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Author: Sydney Bauer

This lesson introduces complications in fiction.

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Plots... They get COMPLICATED! 


The complication of a plot is a lot like tying a knot. It is the part of the narrative where the central conflict is developed and then intensified, or made worse. A narrative could have several complications.

Let’s look at an example: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1831).

  • Central Conflict: Victor Frankenstein creates his creature/monster and then loses control of it.
    • First Complication: The creature disappears and Victor falls ill. His illness gives him fevers and confusion, which cloud his mind.
    • Second Complication: Victor’s brother, William, is strangled to death. Justine, the kind-hearted girl adopted by the Frankenstein household, is accused, convicted, and executed for the crime. Victor believes the creature—for whom he feels responsible—committed the murder and caused Justine’s execution. Victor’s guilt, paranoia, and illness grow more intense.
    • Third Complication: The creature approaches Victor, attempts to explain why he lashed out and killed William, and asks for a companion. Victor tries to create another creature but is so disgusted that he throws the corpse into the sea, which infuriates the creature.
    • Fourth Complication: Upon returning to shore, Victor is charged with the murder of his childhood friend, Henry Clerval. Though he is acquitted of the crime, it makes his paranoia and guilt worse. He sees that he has no control over the creature.
  • Climax: Victor marries Elizabeth, and the two embark on their honeymoon. Anticipating an attack, Victor separates himself from Elizabeth and attempts to draw the creature to him; however, the creature instead attacks and kills Elizabeth before fleeing into the wilderness. Victor tracks him to the polar North and vows revenge.


The complication builds tension and drives the plot towards the climax and resolution, which is why it is often considered to be the rising action—or at least part of the rising action. The complication is what makes the climax so climactic. In our Frankenstein example, Victor’s state of mind and behavior are motivated by the complications that occurred during the rising action of the plot. Each complication ratchets up the tension and suspense, pushing the story towards the climax.


Some plots—usually those of a short story—only have one complication that intensifies the central conflict.

Let’s look at Virginia Woolf’s short story “The Duchess and the Jeweler” (1938) as an example.

  • Central conflict: The Duchess of Lambourne is trying to sell ten pearls to Oliver Bacon, the richest jeweler in England, but Oliver isn’t sure they are real pearls. In fact, he hints that she has lied to him in the past. The main conflict is whether Oliver should make the purchase.
    • Complication: The Duchess notices Oliver’s hesitance. Before he can call for a clerk to come and test the pearls, she mentions that she is doing this for her daughters: Aramnita, Daphne, and Diana (with whom Oliver is in love). The Duchess invites Oliver to come to her house the next day, and tells him that Diana will be there. She even invites him for a long weekend, alone in the woods with Diana. The complication is that the transaction isn’t about whether he should purchase the pearls, but whether he should purchase a weekend alone with Diana.