Progressions Make the Story Worse and Worse–and That’s Good


Do things get worse in your story? Then you are using some sort of progression: good, worse, worst. That’s excellent, because you want the story characters to increasingly feel the conflict and tension of the story.

But are you using the BEST progression possible?

Close up of Street Vendor in Urumqi, China

In my current revision, I am checking my progressions to make sure that events, items, arguments, etc. are in a correct progression. For example, my main character (MC) is under a curse that progressively makes her mistrust her senses. I decided to check and make sure the progression was sound:

  • MC sees the same thing as other characters: this establishes the base line of experience and serves as the basis for comparison. We’ll know how bad the curse is by comparing what MC and other characters see.
  • MC observes an object flipping back and forth from reality to a vision.
  • MC sees the path she walks upon as jumpy, never quite sure where to put her foot next.
  • MC sees her companion as a monster.
  • MC sees a squirrel as a monster.
  • MC sees a chasm, but doesn’t trust what she sees; it is indeed a chasm.
  • MC sees worthless pebbles instead of jewels and then everything is totally reversed after a landslide.


It’s not a bad progression, but there are a couple places I will reorder and one that I will change.

  • MC sees a squirrel as a monster. Seeing a squirrel as a monster should come before seeing her companion as a master. The character should retain his reality as long as possible. Swapped this with the next one.
  • MC sees her companion as a monster.
  • MC sees a chasm, but doesn’t trust what she sees; it is indeed a chasm.
    Hmmm. This one bothered me. We had a progression of worsening vision, inability to distinguish real from false. Yet here, MC suddenly sees things correctly–but just doesn’t trust her vision. Well, that does work, but it doesn’t make her VISION progressively worse. It switches the question to one of trust, a question that is certainly valid. But here, I want it to really focus on her deteriorating senses. So, I’ll probably change this to make her see things that aren’t there, a form of hallucination, which is definitely worse. Now, she sees a chasm, but also sees a bridge crossing that chasm–obvious to the reader is the fact that the bridge isn’t really there, it’s a hallucination.


Mark Each Level. When you fiddle with progressions, I find it easier to go through the mss with a highlighter and mark every instance that something occurs. For example, another progression was that the characters go through three different cave chambers. I marked out these places and went through to make sure that we started out with a small chamber and worked up to a grand underground chamber, the treasure chamber.

State what happened in this level. Next, I write a sentence about each level of the progression. Just a statement of what is happening.

Evaluate and correct the progression.
Then, I evaluate the progression for places to tweak. Be sure to pay attention to the specific language you use. Look for places to use comparative and superlative forms to signal the progression. Watch out for inadvertent word choices that can mess up the progression. For example, this progression doesn’t work:

  • The cave chamber was spacious
  • The cave chamber was cramped
  • The cave chamber was grand, with ceilings so high the light didn’t reach there.

Obviously, “cramped” doesn’t fit the progression of bigger and better underground chambers. I find that making a simple list makes me notice the particulars of the progressions–especially when they span multiple chapters–and make sure I nail it.

1 Comment
  • Crystal Hilbert
    September 2, 2011

    She doesn’t hallucinate sound also? Because I think sound can make the creepiest story. What if she was in front of the chasm-that-was-a-chasm, sure she was hallucinating, and she heard her friends telling her to “come on. It’s okay. Two steps forward — watch the rock — now keep coming… ”

    From that point on, she wouldn’t be able to trust her friends either, since at any moment, she could be making them up.

    That’d creep me the heck out.