Expanding the Basic Story
Complications often add up.
Create interesting and compelling stories by adding complications, reversals and changing goals — elements that will draw in your audience and keep them hooked.
The following builds on some of the ideas explored in the section on Basic story structure.
In this article we’ll look at:
Creating suspense with warning signs and foreshadowing
Audiences want intriguing plots that will surprise them and keep them guessing. To build your story, add complications. Present your protagonist with a problem and think of ways of making the solution as hard as possible. And once they’ve solved one problem, give them another.
Take the movie First Blood (based on the novel by David Morrell). At the start of the story the ex-vet John Rambo is picked on by a small-town sheriff and his deputies. Rambo beats up the lawmen, escapes from jail and tries to run for the hills. This isn’t made easy and the writer throws in all sorts of complications to keep Rambo on his toes. First Rambo has to clothe himself to stop from freezing to death, then he has to fight a posse, then eliminate a pack of dogs, then he has to dodge a helicopter, then he injures himself falling out of a tree...
In Sense and Sensibility the elder Dashwood sisters are searching for suitable husbands but, just like Rambo, many complications are strewn in their path. First their father dies leaving them without money for a dowry, then they’re thrown out of their house, then they have to move miles away to the wilds of Devon, then they discover their chosen partners are promised to other people...
In any good story the problems will pile up, whether it’s an action movie, play or romantic novel. To keep the audience interested the problems should get larger and larger, each worse than the last. And each problem should raise the stakes — the penalties for failure becoming greater and greater.
Reversals are big problems that typically come as an unpleasant surprise. The protagonist is well on the way to solving their original problem when the unexpected comes along and throws all their plans into confusion.
In First Blood the appearance of the National Guard represents a reversal. Up till then Rambo had been doing quite well for himself. He’d beaten everyone sent against him and had looked on top of the situation. At this point Rambo could have escaped (making it a very short story) but the writer calls in the National Guard to put Rambo in his place. As it turns out the National Guard don’t defeat Rambo but they do make life difficult for him — they blow up a mountainside and trap him in an old mine. Rambo now has another complication to solve — to escape from a labyrinth of claustrophobic, rat-infested tunnels.
More examples of reversals:
In Raiders of the Lost Ark a serious reversal occurs during Indie’s escape on a tramp steamer. He thinks he’s got away with the Ark then finds his ship being hijacked by a U-boat.
In Sense and Sensibility both sisters suffer reversals. The elder Dashwood girl is devastated when she finds her gentleman friend is promised to someone else and her sister’s hopes are dashed when her young man moves to London.
In Star Wars the crew of the Millennium Falcon manage to escape from Tatooine and head for the safety of Alderaan, only to find the planet destroyed and themselves the prisoners of the Death Star.
A reversal often leads to a change in your protagonist’s goal. Which is good, because giving your main character a fresh objective is an excellent way of maintaining the surprise and excitement in your story.
In First Blood Rambo’s goal changes after he escapes from the mine. Instead of slipping away he sneaks back to the town and wreaks havoc on it. Rambo’s original goal was escape; now his goal is revenge. He wants to get his own back on the people who have hunted him so ruthlessly and the society he believes has rejected him, his thirst for revenge overriding his instinct for self preservation. Rambo’s escape at this point would have been an anti-climax, but his change of heart maintains the pace of the story and gives it an unexpected twist.
More examples of changing goals:
In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe the children’s original goal (to get home) is overtaken by a greater one — to help Aslan fight the forces of darkness.
In Babe the piglet’s original goal is to be accepted as a sheep-pig by the farm community. His goal changes when he’s entered into a sheep-dog trial. Now he has to find a way to win to prevent the Farmer from being humiliated.
In Ben Hur the goal of our hero is to revenge himself on Messala, the Roman who sent him to the galleys. After Messala is defeated Ben Hur is given another goal — to rescue his mother and sister from the Valley of the Lepers.
As you can see from the above, the secondary goal often leads to the climax of the story. However, not all stories involve changing goals, if in Sense and Sensibility the Dashwood sisters suddenly gave up their pursuit of husbands to become professional harpsichord players the reader would feel cheated (not to say confused).
Many plots have an underlying message and this is often called the subtext. The Alec Guinness movie The Man in the White Suit is about an eccentric scientist who develops a new fabric that never wears out or gets dirty. The scientist expects to be treated like a hero, but the people who depend on clothes wearing out and getting dirty for a living (manufacturers, weavers and laundry workers) are horrified by the scientist’s invention because it will put them out of work. The basic story is about the scientist’s quest, but the subtext addresses the problems that societies face in coping with new technology.
Be subtle with subtext
If your subtext is too obvious your story might come across as preachy and heavy handed. Aim for a light touch. If you’re aiming to please a mainstream audience your plot should be, first and foremost, entertaining and accessible. Any messages you choose to inject should be subtle.
An example of unsubtle subtext is found in the play A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams. The play is complex, but deals mainly with the mental and physical decline of the principal character, Blanche Dubois. During one heated scene the action is continually interrupted by a Mexican flower seller calling out “Flores para los muertos!” (“Flowers for the dead!”) a clumsy way of pointing out that the play’s underlying theme is about mortality.
In a notorious Star Trek episode called ‘Let That Be Your Last Battlefield’ we meet two survivors of a race whose skin is half white and half black. The pair hate each other because one is white on the left-hand side, and the other is white on the right…Okay, we get it, but the message is too clunky and obvious to have much of an impact beyond provoking some eye-rolling.
Do you need subtext?
A successful story doesn’t need to be loaded with underlying meanings (Raiders of the Lost Ark is pretty much pure action) but most contain some subtext. Some writers set out to write a basic, straightforward story and find that a second, deeper level of meaning develops by itself. Others start with this deeper level and then build a story on top of it.
If you’re having trouble developing your story look for deeper meanings within the text. If there are some they might suggest where you can go with your plot. If you can’t find any deeper meaning it might indicate that your story has nothing significant at its core — no heart. In this case you might want to have a serious rethink or starting fresh on something else.
Think of your subtext (if it exists) as a ship’s rudder — beyond a few ripples it stays hidden beneath the surface but it helps guide the ship (your story) to wherever it’s going.
Subplots are mini-stories that run parallel to the main plot. They’re not obligatory, but can be useful.
Let’s say you’ve come up with a story where the protagonist is a young prospector who’s trying to reopen an abandoned gold mine, convinced he can find a lost mother-lode of gold. This is the central plot, the main story. A subplot might involve the prospector’s father who’s dying from a chronic heart condition. The prospector is keen to save his Dad and if he discovers gold he’ll be able to pay for a heart-transplant.
While this subplot is separate from the main story, it also supports it. The ‘Dying Dad’ subplot helps to establish the prospector’s character (he’s a nice guy who wants to save his father) and helps increase the tension. Without the Dad subplot the prospector is risking only his time and money, but including his father’s life raises the stakes. If the prospector doesn’t strike it rich, Dad’s going to kick the bucket.
Subplots also increase opportunities for creativity, allowing us to rack up the complications. Perhaps a large corporation offers to buy the mine from the prospector. If the prospector accepts the money he’ll have enough to pay for his Dad’s operation. However, the prospector is positive he’s close to finding the mother lode. If he sells out now he might be losing a fortune; but if he doesn’t, Dad might die! We’ve given our prospector an interesting moral dilemma. How will he deal with it? What will this reveal about his character?
Subplots can be useful in all sorts of ways, but they must have some relevance to the main story otherwise they’re just baggage. Imagine going through your story and crossing out all the details of a particular subplot, if you find a subplot that makes no difference to the main story get rid of it.
Creating suspense with warning signs and foreshadowing
One way of creating suspense is to give the audience advance warnings of a problem your characters are unaware of. It’s going to be a nasty surprise for them and the audiences’ anticipation of how they’re going to deal with it (or not) will ramp up the tension. Imagine a movie where the protagonist is driving up a dusty side-road. They’re in a hurry and don’t notice a partially obscured sign standing at the roadside. But the camera does notice — it zooms in and we see the words ‘Unsafe Bridge’. We immediately have a situation full of suspense — what sort of wreck is lying ahead?
The example above is obviously a very literal ‘danger sign’, but there are all kinds of ways to signal that trouble is on the horizon. For example:
We see a couple on a first date in a restaurant and one of them goes to the bathroom to sneak a long swig out of a hip-flask. Well, that’s not good...
The slow drip, drip, drip of oil oozing from the engine of a small plane as it sits on the airfield is not a good portent for a bon voyage.
Granddad is taking care to conceal his hacking cough from little Jimmy. Should we be thinking about calling an ambulance?
Remember that these advance warnings can be used only in stories where the audience learns things independently of your characters. For example, the bridge scene wouldn’t work in a novel written entirely from the First-person or third-person-inside perspective (see Narrative styles) as in these cases the reader can be aware only of the things your protagonist sees and hears themself.
The triggers for suspense in the above examples are a little on-the-nose (to the point of being melodramatic) but there’s another way of introducing tension that’s more nebulous — a technique broadly referred to as ‘foreshadowing’. This kind of plot development is not hidden, your characters are usually not oblivious to them, but the threat they represent is far less defined than the danger signs discussed above. Foreshadowing is the writing equivalent of nudging the gasoline container a little closer to the blazing wood stove. Nothing’s been set alight yet, but when it starts, it’s going to go off with a bang. Take these examples:
A man has a row with his neighbour. He goes inside his home, dusts off an old shotgun and puts it by the door.
Two townspeople are looking at the local river and discussing the last time it flooded. There’s a lightning flash and we see that a heavy storm is building up over the mountains.
It’s night and a house is being watched from the outside. Our point of view changes and we see a tree stump in the backyard with an axe embedded in it.
Each of above scenarios is flagging up the possibility of some kind of dramatic escalation, but what that will entail is still far from clear. However, be warned that foreshadowing ought to have some kind of payoff. Unless someone gets shot, drowned or axed to death, there’s little point in raising these possibilities in the minds of the audience to start with.
Plot devices like these are often referred to as examples of Chekhov’s Gun. The Russian playwright once saying:
‘One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off.
It’s wrong to make promises you don't mean to keep.’
So in our ‘rowing neighbours’ example above, that shotgun had better go off at some point. It might be the man using it on his neighbour, or his wife using it on the neighbour, or the neighbour using it on the man, or grandma using it on the mailman, or the dog might knock it over and shoot the cat...but there has to be a payoff.
Let’s see if we can inject some foreshadowing in our prospector tale. Perhaps the story is taking place in Africa, if so we might start the story with something dramatic, like a lion hunt. A man-eating lion is on the loose. A pair of hunters track the lion down but it ambushes them, kills them, and slinks back to its lair in a cave — a cave that’s the entrance to an abandoned mine-shaft!
By using the above opening we establish early on that the area surrounding the prospector’s mine is home to a man-eating lion. The prospector doesn’t know this (yet) but we do. This is now a situation full of suspense — each time the prospector steps out of his tent or goes for a walk we’ll wonder if the lion is waiting for him. Obviously at some point the lion will be waiting for him (as we’ve said, there’s no point in creating a suspenseful situation if there’s no payoff) but this climactic meeting needn’t be completely predictable…
Let’s say the corporation fails to buy the mine from the prospector. They turn to Plan B and send out a hit man to bump him off. The climax of the main story is a fight between the prospector and the hit man. A satisfying ending might involve the prospector looking down the wrong end of a gun — things appear hopeless and the hit man’s finger is tightening on the trigger when the lion suddenly springs out of the bushes and kills him. Perhaps the prospector got to know about the lion and deliberately led the assassin to its lair. In this case the lion provides both a useful subplot that adds suspense to the main story and also helps to deliver a surprise ending.
You’ll find more on story development in Writing tips.
Main image ©Everett Collection c/o Shutterstock
Back to the Index page.