Like many writers, I've spun my mental wheels researching and experimenting with different methods of plotting: outlining versus free writing versus turning points versus notecards versus snowflake method etc. Since I've finally found something that works for me, I thought I'd share my Complications Worksheet here to help you simultaneously develop action, motivation and character depth by piling trouble on your poor protagonist.
It works equally well in developing a first draft and in checking that the draft you've written has enough story behind it to hold together. While I'm using it to plot my new novel, The Dream Weaver, Marissa and I just did a cross-check on The Wind Walker to make sure I hadn't missed anything in the last few drafts. Checking Marissa's answers to the questions really helped me understand what she was reading into my story, as opposed to what I believed I'd put there. (Am I lucky in my critique partner, or what?)
Try the Complications Worksheet as a thinking tool. Before you start, I encourage you to cruise through the links at the end of the post so you add or subtract whatever you need. Then answer the questions in the worksheet with your story and characters in mind.
ACT ONE – Separation
(Adult, Long YA: 30 to 35K Words/YA: 20K Words/MG: 6.5K to 13K)
1. The Jump Start
The first scene in the story where a protagonist with limited knowledge of a problem is drop-kicked into action on page one as conflict begins.
- What is the opening image that will stick in the reader’s mind?
- What is the opening mood?
- What is the opening tone?
- What is the opening conflict?
- What is the protagonist’s outer desire?
- What is the protagonist’s hidden need that she will fill at the end of the book or series?
- How does the protagonist demonstrate that she doesn’t really understand the problem?
- What is the central theme of the book and how does it relate to the opening scene?
- Who is the antagonist?
- How is the antag introduced or foreshadowed?
- If the antag is only foreshadowed, is there a main minion who appears? Is this main minion a recurring character central to the overall plot?
- Prior to the opening, what internal and external forces have been at work to make the protag suffer?
- How are these tied to the protag’s hidden need?
Rightly or wrongly, the protagonist makes an action-based plan and takes the first steps to cope with the trouble.
- How is the protagonist called or propelled into action and moved out of her usual world?
- Why is the situation urgent?
- What are the overall consequences if she refuses to act?
- What is the potential overall payoff if she accepts the call to action?
- How does the call to action conflict with what she wants?
- Why does she believe she is unwilling to change the status quo?
- How does this conflict what she needs?
- What does she personally stand to lose?
- What could she gain and how does this relate to her hidden need?
- How does she demonstrate a slight, new awareness of her needs?
- Have both of the following important characters been introduced:
- Love Interest/Main Mentor?
- Antagonist’s Main Minion?
- How does the protagonist actively demonstrate her reluctance to change the status quo?
- What action does the protag take in an attempt to evade or compromise?
Something happens to thwart the protagonist’s plan, the stakes get higher, and the protagonist does something she wouldn’t have done or been able to do at the beginning.
- How do the protag’s attempts to refuse change make the immediate trouble worse?
- What happens to overcome her reluctance to accept the call to action and commit to change?
- How does she get over the first threshold and demonstrate she is already changing?
- Is there a threshold guardian? Who is it and how does it bar her way?
- How does crossing the first threshold thwart the protagonist’s immediate wants?
- How does that push her toward what she really needs?
- How does it increase the overall stakes?
- What is the overall story problem as it has now been introduced?
- What is the theme of the story?
- What should the reader hope for the protagonist?
- What should the reader fear on her behalf?
ACT TWO - Descent
(Adult, Long YA: 25 to 30K Words/YA: Words 16K Words/MG: 5.5K to 11K)
1. New Reality, Self-sacrifice and Still More Roadblocks
The protagonist accepts (or is forced to accept) the new status quo and amasses the helpers and resources to help her fight in the escalating conflict and experiment with the first change. She learns that she must sacrifice or delay getting what she wants.
- Who are the following characters:
- Additional Allies?
- Additional Mentors?
- Threshold Guardians?
- What is the antagonist’s goal?
- What is the antag’s plan to achieve his/her goal?
- What training or knowledge does the protag receive or what does she learn to help her set her plan in action?
- Who (or what) is the threshold guardian she must win past?
- What tests must she pass to demonstrate her fitness for her stated goals (her overall mission, not necessarily the plan she has just made)?
- What does she do to win over new allies?
The protagonist makes a plan to deal with the escalating conflict as she understands it, but either doesn’t have sufficient understanding of the problem or isn’t yet willing to make a large enough permanent change, sacrifice, or commitment. As a result, she makes things worse and narrowly escapes disaster.
- What is the protagonist’s plan to cope with the new reality and get back to her usual world?
- How does she prepare to put her plan into action?
- How does the antag’s plan thwart the protag’s plan?
- What does she do in executing her plan that makes the antag’s job a little easier?
- How does the antag take advantage of the error?
- What does the protag do in response to the antag’s move?
- How does the protag demonstrate heroic or admirable qualities in her response? (This is especially necessary if a mentor provides assists!)
As the stakes get even higher, the protagonist shows that she has changed too much to go back to the same environment/outlook/cubbyhole in which she began the story. She knuckles down and continues training, amassing knowledge and allies, and working toward the ordeal ahead.
- How does the attack increase the overall stakes?
- How does the protag change in response to the attack and failure?
- What does the protag now know or understand that she didn’t know or understand before?
- Who is the new threshold guardian and what does the protag do to get over the threshold?
- Once over the threshold what does the protag do to foreshadow acceptance of self-sacrifice?
- How has the protag changed?
- How has the protag demonstrated a greater awareness of her needs?
- How does she demonstrate that she has not completely relinquished the desires with which she began the book?
(Adult, Long YA: 20 to 25K Words/YA: Words 14K Words/MG: 4.5K to 9K)
1. Striding off Toward Doom –Testing the New Resolve
Taking the first actions in a new plan that takes the full reality of the situation into account, the protagonist is now aware of the stakes and accepts the real or potential sacrifice. She is pushed to the edge of her endurance, resolve, and skills, and struggles to prepare herself for the upcoming confrontation with what she believes is everything she has. She is defeated by the antagonist or a chief minion in a prelude to the climax, but vows to continue fighting.
- What does the protag do to prepare herself?
- How does she demonstrate courage and determination?
- Do these win her any additional allies?
- What does she do to demonstrate that she has accepted participation in the struggle?
- What tools is she given in reward to help her in her fight?
- How is her new resolve and knowledge tested?
- What propels the protagonist into the test?
- What hard choices does she have to make?
- How does she break the rules, cross moral lines, compromise her integrity, or otherwise set herself up for failure?
- How does the antagonist take advantage of it?
- What does the protagonist rely on that fails her?
- What does she do to temporarily drive the antagonist away?
- How does she demonstrate that she has changed?
- How does she demonstrate a greater awareness of her true needs?
- How do we know she hasn’t completely given up her stated goals?
- Is there a sense of escalating action?
The protagonist encounters the antagonist in the big ordeal, engages, and fails spectacularly.
- How does the antagonist’s plan manipulate the battle to throw more obstacles into the protagonist’s plan?
- What shows the protagonist’s rededication to the ordeal?
- What twist sheds light on a previously misunderstood situation?
- What shortens the timeline or propels her into the battle before she is truly ready?
- How does the antagonist take advantage of it?
- How does the protagonist lose allies?
- How is the protagonist injured?
- How does she display heroism and selflessness she didn’t even know she had?
- What does the protag do to temporarily drive the antagonist away?
- How have the stakes increased?
The protagonist is knocked down, wrung out, and soon to be beyond recovery. She can't imagine surving this much pain or loss.
- What steps has she taken toward further understanding or achieving her true need?
- What new revelations start to make her believe she can’t ultimately win?
- What new understanding helps her understand the consequences of losing?
- What does she realize she is losing that she cannot bear to lose?
- What demonstrates her renewed dedication to defeating the antagonist?
- Why does she do it?
(Adult, Long YA: 15 to 20K Words/YA: Words 10K Words/MG: 3.5K to 7K)
1. No Alternative Except Fighting OnFinally understanding the full consequences of losing, the protagonist cannot live with them. She finds a new plan, a new weapon, or a twist on something she has already done that will allow her another, probably futile, crack at the conflict.
- What does she do that will throw away her chance at happiness in favor of pursuing her stated desire and simultaneously fulfilling the task she has accepted?
- How does she demonstrate she understands the magnitude of her loss but believes she has no choice?
- Who else understands or pushes her into making that sacrifice?
- Does that individual have the protag’s best interests at heart?
- Does that individual want the same outcome the protag and her allies have been fighting toward?
The protagonist rejoins the struggle and attacks the antagonist head on in a gamble for all or nothing. They fight and only one of them emerges victorious. The other may, possibly, live to fight another day but the goal set forth his/her goal has been thwarted.
- En route to the battle, does the protag demonstrate any character development that will improve or hinder her ability to fight the antagonist?
- How has she changed since the beginning of the book?
- How does the final battle tie back to something the she feared or hated in Act One?
- How do the location and the battle circle back toward the beginning conflict?
- How has the antag changed (if at all)?
- What has the protag failed to consider in her battle preparations?
- How does the antag capitalize on it?
- What surprising revelations or twists emerge during the battle?
The vision of the new world order, either positive or negative, that suggests how things will fare for the protag and antag after the battle.
- How does the protag reunite with her allies?
- How do they respond?
- Is there more conflict to come? (A sequel?)
- Is there ultimately potential for a happy ending?
- Did the protag get what she wanted?
- Did she get what she needed?
- Is the overall goal accomplished?
- If not, what suggests a small hope that it can still be accomplished?
- What has the protagonist learned?
- What is the closing visual that will stick in the reader’s mind?
Sources and Additional Information:
Alexandra Sokoloff: The Index Card Method
Diana Peterfreund: In Which the Author Contemplates Structure
Jennifer Cruisie: The Not-Really-An-Outline for Plots
Jennifer Cruisie: It's the Structure Stupid
Johanna Harness: Phase Drafting
Randy Ingermanson: How to Write a Novel: The Snowflake Method
Writer Unboxed: The Three-Act Structure