Day 15: Make It Complicated

By now, you’ve established conflict and point of view. You know your central question. Your character is in trouble. You’ve written some scenes, and you’ve written some summary. You’ve made sure the stakes of the novel are clear. What next?

Now it’s time to complicate matters.

You must introduce a series of events in which the conflict is played out. Development is the series of attempts made by the protagonist to resolve his/her conflict. These attempts should increase with regard to drama and/or suspense, and ideally, each step in the development should tell us a little bit more about the protagonist.

In Lydia Nesbit’s amazing debut novel, Shine Shine Shine, the narrator’s husband is in space on a rocket that has fallen out of orbit. The narrator wants two things: for her husband to come home, and for her surreal suburban life to have a kind of order and meaning. There is a tremendous threat to both of these desires. At one point, she has a car accident, and during the car accident her wig flies off of her head. Suddenly, she is exposed to her friends and neighbors, and to the reader as well; at this moment, we learn something significant about her that we did not know before. This is a woman who has been keeping secrets for years. When her secret is revealed, will she be an outcast? Will her carefully constructed life fall apart? How will she respond to this crisis?

The best novels reveal some new complexity at every turn.

When I say complexity, I’m not talking about cheap shots (“Damion is Gerald’s baby!”), but about subtle inflections that alter what we know of the characters and the world in which they operate.

Whatever type of conflict drives your story, the two sides of the conflict should be uncertain enough to keep the reader engaged. That is, they need to be paired in a way that does not make the outcome easily predictable. If your reader knows what’s going to happen, there’s no point in finishing the story.

As the novel moves forward, new complications must be introduced. Characters must be revealed as flawed human beings. Tension should rise. Subtle (or not so subtle) shifts should take place in your protagonist–internally or externally.


Make a list of three things that threaten to keep the protagonist from achieving his or her desire.

Then, write a scene in which the protagonist comes up against one or more of these obstacles. How does he or she react?

In this scene, we should learn something about your protagonist we did not know before.


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