what does it mean / to move the PLOT?

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 59: Overly Complex Plots

Most Common Writing Mistakes (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.

1. Plot

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.

2. Theme

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

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165

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:

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:

William Zinsser

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!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Kiersten Lillis says:

    This is a great post! I’ve been struggling with this recently in my WIP. In my head, I’ve planned it as a quartet, and I’m working on the first book now. I keep thinking of ideas and find myself wanting to include them all in the current book. I need to remember to just plant the seeds now and flesh out the ideas over the rest of the books so I don’t overcomplicate things. My CP has been really good about calling me out on adding elements that don’t affect the overall plot. Thank goodness for other people!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The great part of this approach is that stories are usually all the stronger for including strong *plants* in early books, rather than fleshing everything out from go. When you give it time to evolve, it all feels much richer and fuller.

  2. Very thought-provoking post. The advice to unify complexity around a theme reminds me of Anna Karenina. For all its subplots and psychological complexity, everything in the book relates back to the central theme, which the author actually identifies (“Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord”). The complexity works because it has a pattern. Otherwise, it would be a soap opera, not a great novel, with the plots unified only by the characters’ literal connections within the story, not by any real meaning. Of course, Tolstoy does connect all the subplots even within the story, which is part of what works so beautifully.

  3. Usvaldo says:

    Did you spot my notes? I have been wondering just if my WIP might be too complex. I have a plot and 3 subplots all on the theme of: the wise ruler rules with the consent of the governed. One subplot foreshadows actions that take place in the main plot and one subplot. It features a cat as the main character in the subplot though. #What?

    The cat thing is because I saw the lovely, rumanitive documentary, Kedi, about the hundreds of thousands of. cats who roam the streets of Istanbul. So now I have a cat angle in my WIP…that’s a real sign of being out of control, isn’t it?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Weeellll, generally, I’d say yes. But who knows? It could be incredibly quirky and cool. 😀

      • Usvaldo says:

        Yeah. I have no illusions here, 😂😂😂

        I think the real problem could be tonal; it might diminish the events of the rest. But I’m trying anyway!

    • Give it time. Some symbolism may reveal itself.

  4. One of my goals when writing is to write best I can using the fewest words necessary. Of course, I fail miserably at it and have to go back and clean up a bunch of stuff, but at least it’s a goal. I imagine, in the same vein, it would be wise to write the best thing you can in the simplest form possible.

    I’m reminded of Orson Scott Card’s breakdown of three important reader questions: So what? Oh yeah? Huh?
    Overly complex stories fail that last one, leaving readers confused and creating a likelihood they’ll abandon the book. Not good!

    As you’ve mentioned, I think a great way to avoid this is to have a purpose for everything added to the story so it all fits nicely into the fabric of the piece, more like an impressive quilt and less like a bunch of random rugs sown together haphazardly.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Actually, all three of those questions are great for applying to overly complex plots. If readers are saying, “Huh?”, then they’re only a skin away from saying, “Oh, yeah?” and especially “So what?”

  5. Great article. I think reading too many classical works of literature has been a bit of a hindrance to me in this regard since it tempts me to try and replicate them when one really needs to be a master of storytelling to pull it off the way that a Dickens or a Dostoevsky does it. =P

    The last point is probably the hardest for me, though. Some days when I’m reading through my manuscript, the flow seems perfect and other days it seems really disjointed and mistimed, largely depending on what mood I’m in when I’m reading over it. Guess that’s why beta readers are so important, though!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Dickens was amazing at pulling all his plotlines together, but to be fair even he ended up with a ton of unlikely coincidences. :p

  6. Lara Hitchcock says:

    If I have a problem at all with my story being too complex, it’s related to theme. I get this feeling that if I can just figure out the right wording for my theme I’ll be able to see the loose strands clearly and correct the plot lines (or else twist them into one of these “sub-ideas”), but somewhere in the maze of my characters’ differing wounds, desires, etc, and the plot ideas I’ve already accumulated, I get a little lost. Abstractions are very hard for me. I’ve been through every article on theme you’ve written, but I think the topic so far may have been a bit too conceptualized for me. The examples were good, but I’m still fuzzy on how to apply the information to my current problem. I guess I’m wondering what these “sub-ideas” you mentioned might look like in relation to the core theme in some specific examples. Have you ever thought of showing the application, point by point, in one of your own stories? Perhaps theme is something I’m just going to have to keep beating my head against a wall to get at, but if you have any advice, I’m all ears 😀

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’ll see what I can do in a future post. 🙂

      For now, I think the most concrete way to look at theme is through the lens of plot. Theme is the moral idea that is proven by the plot.

      For example: A main theme about cowardice might be proven through a cowardly character learning to be brave.

      The sub-themes might have to do with various aspects of fear, courage, self-sacrifice, PTSD, etc, which would have to be borne out in subplots that “proved” all these themes.

      For example: A minor character might be fighting his own battle with PTSD as the result of some brave but terrifying act he did previously to save someone–which would tie into the main plot by being an exemplary catalyst for the protagonist.

      • Lara Hitchcock says:

        Thanks. I think I understand theme, more or less. The problem is entirely with my project—which I wrote before I knew anything about GMC, story structure, etc—and not with your articles and explanations :-). I think my head beating might’ve helped anyway though. I finally found a statement one of my characters believes that could possibly serve as the basic moral idea. It ties together some of the messages I wanted to hold onto in the final draft. So now I just need to figure out how this ties to all my other characters and the plot points. (No pressure.)

        The character’s belief is: If you don’t have God, you don’t have anything, and if you have God, what more do you need? The basic idea is that everything good comes from God. This character has been radically changed by God into a much better person than the one he used to be, so that in itself is sort of a proof. Some sub-ideas: How to understand loss and pain in the context of this belief. (No matter what happens, God has to be enough.) If God is good, why is there bad/pain/etc in the world. Problems with pursuing the gifts rather than the Giver. How to think about one’s own talents, etc. I still have a lot of work to do, but I hope I’m on the right track. (Single word themes confuse me a bit, because I feel I could allow myself to be so vague with them as to be all inclusive, if that makes sense. In other words, I could think I have a focused theme when I really don’t.)

        I’m still not 100% sure how to turn the plot into a metaphor for my theme, or maybe I’m just being super picky since I can see how neatly this has been done by others… I never picked up on the theme of Shawshank Redemption until I read your post, but I always knew the movie stood out. Now I know why. I also think you did a good job with this in Dreamlander, though I still think it could be informative to see some of the details and your thought processes spelled out. The story definitely left a lasting impression, so I think you succeeded with the theme :-).

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I think you’re definitely on the right track!

          Although it can be helpful to sum up theme in a single word (since it helps you distill it down to its essence), your own story’s theme will always be more specific than that. For example, your one-word theme might be Faith, but you’ve fleshed it out nicely into something more specific to your particular plot.

  7. Ms. Albina says:

    Great Article, I have two plots-Leilani gives her daughter Undina to Hope so Undina does not become evil and Lotus helps with the fire at hope village. I have read books if they have to many plots then I do read them that goes with watching tv also.

    Do you always use a thesaurus when you write?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Not always, but I’ll refer to one when necessary.

      • Ms. Albina says:

        Thank you. I like using a theaurus. When you write do you use more active or passive voice and long or short sentences?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Err on the side of the side of active, and use a good mix of sentence lengths.

  8. Saja bo storm says:

    “There is no greatness where there is not simplicity”- Leo Tolstoy. I read this quote over the weekend and now your post rings it true! Thank you for this eye opening post.

  9. You mean like in “One Hundred Years of Solitude”?

  10. “Write the story that’s in front of you”–so ridiculously simple when you put it that way!

    This is the precise problem with my WIP; totally pantsed a sequel last NaNo, got my 50k but continued writing so as to finish what was started. I studiously crafted together the scenes from the various loci of action for the most artful juxtapositions till it finally hit me: it doesn’t MATTER how I put these scenes together because there really are two different stories going on. God help me, I nearly threw in a third.

    Trouble is, if I wrote LONG enough I could link the stories together in theme and urgency, and not artificially: half a century of wisdom and experience affords me that. But why drag the reader through all that? Hah!

    So the darlings are going to go and all my MCs and secondaries are just going to have to be rounded up and pointed in the same direction. You’re absolutely right: accomplishing that in the first story made me a little bit cocky and over-excited and I thought they would just naturally work together the second time around. Darned if they didn’t all go and discover their own agendas.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah. Prime example of why every story is its own adventure in learning how to make things work. But, then, that’s half the fun too! 🙂

  11. KM, this is helpful. Simply distilling it down to plot and theme help clean a lot of extraneous stuff out. I am working on children’s books and this is especially important. Thanks for that reminder.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The form of a story really is simple when we distill it down. If it’s *not*, then we know we probably did something wrong. :p

  12. Paul Worthington says:

    I just listened to the audio of this post on my morning walk. It caused a major section of my overly complicated plot’s backstory to simplify and fall into place.
    Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yay! That’s great to hear. Walking is good for clearing out the complexities in itself. 🙂

  13. Chip Eagle says:

    Good and useful article and comments. Thanks KM and the comment crew.

    I found the suggestion to write the first draft and then let it sit for a few months to be difficult. I did wait a bit but I kept thinking and trying to start my next project only to find the first to be a constant distraction, at least in my head. I’m not sure that I can serve two masters at once. I know some can have several WIPs going at once, but such is not for me.

    The idea of using beta writers during the waiting period is good and I did so, though I may have picked some of the wrong people: Too close to me as a human to be objective to me the writer. Hmm… As could probably be predicted, the best feedback came from my regular writers group who gave me a thorough beating throughout the first-draft process. I have found that a writers group that reads and comments during the writing process is my most valuable tool.
    Hey KM there’s a couple of ideas for articles: how to find good beta readers and finding and using a writers group.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      When in doubt, listen to your gut. Margaret Atwood says, “You don’t know always know when you’re ready to write a story, but you always know when you’re *not* ready.”

      As for beta readers, check out this post: 15 Places to Find Your Next Beta Reader.

      • Chip Eagle says:

        Thanks, that was good advice. I haven’t ever used an online writers group as mine is local and meets about biweekly. Sometimes there are just Writeathons where we sit in a library and stare at our screens with breaks to talk about where we are.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I’ve never been part of an in-person group either, but the opportunities are everywhere online.

  14. I really like this. The “You’re telling more than one story” part at first didn’t make sense. Every character has his/her own story, right? But after thinking about it for a second, no, they don’t. You really do need to tell only ONE story. Every other subplot is simply part of that one, larger, story.

    I hadn’t really thought about it like that before, so thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Exactly! Although you can argue it several different ways, I prefer the argument that what a story *really* is is Theme. Theme is the unifying force–the scarlet thread that binds it all together.

  15. Hey K.M.! This is such a wonderful article! So much information to digest, but every different aspect you mentioned is important to crafting a solid plot with the right balance of twists. I am writing my third novel right now, and because my MC uses loyalty as a weapon, it’s definitely a juggling act for me to make sure her goal and personality are both constant. That line between twist and contradiction is a fine one! These tips were very helpful, though! Thank you!

  16. Hi, I’m writing a YA dystopian novel. How should I structure it so that it isn’t too complex but captivating for the readers?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Concentrate on one main conflict that centers around your protagonist’s character arc. More on character arcs here.

  17. Tom Youngjohn says:

    Zinsser was addressing how professionals should write to their clients. Just sayin’

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