Progressive Complications

Progressive Complications: 7 Day Scene Intensive at

Intensive week is going to be here before you know it. And we can’t wait! We are so looking forward to meeting and working with you. Today things get complicated—progressively complicated, that is as we tackle Commandment Number 2. This is a particularly dense email, and we want to get this off to you, so we'll send the live scenes in another email later today. 

Intensive Materials: Progressive Complications

Do you remember the scene goal that comes from the character’s desire to restore balance after an inciting incident, which we mentioned in email #2? If so, then you're already ahead because Progressive Complications are the obstacles the character faces in pursuit of that goal. When the character takes action, they find themselves thwarted by other characters, the environment, or circumstances.

The character should face multiple Progressive Complications within a scene, sequence, act, and story, and we call them “progressive” because the obstacles grow increasingly more difficult and make it more unlikely that the character will reach their goal. If the obstacles stay the same or become easier, the reader can lose interest quickly.Another way to lose the reader's intersest is to repeat the same complications without making them bigger or increasing what's at stake for the character. 

There are two Progressive Complications you’ll want to be particularly mindful of, no matter which unit of story you’re dealing with: the last Complication before the Turning Point and the Turning Point itself.

The Progressive Complication we record in our scene analysis is the one that comes just before the scene turns or life value changes in a meaningful way. This is the character’s last chance to make a particular strategy work before they’re forced to make a change or risk failure. 

The Turning Point forces the character into a dilemma the character must react to and is tracked in the Story Grid spreadsheet. This is one of the first clues that will tell you if your scene is working or not. 

Let’s get clear about what we mean by turning the scene? In essence, the Turning Point is a gap between what the character expects to have happen and what actually happens. 

Stories are about change, and there are micro changes that happen within your scenes that add up to the macro change that happens over the course of the story. The nature of the change that happens isn’t random, though. It’s related to the human need implicated by the genre, and we call that the Life Value at Stake. We don’t want to get too macro during our Scene Intensive, but keep in mind that the way a scene turns should impact the way the entire story turns. 

(You can find a PDF with the genres, life values, and human needs here.)


What is a Life Value? 

So, a life value describes a change from one state to another caused by an event orexperience. 

Here's a simple example: Before it rains (event), the grass outside is dry (state). After it rains, the grass is wet. That's a change in the state of the environment that flows from a natural event. The same event could potentially affect a value for a character and might represent success or hope if, for example, the property in question is a farm in a region suffering a prolonged drought.

Here's an example of a change directly related to a character's state: Before eating (event), a person is hungry (state), and after eating, she is full. That's a change in her physiological state. If she had been deprived of food for two weeks, this event could cause her state to shift from possible death to life.

Here's an example of a value shift in the context of a story scene. Before a man meets a potential love interest (event and experience), he might feel alone (state), and after the two connect, they are together (at least temporarily) and he might feel companionship. The same scene might be characterized as a change from ignorance (if the two don't know of each other) to attraction (if they like each other). Over the course of an entire courtship love story (like Pride and Prejudice), a couple might move from ignorance all the way to commitment.

There will be changes that are different from the Global Story/Core Value (see the PDF mentioned above for more info about that.. For example, in a crime story, the discovery of the body scene will move from Life to Death, but the Global Value in a Crime Story is Justice to Injustice. They are related, but you can see how they are different. For a full Story Grid spreadsheet with an eye toward tracking the external and internal subplots as well as the subplots, you can might make note of several. For the Story Grid Edition of Pride and Prejudice, Shawn tracked the love story (external) and maturation plots (internal) for Elizabeth Bennet as the protagonist) as well as the external subplots for the love story between Jane Bennet and Bingley and Lydia Bennet and Wickham.

Two types of Turning Points

  • Character Action: A character does something that changes circumstances materially.
  • Revelation: Information is revealed that chages circumstances materially.

If you’ve ever heard someone recommend using exposition as ammunition, what they mean is to save backstory and other information for when it can used as a revelatory turning point, through conflict, so that it forces a dilemma. 

We track the turning point as well as it's type across the entire story to be sure that we’re not using the same type too often. In fact, if you think the reader is expecting one, consider using the other. 

Turning Points Affect the Reader

Turning points that are well executed cause the reader to stay engaged with the story and experience their own emotional cycles. 

  • The reader feels surprise because there is a gap between the character’s expectation and what actually happens. 
  • The reader becomes curious about why the gap occurred. 
  • The reader reviews information they already know about the characters and events of the story.
  • The reader gains new insight and and a deeper understanding of what has come before.

For example, in The Empire Strikes Back, there is a revelatory turning point when Darth Vader tells Luke Skywalker who his father is. George Lucas had begun setting that moment up in the beginning of the prior movie. The revelation

Supplemental Materials

Live Scenes

Here are two scenes from Master and Commander to help you get a feel for Progressive Complications. (Keep in mind that the screenplay can vary from the final cut of the film.)

Consider how the events within the scene progressively complicate the POV character's attempt to reach their scene goal. Can you identify the Progressive Complication that comes before the turning point and the one that turns the scene? Does the scene turn on Action or Revelation?


One of the great things about the 7 Day Scene Intensive is that it’s remote, so no one has to travel or leave their families. Even so, it’s essential that we connect, so we'll hold Skype calls during our intensive week. The first one will be a group call Sunday, Feb 4, at 1:00 pm PST/3:00 pm CST. 

We'll also hold group calls on Tuesday, Feb 6, and Thursday, Feb 8. We encourage you to attend because these meetings are great opportunities to ask questions, get clarification on the materials, and discuss challenges and successes. The Intensive will wrap up on Saturday, Feb 10, with individual coaching calls. 

Please take a moment to respond to this survey, and we'll choose the best time for our meetings.



Can you think of moments in stories you've read or in your own life when obstacles seemed to grow worse and then force you into a dilemma?