discontent or trauma?

If you re-read the example of the generic submission above, you’ll see that no decision that the character makes will change them irrevocably. They can head back in time any time they’d like and not have their worldview changed in any way.

How do you know if you are falling into this same trap? That is, how do you know if you are progressively complicating the life of your character?

I suggest going back to the grading concept above and use the power of ten. Evaluate the difficulty for the character to reverse their decision in each and every scene that you write. With 10 being absolutely irreversible to 1 being an easy switch back. By the way, if your character isn’t making any decision in a scene, it’s not a scene. It’s goofing around. Cut it or revise.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-out.


25 comments on “Commandment Number Two

  1. Mary Doyle says:

    There is a lot of meat on this bone for me! This is an area of weakness in my WIP, but now I recognize it and know that I can fix it. The idea of rating the level of conflict/anxiety at each progression on a scale of 1-10 really resonates with me because we use scaling questions in clinical work with clients and with clinical students. So thanks for that…it’s nice to be somewhere in this territory that feels familiar.

    Saying “thank you” week after week is starting to feel like an insignificant gesture, but I continue to be truly grateful for these posts Shawn.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Mary,

      Your “Thank Yous” help immeasurably. It’s wonderful to share what I know with people who care about it. I know it’s easy to get lost in all of this stuff. A lot of people come to the site, fall in love with the notion of what it’s about and then when they realize learning how to edit and write better requires a shitload of work, drop out. When I get those notifications, as Gore Vidal would have put it…a little part of me dies. But that’s okay. I’m not for everyone and neither is my work.

      Knowing that you are there every post challenging yourself to take what you can from me and apply to your own work is why I’m doing this in the first place. So when you say thanks, it keeps me focused.
      All the best,

      1. Michael Beverly says:

        I can second what Mary wrote above, and I’m excited that you care about helping people, so I thought I’d just chime in and reiterate the thank you.

        When I started here, oh, only about 2 weeks ago, or so, maybe 3, I took a few days to read everything, and then, now I really look forward to staying caught up and learning the next thing.

        What’s funny is that I have a project in mind that I’ve put on hold because I know I’m not ready, I’ll work on it later, I am waiting patiently for your book to come out.

        In the meantime, I started a thriller; a political, erotica, women-in-danger novel that I just considered a throw-a-way, something to practice with, something I didn’t care about.

        I’m just about to hit 40K words in something I started just barely two weeks ago because it’s become so fun and easy, I guess because of two things; one your instruction and the enthusiasm, it’s contagious, and two, because I just gave myself permission to learn and not take everything so damn seriously.

        So, yeah, if knowing you’ve been a huge help to people helps keep you motivated, you’ve been a huge help to me, I really appreciate your effort here, thank you.

        And, btw, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum; I really care now about this “practice” work.

        Odd how that worked out.

      2. Here’s another enormous thank you, Shawn, to keep you alive, happy, motivated and focused! I definitely don’t want any little pieces of you to die! I have definitely fallen in love with the notion (and with your brain), I know it requires a lot of work, and I ain’t dropping out! Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!

      3. Jule Kucera says:

        I’m lining up behind Mary, Michael and Debbie to say thank you. Yes, you can see the names opt in and the names opt out but you cannot see all the ways your ideas are spreading and the impact they are having. Someday someone will send you a book, not to review, not to edit, but to say, “Thank you. I knew how to build this because of you.”

      4. Jeff says:

        I’ll add my “Thank You” to the list. The content has been awesome from Day 1 and it keeps getting better. The depth of hard-won experience on display is breathtaking. Pretty much the best blog on the Inter-tubes for writing.

  2. Jeff says:

    Thank you, Shawn, this is great stuff.

    Question: is there a difference between progressive complications and escalating conflict?

    It feels as if escalating conflict is something that happens within a scene that makes things harder or higher-stakes for the character, and progressive complications are what moves us from scene to scene making the character’s choices irrevocale. Is that right, or are these two terms more or less synonymous?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Jeff,
      Yeah, I wouldn’t get too bogged down in the difference between the two. What I like about PC rather than EC is that PC allows the writer to understand that POSITIVE CHANGE complicates as much as NEGATIVE. People associate CONFLICT with negativity, so using the term Progressive Complications allows for them to see that a positive creates as much (often more) stress and tension and conflict in a story as the negative. What often happens is that a writer thinks that every scene has to turn on negative conflict. Which is a big mistake. You must mix and match and make sure that you complicate using both POSITIVE and NEGATIVE turning points. More on turning points in the next post.
      All the best,

      1. Jeff says:

        Thanks, Shawn. This is a great insight and a big help. It reminds me of a quote I snipped from heaven know’s where that talks about the limitations of the term “conflict” when discussing drama:

        “Conflict is one of the most dramatic elements in life, and … many dramas — perhaps most — do, as a matter of fact, turn upon strife of one sort or another. But it is clearly an error to make conflict indispensable to drama, and especially to insist — as do some of Brunetière’s* followers — that the conflict must be between will and will. A stand-up fight between will and will — such a fight as occurs in, say, the Hippolytus of Euripides, or Racine’s Andromaque … — such a stand-up fight, I say, is no doubt one of the intensest forms of drama. But it is comparatively rare, at any rate as the formula of a whole play. In individual scenes a conflict of will is frequent enough; but it is, after all, only one among a multitude of equally telling forms of drama. No one can say that the Balcony Scene in Romeo and Juliet is undramatic … yet the point of [this scene] is not a clash, but an ecstatic concordance, of wills. Is the death scene of Cleopatra undramatic? Or the Banquet scene in Macbeth? Or the pastoral act in The Winter’s Tale? Yet in none of these is there any conflict of wills.”

        I always liked the quote, but didn’t quite know where to “go” with it. Your insistence on positive change as a progressive complication brings it into light. THANKS!

      2. Doug Walsh says:

        Shawn, as wonderful and helpful as this entire post was, your reminder in this reply was perhaps the most beneficial to me of all. It’s easy to get caught in that trap of thinking complications only arise from negative (and usually external) forces, but that’s so not the case. You actually just reminded me of the incredible stress-induced illness I suffered just few months ago… as a side-effect of a nearly-overwhelming positive experience/decision. Thank you!

        I can assure you, no “little parts of you” will be dying on my account.

  3. regurgitating dull universal experience does not make for cathartic reading

    Amen. Reading should provide a vicarious experience we can’t have or won’t experience in real life.

    I’ll add a “thank you” and raise you a “sheesh; thanks for making me a little sad about everything I’ve ever written in my life” except it’s not really your fault you’re teaching us so well we recognize the shortfalls of the past.

    1. Cheryl says:

      Agreed, Joel! These posts are the best (Thank you, Shawn!), and yeah, I feel that after reading them my stuff has been measured and found wanting. I’m not giving up though. These posts always give me more ideas for making my stories stronger.

      1. Jule Kucera says:

        Cheryl, the fact that you “measured and found wanting”, the fact that you have writing to measure, the fact that you are not giving up, all of this encourages me. Thank you.

  4. Steve says:

    Shawn, I continue to pull a lot of value from these posts, and using them to build my story (at this point its in my head, but its taking form). I think the most valuable element for me is defining what a good story looks like, since there are so many stories out there, many of which really suck, and differentiating between them is awesome.

  5. Barbara Saunders says:

    Hmm … I’ve seen a lot of movies that I felt were too long for just the reason you’ve described – multiple scenes introducing the exact same complication with no new information about the character or the trajectory of the story.

  6. Jan O'Hara says:

    I’m a lurker but chiming in to say that I’ve been an avid reader from your first day. Please carry on with the excellent work. The last two posts, in particular, are eminently practical and clear. Thank you!

  7. Julia says:

    YES! is all I can say, and add amother big, fat thank you to the pile. (Isn’t a thank-you pile so much better than a slush pile? 🙂 )

    I also just realized that the book I have been working on isn’t “working” because I’m focusing on the wrong character. It’s the co-ptotagonist (secondary protagonist?) that really experiences all the complications, not my (current protagonist).

    Huh. After a year of writing and struggling with the text, the problem suddenly becomes obvious in this post (and the collected knowledge gleaned from all your posts). So obvious in fact I can’t believe I have been trying to write the book from any other character’s POV.

    Eternally grateful for your teachings.

    1. Jule Kucera says:

      WOW! Is that cool or what???!~

  8. PJ Reece says:

    Well, what you’re doing here, Shawn, is talking about the HEART OF THE STORY. Which is rarely talked about. So, thanks. This heart is (arguably) WHY WE READ fiction. The “heart,” more than the “climax” of the story, gives the reader their money’s worth, in my opinion.

  9. Gray says:

    Shawn – Frankly, it never occurred to me that you’d need feedback – a by-product of the virtual hero-worship I have for you and Steven and Black Irish Books. Your posts are great, though this one kind of tastes bittersweet, as it makes me realize that in my current work I have a protagonist who does go through life-changing events…but isn’t actually changed by them, and suddenly some of the things that happen (including the climactic scene) don’t make as much sense. Which means instead of being on tail end of the final draft I’m going to be on the front end of the second re-write…but in the end, it will be better.

    Your generosity in providing this kind of advice free on the web? Qualifies you for sainthood…

  10. Kim says:

    Shawn, I get what you are saying about the need for tension, but can you talk more about creating the tension? I’d like ideas, examples, or ways to think about tension that can help a writer move from boring to cracklin’. I’m now more aware of my script’s shortcomings and where I need to push energy, but I also feel like I’m staring at a blank wall again. I SUPER appreciate what you’re telling me, us, the book, but I want more. Thanks, Kim

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Kim,
      I’ll get into how Thomas Harris did all of this later on. In the meantime, I’d suggest you take a good hard look at your favorite books and pick at ’em until you discover how your heroes have done it.
      All the best

  11. Brian Fentiman says:

    Hi Shawn,

    New to your site. Just finished writing my first book. Your wisdom and experience has been a wonderful blessing to a guy like me who has concentrated more on the journalistic side of writing for the past 30 years.

  12. ohita says:

    Thanks for the grading concept. It’s a new one for me. I’ll use it henceforth.

  13. Larry says:

    Thank you, Shawn. I’m going to pull random scenes out of books to see if I can spot each desicion without the whole context. I think examples will help.

    Question: when you say, “By the way, if your character isn’t making any decision in a scene, it’s not a scene. It’s goofing around. Cut it or revise” , do you mean that the protagonist has to be making a decision in every scene, or that SOME character has to be making a decision?

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