In everyday life, people normally strive for as few complications as possible. We plan ahead. We prepare. We come up with menus and grocery lists, and wash soccer uniforms for Saturday’s game. We even worry, as if considering all the negative scenarios will help us avoid them. And life is easier when we’re organized. We won’t run out of pasta on lemon chicken linguini night. Of course, we might be out of lemon. To use a cliché, life doesn’t go always as planned.
Your character may worry and plan, too, or maybe not. Either way, in order to keep us reading, there have to be complications for your character. Don’t let her life go smoothly. Complicate her plans, her day, her life, her obstacles.
One of the ways to avoid a sagging middle (Act II) of your story, is to layer in complications—both in terms of characterization and plot. Maybe your character faces a new scenario she’s never planned for. She doesn’t know how to handle it, or perhaps the situation triggers something in her she didn’t expect. Complications.
You may have heard that it’s best to keep tripping your character up and then kick him when he's down. The advantage to that is that when things finally do turn around, the emotional payoff is intense. However, this technique is also somewhat transparent and can wear on readers. They’d like to see some victories, or the story may depress them. It’s best to have a balance, without making things too easy on your characters.
I read a lot, for Pelican, of course, but elsewhere too. One element I’ve seen over and over is writers keeping things safe, both for their characters and themselves. No situation is ever out of control. No barraging circumstances. No unresolved tension. But tension is a reader’s favorite hook. And the complication of barraging circumstances, the chaos of complications, not only feels like real life, but also keeps stories from sagging.
Have you ever tried to train a puppy to “heel?” “Heel” is the command for walking beside the master/owner while on a leash. This command demands the dog not pull on the lead, but rather remain in step. And though temptations to sniff the surrounding area come, once trained, the dog remains faithfully next to the owner. Just like with every other lesson, puppies need training in this. When you first put a puppy on a leash, he’ll twist his head to bite on it. He’ll scamper around in circles, trying to either get the leash off or get it into his mouths. He might stop everything, sit down, and use a hind paw to scratch at the collar and leash. If the owner tries walking (all the while giving the command to “heel”), the puppy may put the brakes on, dig her feet into the ground, and try to remain where she is. All manner of distractions keep her from cooperating. The same should be true in our stories.
All manner of complications should keep our heroes and heroines from their goals. That keeps readers hooked, or on the leash to remain with our metaphor.
So, what about your work-in-progress? You’ll know if you have a balance by instinct. If the scene lacks life, consider layering in complications. The same is true if your scene lacks realism. Let complications thicken your novel. The goal is to keep your reader on the leash all the way through to the end. And, unlike in real life, in story, complications are desirable.