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Complex, or Over-Complicated?

Signs [1]

Have you ever worried that your story may be too simple?

Have you found yourself adding plot twists, shocking turnarounds, colorful secondary characters, and a number of tragedies, in the hopes of maintaining your reader’s attention?

I edit a lot of stories with “fear of simplicity” syndrome. In an effort to spice up their stories, authors wind up throwing in everything they can think of to amp up the story’s volume — often to the detriment of the story itself.

If you’re not sure if your story is complex, or simply over-complicated, here are five usual suspects to test for.

1. Does your story goal remain consistent?

At the first plot point, your character will embark on his story goal. That’s usually what the back cover blurb or book description in a story is about. It can often be put in the form of a question.

Will the hero save the heroine (or vice versa)? 

Will the main character stop the alien invasion?

Will the lovers finally get it together?

If the story goal changes halfway through the book — say, it seemed like “will the lovers finally get together” suddenly turns into “will they stop the alien invasion, while also saving each other from certain death by an unrelated villain?” somewhere in the middle — then you are needlessly complicating.

And adding extra goals doesn’t make the story complex, it only makes it more complicated, unless they’re simply sub-goals for a larger yet still clearly defined larger goal.

If you know what your protagonist wants — and why he wants it — from the beginning, then you can add your twists and spice, always keeping that goal in mind.

2. Are your plot twists organic?

A lot of over-complication comes from the idea: “when in doubt, throw in a surprise.”

For example:

The bad guy turns out to be the hero’s best friend.

Who also turns out to be his brother, separated at birth.

Who used to be his sister, up to about seven years ago.

Who is actually not even the real bad guy, but a pawn.

Of the protagonist. (Somehow.)

You get the picture. After a certain point, you’re tossing in twists simply for the sake of shock value. Once a reader becomes inured to the shock, he starts looking for the twist rather than being immersed in the story.

[pullquote]Once a reader become inured to the shock, he starts looking for the twist rather than being immersed in the story.[/pullquote]

Beyond two or three, the plausibility factor is strained to the point of incredulity. Rather than a twisty thriller, your story can become a parody.

(A prime example of this: the films of M. Night Shyamalan. After his triumph with The Sixth Sense, he constructed entire plot lines around twists… to the dissatisfaction of his viewers, and ultimately the damage of his career.)

I’m all for using a well-developed plot twist. I think that if you can create a sense of suspense and surprise, especially for jaded genre readers, you’ll create something stunning. But save it for one or two really beautiful, unexpected jolts, to maintain impact.

3. Is your conflict focused?

If you’ve got a focused story goal, then your protagonist has an external goal (i.e., a kid is trying to win a school election) and an internal goal (said kid is trying to feel a sense of belonging/popularity.) The antagonistic force would be things like his opponents for student body president, his inherent feeling of isolation as a new kid, maybe a nemesis teacher, all contributing to the obstacles between him and his goal.

Over-complication happens when things are then added to “create conflict” that instead distract from the story goal.  While I often press authors to increase the conflict in their stories, I must point out that  “add  conflict” doesn’t mean “add different kinds of conflict all at once.”

For example, if you have a boxer fighting for a prize against a competitor who has been mocking him throughout the novel, you don’t then introduce the fact that his parents are getting divorced, he’s actually adopted, the local neighborhood association is planning on blacklisting his wife, and he may be on a watch list for the FBI for a nearby crime. (At least, you don’t unless they’re all somehow related to his goal — and if so, good luck with that!)

[pullquote]Instead of piling on lots of little conflict from all sides,  instead focus on escalating your conflict and raising the stakes.[/pullquote]

Instead of piling on lots of little conflict from all sides,  instead focus on escalating your conflict and raising the stakes. It’s better to have your protagonist battle one antagonist with surprising cunning as well as unexpected strength, with an even larger consequence for failure, than have that same protagonist get hit with several random and unrelated “bad things” in sequential order.

4. Are your characters too quirky?

In an effort to make a character memorable, some authors throw in a bunch of quirks. A sleuth with OCD and Tourette’s syndrome! A left handed albino pipe welder who fights monsters! A crime fighting waiter who dabbles in French poetry and paints masterpieces with his feet even though he’s colorblind!

Again, similar to the twists-upon-twists syndrome, too much of a good thing is not a good thing, pushing your novel from “unusual” to “farce” in no time flat. Even in humor, too many quirks can draw attention to themselves, slowly devaluing the comedic impact, just as too many twists defuse the thrill and suspense.

To make quirks effective, use them sparingly, and make sure they serve a purpose.

5. Do you have too many characters?

Unless you’re writing an epic high fantasy or very detailed historical fiction, odds are good you really don’t need a cast of thousands to carry off your story.

Don’t introduce five secondary characters when one will do.

Don’t add a character simply to spout off a relevant piece of information in a new and charming way.

And please, don’t add characters just to showcase more quirks! These are the most dangerous secondaries, because once they’re on stage, they are reluctant to leave, upstaging your protagonist and consequently disengaging your reader from your primary character with every line of dialogue. This is definitely a case of “kill your darlings” — or at least, keep them reined in.

Choose with care.

I’m not saying that all stories need to be pared down to a Zen-like minimalism.

I am saying that you want everything in your story to be a deliberate choice, and preferably one that serves to heighten and amplify a cohesive and focused story goal, with a consistent and escalating related conflict.  Don’t try to “fix” or enliven a shaky story with gimmicks and twists.

If the meal itself isn’t solid, all the spice in the world isn’t going to make it better. Focus on your fundamentals, and the reader will thank you for it.

Do you ever worry about the complexity and excitement of your stories? What is your experience in solving the problem?

About Cathy Yardley [2]

Cathy Yardley is the author of eighteen novels, published with houses such as St. Martin's and Avon, as well as her self-published Rock Your Writing series. She's also a developmental editor and writing coach, helping authors complete, revise, and get their stories published. Sign up here [3] for her newsletter to receive the free course Jumpstart Your Writing Career. [3]