Complications, Roadblocks, and Reversals

In a story, a reader wants to see the Protagonist overcome obstacles along the way. Here are three ways for you to approach writing those hurdles.

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That is one big ass obstacle!

Imagine: Here is your Protagonist at the Beginning. And way over there, 100 script pages or so away is where your Protagonist will hit the Ending. In between is this thing I call the Plotline, and I want you to envision it just like it sounds, a straight line from Beginning to Ending.

Moreover, we WANT to see our story’s Protagonist struggle to overcome obstacles along the way. It makes for a more interesting read, the plot filled with twists and turns.

So, a writer should embrace obstacles as a necessary, even helpful asset in the story-crafting process. And as opposed to thinking about them in a generic way, here are three levels of complexity and difficulty:

Complications: A complication is an event or circumstance which slows the Protagonist’s progress toward their goal.

Roadblocks: A roadblock is an event or circumstance which stops the Protagonist’s progress toward their goal.

Reversals: A reversal is an event or circumstance which reverses the Protagonist’s progress toward their goal.

What these three represent are degrees of difficulty for the Protagonist character:

  • Complication the easiest to overcome
  • Roadblock a harder development
  • Reversal the most difficult.

Okay, so now back to our pristine straight Plotline from the Beginning to the Ending. What effect will Complications, Roadblocks, and Reversals have on the trajectory of that Plotline? Why, muck it all up, is what!

Here you will be working against your natural instinct, a desire to stitch together a simple, expedient Plotline, thereby, getting you through the page-writing process as quickly as possible.

If you really want to maximize the dramatic potential of your story, then you want to muck up your Protagonist’s journey — in a big way.

This is more than simply playing to a ‘Law & Order’ sensibility of providing a surprising plot “twist.” The real reason to muck up the Plotline is to force the Protagonist to prove themselves worthy of the script reader’s allegiance — by overcoming enormous odds. Complications, Road Blocks, Reversals, all contribute to those enormous odds.

For example, let’s take a look at plot twists in one of The Shawshank Redemption.

  • Andy’s gun can not be found (Roadblock)
  • Andy found guilty of murder (Reversal)
  • Red rejected by the parole board (Roadblock)
  • Boggs comes onto Andy in the shower (Complication)
  • Andy assaulted The Sisters (Reversal)
  • Andy forced to run money laundering scheme for Warden (Complication)
  • Brooks with knife at Heywood’s neck (Complication)
  • Brooks commits suicide (Reversal)
  • Andy thrown in the hole for playing Mozart (Roadblock)
  • Red rejected by the parole board again (Roadblock)
  • Warden sends Andy to the hole for a month re Tommy (Roadblock)
  • Hadley assassinates Tommy (Reversal)
  • Warden gives Andy another month in the hole (Roadblock)
  • Red not adapting to paroled life (Complication)
  • Red tempted to turn back to life of crime (Complication)
Brooks going down the path of ‘get busy dying’.

These are just some of the story’s Complications, Roadblocks, and Reversals in The Shawshank Redemption. If you consider any good movie, you will find a host of such plot twists.

So my advice: take your plot and muck it up. Brainstorming and working in plot twists as Complications, Roadblocks, and Reversals is a harder road to hoe, but can make the journey much more interesting and the Protagonist’s transformation that much more meaningful.

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