Writing Excuses 14.13: Obstacles vs. Complications
Key points: obstacles versus complications. People, things, or circumstances that impede the progress of the character or the story. Obstacles can simply be overcome, but complications cause ramifications that make the story take a turn. In terms of MICE threads, obstacles keep you on the same path, but complications take you to another thread. Obstacles are linear, complications change the direction or goals. Obstacles often are within scenes, while complications strengthen act breaks and make the audience come back. A story that is all complications may be too twisty, while a story that is just obstacles may be too linear and frustratingly slow. Try mixing yes-but, no-and with complications and obstacles. A couple of major complications may be plenty.
[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 13.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Obstacles vs. Complications.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Margaret] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Margaret] I’m Margaret.
[Howard] I’m in the way.
[Mary Robinette] All right. So, I wanted to do this because a couple of times on Writing Excuses, you’ve heard me say, talking about obstacles versus complications and how I learned about it from Margaret Dunlap, and it occurred to me that we actually have Margaret here, so instead of having to listen to my fumbling attempt to distill this theory that she has come up with, we could just have her explain it to you. So, Margaret, tell us, please, about obstacles versus complications.
[Margaret] Okay. So, obstacles versus complications is, I think… I was trying to think back to the origin of this. For me, it goes back to learning how to write to act breaks. Because you… Classically, you write to the act break, you’re going to stop, have commercials, and you want something that’s going to drive the audience to come back. The problem of writing television today is the television audiences have watched hundreds of hours of television, and they kind of know how television works. So if you put in a classic kind of cliffhanger of like, “Oh, no. Is Mulder going to die?” on the X-Files, well, probably not. Most of your audience is pretty well aware that at the end of act one, it’s likely Mulder’s probably still going to be with us for the rest of this episode. So, TV writers had to get better at making stories twistier. So, obstacles versus complications, both of these are people, things, or circumstances that are somehow impeding the progress of the character or the story. The difference is, while an obstacle is something that your character can overcome and then keep moving, a complication is something that they have to deal with and then causes ramifications that causes the story to take a turn.
[Mary Robinette] If I can jump in here, one of the… Because we spent a delightful period of time talking about this, and for me, one of… It clarified something that I’ve talked to my students about, which is when I talk about the MICE quotient and talk about how you can have multiple threads and they can be braided together, I intellectually like… Not intellectually. I had an intuitive sense of what it meant, but I had a difficult time articulating it. So an obstacle keep you on the same path. It’s like a straightahead thing. If you’re on a milieu line, you stay on a milieu line. Whereas, a complication will kick you off over into a character line.
[Brandon] That is really fascinating.
[Mary Robinette] Isn’t it!
[Brandon] Yeah. That’s really helpful.
[Howard] Obstacle is the speedbump, complication is the detour sign which you’re not actually sure which side road it’s pointing to.
[Margaret] Right. Or the detour sign that someone has taken away, or… I have an example of if I am a renowned thief and I am trying to break into Mary’s home, the locked door is an obstacle. The fact that Mary is home, and I thought that she wasn’t, that is a complication. Potentially. If I knock her out because I am awesome, because I’m an internationally renowned thief, then she is effectively an obstacle. But if she provides information that the thing I have come to steal, I’m not stealing it back, I’m just stealing it, that creates a complication.
[Brandon] Yeah, this is really interesting, because a lot of plot formats, particularly some of the ones rooted in screenwriting, talk about this idea of at some point during the story, you’re… The characters are going to realize their goals are larger or different than they wanted them to be. Knowing the difference between obstacle versus that complication that can open their eyes to a greater plot could be really helpful.
[Margaret] Yeah. It’s also a way to take a story that has a very linear progression, and think about… Because often we know where we want a story to end. It’s like, “All right. Well, the character starts and they had that way.” If you think in terms of complications, maybe they start out going in this direction… Yeah, as you can tell from watching me moving my hands on the podcast…
[Margaret] They start moving to the right. A series of complications might bend them around 180° and get… Or, more likely, 90°, speaking narratively. We rarely have a character start out seeking the exact opposite of what they wind up getting. But those are the complications that can create those twists that aren’t… A shocking twist that you’ll never see coming. But just those little shifts in the narrative.
[Howard] There is a classic twist in the… Elementary, CBS’s Sherlock Holmes thing, that I’ve described to my kids as the act two corpse. Which is the point at which we are moving along, and then someone is dead who we are not expecting to be dead. Maybe it’s an obstacle, because we can no longer ask that person questions. But we discovered that it’s more complex. What’s fun is that even though my kids will now watch TV with me and lean forward and say, “Act two corpse? Is it… Yay! Act two corpse!” The episode still works, because we don’t know what the complication is going… We don’t know what’s going to happen. We just know there’s been a complication, and we are on board for where our heroes take it.
[Margaret] It’s the murder mystery where your prime suspect is the second victim.
[Brandon] I’ve done that before. It’s very handy.
[Margaret] And classic for a reason.
[Brandon] Let’s break here for our book of the week.
[Mary Robinette] Great. So our book of the week is Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse. This is a fantastic book. On one level, you can read it as just monster hunters going after monsters. But it’s so much more than that. So this is after the world has basically drowned under the big water. It’s set on what used to be a Navajo reservation. It has been reborn as Dinetah. All of the gods and heroes of the land are kind of there again. So, like, there’s Coyote. It’s wonderful. It’s relevant to this because it has a great series of obstacles in complications. There are obstacles that are just getting in the way of her tracking down the monster, and then there are complications which are completely affecting the way… A relationship with herself, her relationship with other people. It’s wonderful, wonderful storytelling.
[Brandon] So tell us one more time.
[Mary Robinette] It is the Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse.
[Mary Robinette] All right. So. Since we are talking about obstacles in complications, one of the things that I wanted to also talk to our listeners about, we’ve talked a little bit about how to use them. I also want to talk about the dangers of them. Like the dangers of a story that is only complications.
[Margaret] Only complications. The danger of a story that is just piling complication on top of complication on top of complication is that it can be easy to lose track of the stakes. If we are constantly shifting what’s going on, what are we after, how is it happening, it’s tough for the audience to… It can be difficult for the audience to remain invested. Because it’s who’s on first. They’re losing track of what is our ultimate goal, what are we actually pushing towards, are we making progress towards it, or do we keep just getting derailed into detours? It is possible to make a story too twisty.
[Mary Robinette] Is it possible to go the other direction, and just have just obstacles?
[Margaret] Yeah. I think the danger of a story that is only obstacles is that, one, it can feel like your character isn’t getting anywhere because anytime they’re building up a head of steam, they’re hitting another wall. The other risk that we sort of talked about earlier is that the story can feel very linear. It’s like I am headed to grandma’s house. The road goes out. So I’ve got to get a boat. The boat blows over. It just keeps going. One thing to another thing to another thing, but we never shift years. You can do it. But there is a risk that it just feels like a straight shot down a hallway, and why is it taking you so long to walk?
[Brandon] I’ve worried about both of those things, with the yes-but, no-and methodology that we’ve talked about, that Mary introduced me to, which is great. I use it in my class for those discovery writers who don’t know how to outline, and don’t really want to outline. I say, here’s a method. But I worry about if they do this the wrong way, you’re going to end up with only complications, because it’s so easy to say, yes, they do accomplish this, but weird wacky things happens that sends us off in another direction.
[Mary Robinette] So that brings up the question of progress in pacing. One of the things that I talk about sometimes with the yes-but, no-in is, since in Western storytelling, we have the rule of three. Which is three times are funny, third times a charm, three times are unlucky. We just… We’re geared to think in terms of threes. That you can use that in hack with it. If you want something to feel easy, then you have it happen with less than three trial error cycles. If you want it to feel hard, then you do more than three try-fail cycles. So with a yes-but, it’s like yes, but complication. Then with no-and, it’s like no, and obstacle. To a certain degree. So you can… I feel like you can control pacing to a certain degree that way. How do you con… Do you use these as tools to control pacing?
[Mary Robinette] I mean, it’s hard… It feels like it when you’re talking about act breaks.
[Margaret] Yeah. I mean, it is a way to control pacing. I think when writing in television format, it’s such a set structure. Even now, as we’re seeing more TV being written without commercial breaks. If you’re writing for a Netflix or one of the other premium services, you don’t necessarily have commercials that are coming in between, but I like to try to write on that 4 to 5 act structure anyway, just because it ensures that things are happening. That you’re not getting the episode that feels like, “Okay, this is just an installment, but nothing’s really happening. It’s a lot of kind of dithering around and nothing is really changing, nothing’s really progressing.” Having those sorts of stops along the wheel of setting up the problem of the week, making our first attempt at it, a big turn at the midpoint that shifts things around, having to recover and prepare for that, and our final confrontation act five, having that is a kind of baseline structure sets up that… One, the idea that we’re accomplishing something in a single episode, even if it’s a piece of a much larger story. But also, again with a television audience that watched a lot of television, there are certain rhythms that you get use to. You can shift those rhythms. I watched a lot of Law & Order in high school and college. Then I started watching Homicide: Life on the Streets. I realized that I would start getting really antsy around the half-hour point in Homicide, because subliminally I was waiting for the cops to hand it over to the lawyers to handle the second half of the show.
[Mary Robinette] [Ooooo]
[Margaret] But Homicide is all cops. It took a while to get used to the different pacing and the different rhythm. But having that television falling into those… Saying familiar patterns feels like it’s cliché, but just that sort of the storytelling rhythms that at a certain level feel comfortable that you can use or shift up in order to really unsettle your audience.
[Mary Robinette] As you were talking, I realized that when I earlier said yes, but complication, no, and obstacle, that made it sound like those are the pairings that you have to do. Which is not actually true at all. Yes his progress towards the goal, no is progress away from the goal. Then, complications and obstacles are additional tools that you can use in terms of shifting. I find that I am more likely to use obstacles as a… Within a, roughly put, within a scene, and then use the complications kind of as I approach a scene end.
[Margaret] I think, complications, you do have to be judicious with them, at least in terms of major complications. If you look at… If you look at the Leverage pilot, which I’m guessing many listeners and people here on this podcast are familiar with, you get a couple of really big complications in that, but only a couple. We’ve been hired to steal airplane plans. It turns out those airplane plans, we didn’t steal them back from the person who stole them. We just stole them from the people that created them. Then they have obstacles in trying to get revenge from the person who set them up. With… There are some additional complications buried in there, but they aren’t all necessarily… A complication doesn’t have to be earthshaking. It can be you have to take your little sister with you on this heist job, and how are we going to handle that?
[Howard] The nice thing about the Leverage show format with regard to complications is that when the heist is one in which we are going to be shown, after the fact, that there was a piece they were actually prepared for this. The final complication looks to us like the nail in the coffin that, nope, they’re not going to survive this twist. Oh, wait, this is the one they were ready for. That bit of formulaic TV writing… Yes, if formulaic, and yes, if you watch an entire… You binge watch Leverage, you can start to see the seams, but… It’s beautiful. I love the way it’s done.
[Margaret] I would just like to say, John, Howard said it was formulaic, I didn’t.
[Brandon] All right. Let’s… This has been really fascinating. It’s really helped kind of frame this in my head. Something that… Like Mary said, I’ve always kind of known, but never been able to put words to.
[Brandon] You also have a piece of homework for us, right, Margaret?
[Margaret] What I’d like you to try to do is take a story, either something you’ve written or another story, and either find or insert an obstacle into it. Then, brainstorm what might happen if that obstacle were actually a complication. It’s something that forces the narrative to take a turn. See what happens.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.