Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 59: Overly Complex Plots
Complex plots? Good. Overly complex plots? Not so good.
Complex plots are the stuff of literary mastery. They can take a story beyond a single dimension into an intricate exploration of life. Dickens, Mann, Eliot, and so many more literary luminaries show us how to do it right.
But do it wrong, and what we end up with is an incohesive and tedious tangle of barely connected plotlines that test readers’ patience.
If all of writing is a balance, this balance is nowhere more important than in juggling simplicity and complexity.
Although you want to imbue your story with the warp and weft of a lushly woven complexity, you never want to draw attention to that complexity. It should arise so effortlessly from the tightness of your narrative that readers never stop to think, “Wow, this is complicated!”
4 Reasons You Might Be Writing Overly Complex Plots
How can you accomplish a beautifully balanced complexity of plot? And just as importantly, how can you tell when you’ve strayed past admirably complex plots into overly complex plots?
These are good questions. And that, of course, means they have very good answers! Following are four reasons you might be writing overly complex plots.
1. You’re Telling More Than One Story
You will never end up with overly complex plots just because. Story theory itself will help you spot the threshold separating good complexity from even just a little too much.
The first thing we have to ask is what constitutes a “whole” story? How do you know when you’ve gone beyond telling one story to telling more than one?
There are two major (but entirely symbiotic) aspects to a story.
And what makes a plot, you ask? That would be the central conflict. The protagonist (or group of protagonists) have a central goal toward which they’re moving, which, in turn, is blocked by the conflict created by the antagonistic force’s obstacles to that goal.
Think of that goal as a finish line at the end of your story. That’s the one thing the characters are primarily working toward in this story. The moment they either definitively gain or forfeit it, the main conflict ends—and so does the plot.
Out of plot arises theme (or is it the other way around?). Theme is the story beneath the story. It’s what all the narrative action is really about. The opposing forces of conflict in your plot are offering a statement about the world—a Truth, whether large or small.
Just as the plot is ultimately about one core objective, the theme must ultimately be about one core idea. No matter how many sub-ideas you explore, they all relate back to this one central statement of Truth.
That’s how it works. Every story = one plot = one theme.
Doesn’t matter how complex your story is, how many characters your cast includes, how many subplots you’re weaving. A cohesive story will always come back to this one equation. This is the rock-solid heart of simplicity at the core of every truly admirable complex story.
Of course, what this means by extension is that if you violate this principle—if your story mutates an extra theme or an unrelated plot goal—then, boom!, you’ve just moved beyond writing one story into writing several (or, more likely, one main story with a bunch of half stories tacked on around the corners). Your plot is no longer complex in a good way, but rather overly complex.
YOUR MOST IMPORTANT TAKEAWAY:
Identifying plot and theme is the single most important principle of determining which “extras” belong in your story and which don’t. It requires you to mentally strip your story down to bare bones, so you can fully understand exactly what it’s really about, under all the flash and fluff.
Then you can start rebuilding it from the ground up. You’ll have to kill the darlings that don’t support your primary dramatic and thematic principles. Instead, choose only those characters, subplots, and scenes that enhance the overall effect of your story’s beating heart.
2. You’re Confusing Readers
Aligning your plot and theme is the foundation of complex plots that work. But you can get your foundation right and still end up with a plot that feels overly complex.
The bottom line: if you’re confusing readers, you need to streamline things.
Reader confusion could arise from any number of issues within your story.
1. Poor Plotting
Plotting is about more than just identifying and streamlining your primary dramatic principle. You also have to make sure you’ve chosen structural beats that reveal that primary dramatic principle.
Your seven major structural moments (Inciting Event, First Plot Point, First Pinch Point, Midpoint [Second Plot Point], Second Pinch Point, Third Plot Point, Climax) create the backbone of your story. They reveal what your story is about. This means every single one of them needs to be about your primary plot.
If not, you’re sending mixed signals about which of the plotlines in your story is the main plotline. More than that, if you’re neglecting your main plot at any of the structural moments, it means it’s going to appear as an incomplete equation and will fail to be as strong as it should be (if it doesn’t fail altogether).
2. Poor Foreshadowing
You might also be creating the impression of an unnecessarily complicated plot by failing in either planting or paying off your foreshadowing.
Think of the two halves of your story as reflections of one another. To create a cohesive overall picture that makes sense and seems simple no matter how many working pieces it uses, those two halves must mirror one another. What is set up in the first half must be paid off in the second. What is paid off in the second half must be set up in the first.
Otherwise, your story ends up with loose ends jagging out all over the place, poking holes in your readers’ suspension of disbelief, and cluttering their minds with unanswered questions and cognitive dissonance.
3. Poor Writing
Finally, your story may end up seeming overly complex, not because of any inherent problems in the plotting, but simply because of how you’re presenting the plot.
Unclear writing obfuscates the clean lines of your plot, making it seem more complicated and cluttered than it really is. For example, all of the following may trip readers up:
- Poor use of POV (via both head-hopping and simply choosing the wrong narrative perspective for certain scenes).
- Poor dissemination of backstory information(especially character motivations).
- Poor conveyance of linear clues (whether you’re writing a mystery or not).
YOUR MOST IMPORTANT TAKEAWAY
Once you have a clear understanding of your plot and theme, make sure you’re telling it in the smartest and most straightforward way possible. Always measure your choices of structural beats and POV against your main dramatic and thematic principles. Then seek out objective beta readers who can help you learn where you’re not conveying your throughline clearly and powerfully.
3. You’re Making Things More Complicated Than They Need to Be
I find this one starts tripping most authors up roundabout their second or third novel. By that point, we start feeling we’ve really got a handle on this writing thing, ergo we must be ready to move on to something truly complex, intellectual, and James Joyce-ian. We don’t want to write a simple little story. We want something admirably complex and deep.
So… we start throwing in stuff for the sake of stuff (kind of like using big words just for the sake of big words). We go out of our way to create a complicated, twisty-turny plot, with tons of characters and extremely complicated (sometimes even contradictory) motivations and goals. Not to mention misdirection and red herrings galore.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with any of those things in themselves. They all work together to create deliciously deep and chewy stories. But only when they work. If they’re in the story for the explicit purpose of creating complications, then you must be extremely honest with yourself about whether they’re actually advancing the plot or just getting in its way.
Simplicity is always best. It is the sign of an authorial mind that knows itself, knows its story, and understands the single best route from Beginning to End. William Zinsser sums it up:
Only once you understand how to write simply can you begin to create complexity that doesn’t obscure, but rather clarifies.
YOUR MOST IMPORTANT TAKEAWAY
Don’t set out to write a complex story. Write the story that’s in front of you. If it needs to be War & Peace, it will show you that on the page. Always ask yourself the following questions:
- Can I simplify this?
- Will adding this subplot enhance or interrupt the story’s thematic principle?
- Will this be a vehicle readers can ride deeper into the story—or is it an obstacle barring their entry?
4. You’re Creating a Frenetic Feeling
Finally, you’ll want to evaluate the overall tone and narrative approach of your story. The way in which you organize your scenes and multiple narrators, as well as your pacing, will affect the overall feel of your story. Your goal should be to make even the most legitimately complex of stories feel as simple as possible.
It’s true multiple narrators and a fast pace are more likely to contribute to an overall frenetic feeling. This doesn’t mean you can’t use them just as adeptly in a complex story. However, it requires a masterful hand upon the wheel.
At every stage of the writing (outline, draft, revision), take a step back and look at the big picture of your story. Once you have an absolutely clear vision of your story’s foundational elements, you will be able to make informed decisions about even the smallest factor and its ability to enhance or detract from the overall affect you’re trying to create.
Avoid busyness for the sake of busyness. Even if all of your complexities make sense, you can leave readers’ heads spinning if you throw things at them rapid-fire. This doesn’t mean you need to drag everything out, but pay particular attention to the balance of your scene structure(scene/action and sequel/reaction) to create a supportive ebb and flow within your narrative pacing.
Just as importantly, make sure you’re properly developing your characters’ emotional reactions. For every cause within the action of the plot, there must be a sensible effect within your characters’ reactions. (And, of course, vice versa.)
YOUR MOST IMPORTANT TAKEAWAY
Be mindful of the overall sense you’re creating in your story’s big picture. It’s extremely easy for authors to get lost in a story’s minutiae, to the point they think they’re creating exactly the effect they want, when really a few wrong choices within the narrative may be combining to create a very different effect.
This is why it’s important to occasionally step back from the nitty-gritty of the actual words. Stop every quarter of the first draft to do a “50-page edit” and read over the entire story so far. After you’ve finished the first draft, give yourself a break of several months to gain some objective distance. And, of course, share your manuscript with trusted beta readers who can tell you if their experience of the story lines up with your intentions.
Ultimately, the problem of overly complex plots is really the problem of authors writing stories they either fail to fully understand and/or aren’t in control of. Learn to understand your story, to identify the primary thematic and dramatic principles, and then to bring them to life on the page with the right mix of techniques. Do that, and you will always find a perfect balance of complex simplicity.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What do you think is one of the negative effects readers experience when reading overly complex plots? Tell me in the comments!