Plot Complication – it’s not that complicated
Plot complication is a solid way to write a more engaging story for your readers. Start using it in the planning stage for maximum effectiveness.
Read these two story outlines and decide which you’d rather see as a book.
James is left caring for his newborn baby daughter after his wife dies in childbirth.
James never wanted a baby by his mistress. His wife had threatened to leave him if she ever found out he was cheating. But when his mistress dies in childbirth he’s left caring for the baby. And after seeing his daughter for the first time, he is thinking twice about abandoning her to save his marriage. All his difficult memories of foster care have come flooding back to him.
The second story is much more preferable to read, but why?
The first example is of the use of situation. It can be interesting, surprising, and even impressive, but on the whole situation is predictable. Honestly, what do we really think is going to happen? He’ll be upset about his wife dying in childbirth. He might take some time to adjust to being a single father. Then the world will move on. This is situation and not complication because the character isn’t compellingly motivated to act any different to the way most other people would act in the same situation. As a result we learn little about the character. All he is going to do is react to the situation. Reaction is predictable and therefore much less engaging than plot complication.
Plot complication is demonstrated in the second example. It takes situation and includes aspects which force the character to take the initiative to find resolution. A character who takes the initiative will always engage readers more because the outcome of their attempts to resolve their predicament are less certain.
In a previous post I wrote about characters being the power behind plot and that remains true. Complication is a method to make the characters even more compelling.
Plot complication must clarify, prevent, or change what the character wants. He goes from not wanting a baby to thinking twice about it. The character must learn something, usually about themself, or go through a transformation whereby they see things differently. His realization that he doesn’t want to inflict the same childhood on his daughter as was inflicted on him by the system.
The best plot complications are associated with the character and in turn emotionally pressurize them to act with purpose. This raises the stakes. He doesn’t want his marriage to come undone but is facing the emotional and moral dilemma of the needs of a newborn baby. Especially so because he knows first hand what the system can do to a child. He must decide what action he is going to take to achieve the outcome he desires.
If the circumstances don’t do these things then it’s just situation, not plot complication.
Even better plot complications
The best complications will also open up pathways to further complications. Will his wife trigger that prenuptial clause which lets her take everything and leave him destitute but with the opportunity to discover that he never loved her anyway, and the chance to start dating again. Or, will she stay with him but only on her terms – she gets to name the baby, they are to tell everyone it is hers, and the child is never to know of her real mother, leaving him trapped and desperately trying to find a way out?
Great plot complication also sustains dramatic tension. Will his wife bicker and fight with him constantly over his affair? Will this reveal indiscretions of her own?
Depending on the length of your planned story you should increase or decrease the amount of complication.
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