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How complex does plot really need to be?

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

  1. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    It needs to be 57 complex.
     
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  2. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    54 complex. Oh, you 57ers!
     
  3. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    *looking down my nose* 54 complex is good enough for some, I suppose.
     
  4. Firefly

    Firefly Troubadour

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    One thing you mention is a need for having some greater mystery or puzzle that needs to be figured out.

    I personally love books with some sort of mystery plot, but I wouldn’t ever say that you need one. The reason mysteries work so well is because they create tension, but mysteries are far from the only mechanisms that can do that. Having strong character goals and stakes, for one. Anything that the audience has to wait for can cause tension if the writing is good enough.

    I also agree with what others have said about character growth and arcs. Susan Dennard wrote a really interesting post on “Story Dominoes”, about how she connects the events in her story through her character’s emotions rather than the plot, which I’d recommend reading.

    For me, the difference between a random scene and one that “matters to the plot” is whether or not it changes something. If l’m writing a story, and two characters are going from point A to point B, and in between they fight a monster, I could make that “plot-relevant” in a lot of different ways, whether that’s weaving it into the character arc by having one character realize how dangerous their Epic Fantasy Quest is really going to be, or if it’s by introducing mysterious questions about the world’s magic system. The way I see it, it’s not the complicated plot that’s important, but the sense of forward movement, change, and tension.
     
  5. Yora

    Yora Sage

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    I meant to include goals and stakes under the broader category of puzzles. The characters have a desired state to reach, but are faced with the challenge of how to get there. They need to gain more knowledge of the situation and come up with plans for action how to attain the goal and maintain the stakes.

    Emotions as connecting and driving element over plot is always very interesting to me. I'll try to find it.
     
  6. Firefly

    Firefly Troubadour

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    Hmm... I have a harder time imagining an enjoyable story that has absolutely no form of goals or stakes in it. To me, goals/stakes are more of a character thing, really. If a character doesn't have anything to lose or gain, why would they ever do anything? By definition, there has to be some sort of character goal (Even if it's just to survive) in order for there to be conflict.
    I suppose you could write a character just sitting and watching stuff happen, but unless that "stuff" also involved characters with goals, I feel like that would veer into fantastical documentary land pretty quickly.
    Or you could have characters just do stuff for no reason, (which, come to think of it, I have actually seen people do, though probably not on purpose)
    but that always seems to take away from character's credibility and make them less fun to be around. Your goal doesn't always have to be super defined, or super logical, even, but I feel like all characters have to have a reason for doing things in order to be at all convincing.
     
  7. Black Dragon

    Black Dragon Staff Administrator

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  8. evolution_rex

    evolution_rex Inkling

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    Anyone ever see the movie Primer? Some very, very hard to grasp time travel elements in that movie. And that was sort of the movie’s point, it’s gimmick even. It sold the movie to people and allowed the director, a nobody in the business, to go on and direct two other movies.

    I really, really enjoy intential confusion, complexity, and ambiguity. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea but you do have an audience for it. But the key word is intentional. You have to know exactly how your twists, turns, hints, and relevations are going to come off to the reader. You need to decide how difficult you want it to be for them to figure things out and then you have to actually see if you can make it that clear/unclear. The line between irritating confusion and fun confusion is thin and you’ll find it isn’t going to be felt the same way by everyone because you will never know how much effort a reader wants make.

    And thats kind of what makes complexity challenging in the first place, your asking readers something. Most readers want to get lost in a world not a maze. For many, your story had to be worth the complexity and mind-bending, which is quite possibly the most important thing.
     
    Last edited: May 4, 2018
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  9. Alexius

    Alexius Acolyte

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    I think if you look at the contrast between those two scenarios, it's almost like movie versus a book. In a movie the adrenalin can be kept going with plenty of action and a minimum plot. In a novel a certain amount of complexity can be included to deliberately "mislead" the reader so they get that OMG moment further on. Also, the reader can know key information the MC doesn't. A more complex plot is good in a novel, but not for its own sake, only if it's well conceived.

    Fantasy also has another angle though. The earliest novels, ie Beowulf etc. had straightforward mythical heroes battling baddies. Tends to come across a bit simplistic nowadays unless it's part of a back story in my opinion.
     
  10. Yora

    Yora Sage

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    Today I came across the idea that "plot is what is happening, story is how it affects the characters". Certainly something to ponder.

    I also remembered one good example of interesting stories that have basically no plot. A lot of Lovecraft's stories are made up that way.
    I've been thinking again that I am not really that much interested by plot and all my list of "what I would want to read" consists of characters, creatures, places, and phenomenons. Things that are generally considered to be supporting elements to rest a plot on, but not "story" in themselves. But most of Lovecraft's work are pretty much that, minus the characters. The stories of course need an observer, but he's generally a completely blank slate with no distinguishing features or personality. Another comparable writer would be Clark Ashton Smith, who worked around the same time. His writing is even more messy and unstructured but just as much, if not even more interesting and fascinating.
    While I wouldn't recommend to anyone under any circumstances to write stories like Lovecraft or Smith, I think they are interesting examples of how we can open up our definition of what is a story. These works are certainly not poetry (though that's where Smith's main body of writing lies) but something that we would today recognize as plot can sometimes be difficult to find.

    I think it would probably unsellable to publishers, but that's no reason not to practice writing it. And even if there's not much of an audience for it, it could still end up being valuable writing practice. And that never hurts for maybe later trying out something that is more recognizable as a novel.
     
  11. Orior

    Orior Acolyte

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    I think that you should write a plot that leaves the reader thinking about it after they put the book down.
    Leave random hints, and then take them up later, so that they think "I knew it, I should have seen it coming!"
    A good plot that's not too complicated can really get any reader's interest.
    But who are you writing for? Who is your target reader? If you are writing YA fantasy, don't make the plot too complicated. If you're writing for readrs that know fantasy books very well, and that have seen many worlds invented or created, well, create a plot that they've never seen before.

    Orior
     
  12. Yora

    Yora Sage

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    My own instinct is to actually do the oppposite. Creating a plot that is completely fresh, unexpected, and clever is really damn hard. How would you even begin to plan such a thing? And keeping it from becoming overly complex would be even harder.
    I think when you want to show something that is different and lets people see things they have not seen before, it's more practical to take a simple plot that is easy to follow and combine it with original and highly imaginative places and people. If you have a world that follows different rules than what you usually have and includes things that have not been used (much) before, that simple plot will end up playing out in a different way.

    Could of course always be personal preference, but I think it's very hard to really impress people with the ways that characters tricked each other and got out of tight spots with really clever solutions. Showing them places and things they have never seen before should be much more memorable.
     
  13. Hallen

    Hallen Scribe

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    There's lots of interesting thoughts in the thread. I wouldn't really disagree with any of it. I do have my own thought on the subject of complexity.

    Plot is the mechanical structure you hang your story on. Just like the frame of a house -- there are a million ways to decorate making it a home but the frame is all the same.
    Plot can be as complicated as you need it to be to tell the story you want.

    The key point of any story is conflict. You will not have a compelling story without it. I mean "conflict" in the technical, writing way, not in the war or argument way. Conflict can be internal or external. It can be the character coming to grips with something new. It can be a bad guy trying to thwart their progress. It can be a cave for somebody who is claustrophobic or a desire for a cupcake that is only sold at a store across town. Conflict is anything that motivates a character. It can be big or small. It can last a scene, or it can last for a full series.

    I think the best books have conflicts with the highest stakes. The plot can be fairly thin and unimaginative, but if the conflict is good, meaning the characters have to be sympathetic, then the story is usually good. An example is Hunger Games. The plot and the world are fairly simple. But the conflicts are epic. And, I don't just mean the fight or be killed aspect. It's all the internal conflict about dealing with this death game, the idea of being killed by one of these other kids, the idea of something greater than oneself, the raw horror of being forced into something like this, and so on. Those conflicts make for a hugely compelling story even if the writing is a bit weak.

    Of course, the world, magic systems, races, and characters can be immensely complex too. But that is not a guarantee of a good story. I think that there is a certain level of competence and experience one must achieve before being able to effectively write something that is truly complex. One gets there in stages. Malazan, The Book of the Fallen is probably the most complex thing I have ever read. It's part of the strength of the series. But, it's the characters and the conflicts that make it epic.
     
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  14. Firefly

    Firefly Troubadour

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    ^^^ I agree with everything said here. Totally beat me to the punch. I've been giving a lot of thought to this and I think this is exactly the answer I've been looking for.

    I think the word 'plot ' might have been confusing our discussion this whole time. Framing it as 'story ' helps really get to the root of it. Story is really nothing more than character+goal+conflict (And stakes, according to some people). No need to complicate it any more than that.

    I do think you need those basic elements though, particularly for a novel. A shorter story might be able to hold itself up without that, but I think it's pretty much necessary for anything longer than a few thousand words. The vessel of plot, even if it is a very simple plot, is what makes the killer worlds and characters compelling.
     
  15. Yora

    Yora Sage

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    I just had a new insight:

    Generally, the plot of a fantasy story revolves around a hero stopping a great threat or ending a great evil. And almost universally, the story ends with the hero performing this heroic deed. And at first thought, one might assume that it is this great heroic feat that is the main central thing that makes that character great.

    But actually, this really isn't the case at all. We don't start liking a great character at the end of the story after the deed is done. And all the supporting characters aren't going to do an equivalent deed. And in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy actually fails to stop the great threat and the problem kinda happens to fix itself. He's still a great hero. And he was the whole time. He was interesting and entertaining for the entire adventure, which does not get lessened to any degree by him failing to fulfill his big quest.

    This further supports my feeling that the overarching main plot doesn't really matter that much. What the main plot does is to be the incentive that gets the characters going at the start and keeps them going even though they run into hardship. And it really is about the journey, not the destination. 99% of the time there is no doubt that the heroes will accomplish their quest and defeat the evil at the end. We don't follow their story to see whether they will succeed. Often it's really easy to even predict how they will succeed. We follow them because we like seeing them in action against the various obstacles along the way.
     
  16. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    This is a great insight, and very well worded too. :D
     
  17. Yora

    Yora Sage

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    I had just about finished my first more or less complete outline for a plot with the key scenes and various plot points a few weeks back, when I looked at the whole thing and realized that it was indeed a working plot, and a quite decent one. But it really wasn't at all what I wanted to do.

    I guess I could write that story for practice purposes, but it doesn't at all make use or even provide space for the big creative ideas that are motivating me to write in the first place. Even though I think the plot is quite clever as a whole, the roles for the various characters to play are all very generic stuff, fitting for a generic fantasy setting. My motivation is ideas for a slightly unconventional setting with which characters interact in new ways. Characters who think and act differently from Medieval European Fantasy characters and have to deal with situations that are different from Medieval European Fantasy situations. In a way, my fresh ideas are all only about the journey, but I don't actually have any ideas about destinations. I think stopping to worry about the destination and looking only for an excuse to keep the characters moving forward might be helping me with my outlines.
     
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  18. Hallen

    Hallen Scribe

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    Yep.
    Bear in mind that a novel is a melding of both character and plot.

    Literary novels have a tendency to be heavily character driven. The changes in the character drive the plot and the resolution of your novel. This is also true of romance. Speculative fiction, Fantasy, is generally (just generally, not always) driven by plot.

    That does not mean that the characters should remain static. Far from it. What a plot driven story would typically mean is that the events around the character drive the changes in the character. Again, not 100%. Some of it should be the character growing on their own as well.

    If you have a novel where the character grow, but nothing happens, or, the plot goes somewhere but the characters are cookie cutouts who never changed, then you probably don't have much of a novel.
     
  19. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Sage

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    I don't think complex plots are always more compelling. But I think it's the character that really carries us through the story not a complex and compelling plot. I may be one of few but the plot can be as grand as you like, but if the character is flat and dull, cliche or stereotypical I'll put the book down.
     
    Last edited: Jul 15, 2018
  20. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    The way I see it, a story needs to be good plus something. A plot doesn't need to be complex to be good, but done right a complex plot can be your story's plus something.
     
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