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How complex does plot really need to be?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Yora, Apr 10, 2018.

  1. Yora

    Yora Maester

    After some years of struggling with a lot of inspiration and total blanks when it comes to plots, I have started to wonder if an intricate plot is actually really needed to make a compelling story. When I look at classic Sword & Sorcery stories and many of my favorite movies, they have plots that are barely there. Unless it's an investigation story like Blade Runner, there barely is any kind of planning involved beyond the current scene, and there's no back and forth between heroes and villain trying to defeat the other with smart moves. Instead the heroes just keep pushing ahead and deal with things as they run into them. Or they chase after the antagonist and do the same.

    That you can have fun stories with not much in the way of plot feels like great news for me. But unfortunately for me, I've never heard anything in the way of advice on how to make a story compelling without relying on dangling a mystery before the readers that the protagonists are trying to solve.

    What's the difference between a great simple story and a mere string of scenes?
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  2. Adela

    Adela Scribe

    Good final question. I'd like to know the answer too. I've found in my own writing that the string of scenes, as you call it, a plot has developed. I'm hoping to turn it into a trilogy.
    Mystery works A LOT. You might be surprised how much someone will keep reading because of only a small mystery in the plot of a small story.

    Would like to see what others have to say.
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  3. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    I'll give this one a go. One word answer: character.

    Longer answer: A string of scenes can feature anyone, but a great story will feature someone you're interested in.

    Even longer answer:
    As above, I think it's about the character. When you care for someone, what they're doing becomes a lot more interesting than if some random dude you don't know is doing the same thing.

    A great example of this is sports. I used to scoff and laugh at people who took an interest in sports - especially people who are fans of some football team and especially if it was some crappy team that never won anything. I sometimes watched the olympics or the world cup, or other things like that, where I felt it was important and really mattered.

    However, at some point I came to understand that it's not actually the act of sportsing in itself that most fans are interested in, but rather the teams and the players. They care for their favourites and for what happens to them, both when doing the sports, and outside of it. They get to know the people and they care for what happens to them, and they follow their stories.

    Take football, any kind of football. At it's core it's a bunch of dudes on a field trying to score points while another bunch of dudes are trying to score more points. It's not very complex, and it's not very interesting in and of itself. What makes it interesting is whether you care about who wins or not. Otherwise, it's just a bunch of dudes running around in a field chasing a ball.
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  4. Elaborating a bit more on what Svartnsse said above:

    Also making the characters and their motives, struggles, and journeys matter, yes, to the reader, but most importantly, to you, the author.
  5. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    Just what is a great simple story to you? I’ve little doubt definitions will vary. Is Star Wars Episoe 4 simple? Treasure Island? Conan?
  6. Yora

    Yora Maester

    It certainly sounds right. Interesting people in interesting places.

    Smells awfully like discovery writing, though. ;)
  7. Gurkhal

    Gurkhal Auror

    I think the complexity of the plot is linked to the message of the story, or what the author wants to tell us about.

    The most basic plot is; "Good triumphs over Evil" which is kind of simple and don't really need much of a plot to get this message across. If we throw in some more stuff like "exploration of identity", "what home is" and "the nature of love" then the story's plot will need to be very much more advanced and complicated in order to provide for characters and scenes and sub-plots relating to all these previously mentioned things.

    But to more directly answer the first post I think that what separates a story from a string of scenes is the red thread that connects the stories through one or more character, and I suppose that the later scenes are dependent on what happened in the earlier scenes.
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  8. Yora

    Yora Maester

    I guess that's the advice of connecting scenes not with "and then" but with "therefore". Certainly something to keep in mind for any story.
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  9. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    I don't know how I would go about measuring complexity. Number of characters? Number of scenes? Number of twists? I can think of examples and exceptions for just about every measure. Also, sprawl is not the same as complexity, and complexity is not the same thing as depth. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is about as simple a plot as you can get. Four people, one night.

    For myself, I try to start as simple as possible. The plot tends to sprawl, and much of my planning time is spent trying to keep the thing as lean as possible.
  10. Yora

    Yora Maester

    In this case I mean specifically complexity. The amount of information that is required to keep track of the events.
  11. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    How much information is needed? Just exactly enough, of course.

    I'm finding it difficult to answer this in the abstract. You may have noticed. How much is too much? How complex is overly-complex?

    That would vary by audience, surely. Middle grade, YA, all that, but that's too obvious. I'm sure you're talking about grown-up stories for grown-ups. Maybe try this. Every story has a spine, a core, a point. The thing you can summarize in the elevator pitch. Complexity comes from layers--additional characters, sub-plots, twists. If those layers support the spine, then they're in; if not, they're out.

    That's the hardline modernist approach, right? Especially in our field, some will argue that it's not only right and proper but even needful for there to be additional layers that add color to the world. We aren't just telling a story, we're telling a story set in a fantastical world and part of the purpose of a fantasy story is to create a sense of wonder. To borrow my own metaphor, it's not just about supporting the spine, we must also add flesh.

    It may be in that area that we can go astray, adding not only descriptions but also sub-plots and characters in the expectation that it adds wonders when all it does is add distractions and make the reader impatient. I honestly have no clue on this score. In my WIP I have a bullfight scene. It flows naturally; I didn't shoehorn it in. But I would not be surprised if my editor said take it out. It does not further the plot; it's just cool because in this one area of France they don't kill the bull or hurt it. Young men try to snatch ribbons from the bull's horns. That's it. The whole thing is very exciting, but it doesn't further the plot. But it does add color and it varies the pace of the narrative.

    I'm all the time saying let's not talk generalities let's talk specifics, but even when dealing with specific examples of writing it can be difficult to say what is the right choice.
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  12. Yora

    Yora Maester

    In case of that specific scene, I'd say try to make it reveal character. You see your character in action, or at the very least having thoughts about the action that is being oserved. If it helps giving the audience a clearer image of what the chracter is like, it's a useful addition to the story.

    What I am concerned with is the question of how to keep the audience engaged and eager to see what happens next if there are no or few long term questions that await to be answered. If the readers are not waiting to get a revelation about a complex mystery, what else is making a story compelling to keep reading it?
    Obviously character. But what does that look like in reality?
  13. Helen

    Helen Inkling

    A string of scenes won't have an underlying emotional journey.
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  14. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    What does that look like? I guess the first thing I'd say is go back and read scenes that affected you, that made you want to keep reading. Pay particular attention to how the scene (or chapter) ends, but also look at how it begins and progresses. Look, too, at what the author did earlier in the book to lay the groundwork for that moment.

    For myself, I aim for a few targets. One is vulnerability. Let the reader see your character in an unguarded moment, when they are less clever, less brave, less serious. Humor helps. Surprise nearly always works. Let your character be unexpectedly clever, unexpectedly brave, unexpectedly funny.

    Another hook is to have characters care about each other, not only in words but in deeds. We would not care so much about Frodo (who doesn't actually have much depth to him) without Pippin and Merry, and especially Sam.

    Something much harder to achieve is genuineness. This is more along the lines of something you botch more than something you master. Whatever your character has, they must manifest in ways that are consistent and believable. If you do this, the reader won't notice. It will simply be Character A being Character A. If Character A behaves ... well, out of character, the reader notices instantly. It rings as false as having a Chevy Camaro drive through your medieval village. IMO, people should spend as much time in character building as in world building.

    Character is not the only way to create good transitions, though. You've already mentioned mysteries. End on a puzzle. Better yet, end on a puzzle only half-solved. It's easier to say no to the whole candy bar than to say no when you're halfway through it. If you look at mystery novels, you'll see they do this all the time. They unwrap part of the mystery, then say what about this or that? End of chapter.

    Ending in media res works in other areas, too. You may not want to end smack in the middle of a fight (unless it's something epic like Borodino), but you can certainly end a scene with action looming or at the point of a reversal. Especially with fantasy, one can end with a big reveal, such as the arrival in Rivendell. Or think of the scene in Lothlorien, where we get vivid description of the forest, then we have arrows pointed in our noses. If the scene ended with the description, it would be easier to put down the book at that point.

    But, really, I'd start with books that have worked specifically for you. What tugged at your curiosity or your heart or your pulse. Put on your editor's glasses. Watch the author, not the story, and you'll create your own guidelines.
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  15. Yora

    Yora Maester

    Now that's some great sounding advice. Don't know yet if it's good, but it's exactly the kind of things I was hoping to find. Some good leads on what specific things to ponder further.
  16. SergeiMeranov

    SergeiMeranov Scribe

    To touch on the character bit, I agree with everyone else that said previously that character tends to set great stories apart despite similar story structure. To me, character is going to be one of those things that's hard to define. Good character, for me, means a character that I can either identify with or who I care enough about to see what happens to them and be invested in their future. This, again for me, usually starts with them being interesting in and of themselves. I'll use an example outside of literature because I've just been rewatching this show: Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation. If you told me you wanted to tell me the story of a mid-level local bureaucrat's quest to build a park on an abandoned lot that would get a hard pass from me. What makes it interesting is that character's personality and the humor and craziness that comes with it. The same is true of great works of literature too. What sets your characters apart from a blank slate abstraction of that character? What makes your grizzled general different than every other grizzled general? What makes your king different? Why is your spy more interesting? Getting the reader invested in that is a great way to get them to keep reading. I don't care if the average person conquers bureaucracy and builds a park or gets married, but I cared whether Leslie Knope did those things because I liked the character.

    There's a reason we're able to abstract many stories under general headings like "Hero's Journey" or whatever. Sometimes the story is made interesting by the subversion of expectations, i.e. telling the story from a non-traditional viewpoint like the villain or the wise old sage training the new hero, having the antagonist win, etc.. Sometimes it's interesting by the actual people having interesting personalities that are brought out via dialogue. Sometimes it's their motivations that make them unique such as an unusual reason for the Hero going out on the journey.

    I'd say as a larger matter that a story does not need to be "complex" to be interesting. I put complex in quotes because so often what I think people imagine when they imagine a complex story is a bunch of twisting and turning plotlines. That, in and of itself, doesn't make a story interesting. It just makes it complex. In fact, complexity itself is usually a bad thing. It doesn't matter how many plot lines you have if none of them are good plot lines. You see this all the time with Hollywood movies that will throw a romance subplot on top of a main plot that already isn't doing so well. The addition of the subplot doesn't do anything to rescue the rest of the film. This is all a long way of saying that my advice is to focus less on the abstract concept of simplicity vs. complexity and more on the nuts and bolts of the individual story and the characters. Make them good, make them believable, and the readers will keep reading.
  17. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    The question is ambiguous enough that I think there's a wide variety of ways in which to answer. What I thought of, however, was a story like a journey, say Fellowship of the Ring, where the characters move from one random obstacle to the next.

    First there's Tom Bambodil, then there's Rivendell, and the pass in the mountains, and Moria, and so on. It's all connected, sure, but in terms of plot it's not. The goal is to pass through each mostly independent obstacle, unharmed, and get to the next one. That isn't meant to be a criticism - they're not too disconnected - but it's still the nature of the story. The map in Fellowship could have looked a thousand different ways without changing much of the plot itself (that isn't as true in the later two books).

    That's different than a book like, say, Harry Potter, where Harry is in school developing complex, changing relationships with hundreds of different characters. His relationship with Snape, for example, changes constantly, and there's an unbroken throughline from the first book to the last.

    For me, personally, I find too many disconnected scenes to be a bit of a turn off. There's some room for it - Fellowship is fine if you consider all of LOTR - but I want to see things connect and change and grow. To me, the big settings in fantasy stories creates a problem where we want to explore, but exploring means the characters keep moving, and some parts of the story don't stick around long enough for me to care.

    I don't need complexity, exactly, but development. Of course, you can develop your characters through disconnected scenes - the characters learn to trust each other more, or faults start coming to a head - and for some readers, for some stories, that's enough sometimes. But at least for me, the more that there is developing, setting, side-characters, plot details, and so on, the better it usually is.
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  18. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    For me, a simple story is about simple goals and simple consequences. Star Wars, defeat the Empire by blowing up the Death Star. Go good guys. Medals all around. Lets just ignore all the thousands of innocent support personnel that are probably stationed on said Death Star or all the thousands of families that will be affected because their loved ones were killed, regardless of innocence or not. Forget this is like a 9/11 attack on the Empire. The Rebels are heroes... or are they?

    In a story, scenes lead into one another. The choices and actions of characters within those scenes have consequences and drive the story forward. Things don't just happen to characters. Character's make things happen. In Star Wars, when Luke and his uncle go shopping for droids, Luke chooses to take R2-D2, and the consequences of that are heavy. They lead to the death of his family, but that choice also leads to the revelation of the holo message from Princess Leia and to Ben Kenobi, etc.

    A simple series of scenes is just that. They may be related, but they're not connected by consequences and choices as deeply. I'd recommend you google up "Scene and Sequel" story structure. This is one of the tools I use.

    IMHO, unless it's something very literary, stories should always have long and short term questions/goals, or they're not really stories. They're just random scenes. Sometimes those questions are about some task that needs to be done. Sometimes those questions are about an internal struggle that a character faces. Can this character overcome their addiction, character flaw, or something else that they struggle with?

    Story in it's simplest form is about somebody with a problem and how they go about solving that problem or not.

    Here's a link to an example of a story in about a simple a form as possible. If you've googled up what "scene and sequel" is, take note of the basic form of it in the story.

    English Fairy Tales: The Old Woman and Her Pig
    Last edited: Apr 16, 2018
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  19. Yora

    Yora Maester

    Development sounds like a really good term to think about in terms of writing. I had not thought much about it before, but the way you mention it, it sounds quite significant.

    The first thing I think about when I hear "developing character" is the gradual process of revealing character. But characters being affected by events and changings through the course of a story seems like a rather big component in making a story compelling. In most stories you know for certain that the protagonist will survive all the obstacles and by the end complete the quest, so to speak. But even then you don't have any certainty at all how the character will change and what character we will have by the end of the story. Even when we know that a character will surely overcome an obstacle, that section of the story can still be made very gripping by leaving it open how it changes the characters developers.
    Prime example for this: Zuko from Avatar. Who is one of my favorite characters and in my opinion has the best character arc found anywhere in fiction. The way he is written you can never know how he will decide at the many points when it comes to chosing between what he feels he wants and what he feels he needs. Every time you see the capacity in him to do the right thing, but you also know his weakness that can just as likely make him do the wrong thing again. When he goes on the path of good, you can never be sure he will stay on it. In fact, you can be almost certain that he will fall again, but it probably won't be the end of that story. It's a hugely compelling story of character development.

    Luke and Owen shoping for droids is an interesting scene, even though we don't know anything about them. But knowing that we're in a movie, we know which ones they are going to buy, and we already know quite a lot about those two droids. Knowing that they will buy R2-D2 and C3PO makes it interesting to see what they are doing. And of course you get a nice moment of tension when they first don't want R2-D2 and already go back inside with only C3PO.
  20. Chessie2

    Chessie2 Staff Article Team

    One piece of advice that really helped me in the beginning was to keep plot simple. Less experienced writers think they need to create these complex stories but that's actually a signal of weak storytelling. Think about it: one story goal per main character is enough to power you through the entire book if you have clear idea of motivation. Add in setting, conflict with story goal and other characters, etc and there's no need to further complicate matters. :)
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