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How to simplify a complicated plot

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by vmedichalo, May 23, 2021.

  1. vmedichalo

    vmedichalo Dreamer

    Hi all,
    I figure the bottom line to this question is that a plot should not be overly complicated. However, hear me out. So my plot has continued to build to such an interwoven plot between dozens of characters, various places within the world, deities and character story lines....and everything is connected. I recently took a year off to re-examine the mythos I built around it...and it is all needed. But when I read through the novel, I even get overwhelmed and confused because there is just so much going on. I am a novice compared to expert writers but I really think this story has potential.

    So I guess the question is: How do you simplify a complicated plot? Or how do you continue to write when the plot is so complicated. (*N.B. I do have notes that I can refer to).
  2. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    Well, without details it’s hard to judge. Is it really so complicated, or it just not being presented well? Mmmm, there’s no way for me to know. How many POV? How many subplots? How many plot points are you building into each plot point? So many nuances.

    If you have too many of these things then the result can begin to look like a meal made with a Bass-O-Matic... see Satruday Night Live, heh heh. Instead of a blender, what you need is a knife to cut off the fat, and in fact, cut off any unnecesarry meat even if it looks yummy. Find the core story and stick with it, and if you ended up with a lot of quality meat laying around, build that into book 2, 3, etc. Game of Thrones is not that complicated, ASoIaF on the other hand, gets pretty complicated. GoT grounds the audience and works them into the world without overwhelming them. Tolkien’s LoTR is a fine example of a lean story, despite its length. Aragorn’s love story? Nope! Tolkien stuck to the core.

    Personal example, Eve of Snows was more complicated than it already is when it started. I had upto 4 more POVs in mind, and it was going to span a longer period of time, etc etc., but at some point I cut it down to its core and plopped an epic story into about 27 days. Why? I wanted to come in under 120k words so I’d have a better shot with publishers... That failed, it turned out 143k-ish. BUT, it was tight. Damned tight. And that served the story better than the extra subplots I had originally planned, BUT all those other subplots emerged in book 2, when readers are already into the world. This gives them a chance to grasp the basics before delving deep.

    Three act structure is a good way to find the core, but it could be done in a multitude of ways.
    vmedichalo likes this.
  3. Rosemary Tea

    Rosemary Tea Maester

    Do you have enough plot for multiple books? Maybe you're really writing a series. Or a series of series.

    You could have one book that focuses on one set of characters and their piece of the plot, and then the sequel focuses on another set and weaves in their piece, and then the third book brings them together. Or more, if it's too complex for just three.
    vmedichalo likes this.
  4. vmedichalo

    vmedichalo Dreamer

    Thanks so much. So I can go into it a bit further. The POV is of one, omnipotent view of the world. The fantasy world is divided into 6 regions (including the 'heaven'). The story is told in overlapping non-linear structure where parts of the plot overlay each other. A quick cheat would be to just read the heaven sections and that is the true linear nature of the story. The deities are also characters, so understanding their motives and interferences with the characters of the fantasy world is just as important. For the most part with the subplots, I tie them up fairly quickly, though there are some more major subplots that are harder to keep track of because they occurred 20k words earlier but are *hint* to set something else up for later. The novel itself is broken into 6 parts.

    The current plan is that it is actually just a one novel type of thing. Since the story is really the "story of this world" and is meant to be the sacred text of the world...I figured it would be easiest to have it all contained together. Personally, I think it has gotten complicated because for each character there are ~2-5 associated characters that play minor roles but drive the plot forward. Many of these minor characters overlap with the *primary* or even *secondary* players. The story itself I think is fairly straight forward...but suffers from all of the inner-workings of ASoLaF. There is no direct dialogue rather it is inferred conversations are brought to the reader's attention. I hope this is a little more helpful and I am happy to explain further points!
  5. vmedichalo

    vmedichalo Dreamer

    Thanks for the comment. So, the intention of the book is to not be divided. It is my hope that it is one single work that has 6 parts to it. I have conceded that if a publisher ever came back to me and requested it be separated into two or more, I have the ability to do it. I spent 12 years developing the world with multiple languages, various deities, cultures, etc. So there is material to build from. However, the story itself is straight forward. I expanded this a bit more under the response for Demesnedenoir.
  6. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    In a sense, this sounds like a giant book of backstory for the world, being a religious text/story of the world. Doable, I suspect, but I can’t latch onto one thing that would make it “too complicated”. It could be a matter of combining characters or any number of devices, or it could just be execution by you. Difficult to surmise.

    EDIT: Also, with a great many writers who go EPIC! they end up with a lot of characters that are differentiated by little more than their names, and that becomes confusing. One of GRRM’s strengths is the ability to make every character pop, and because of that, the reader has an easier time keeping them and their plotllines straight.
  7. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    For me, one of my biggest weaknesses is I tend to over complicate things. It's always led to unsatisfactory results.

    One of the first things I look for when I run into issues is if the story is getting convoluted. If its meandering, I look for places to draw a clear straight line getting to the point and/or destination.

    Another thing I do to simply when I'm outlining, at least in my head, is I take the story for my main characters and try to boil each of their stories down the character's basic desires and why they want them. I then focus on sketching out each of their stories as simply and as straightforward as possible about how they go about getting what they want. I do this for every POV character.

    Once I have what each POV character wants and how they're basically going to get there, I start weave these stories together into the tapestry of the story. I look for points of connection/overlap and interaction, whether that's directly or indirectly through common characters, etc. And always, I keep asking myself if something is getting too complicated/convoluted to follow.

    The more I write, the more I come to realize complexity is built on the foundation of simplicity.

    One thing that helped me quite a lot was watching Dan Well's videos on his seven point plot structure and how he uses it to weave the various plots of a story together.

  8. cak85

    cak85 Minstrel

    First question I'd ask is what is your story about? Can you summarize it in 1 or 2 sentences?

    Besides GoT and ASoIaF the other (possibly lesser known) example I think of is Steve Erikson Malazan Book of the Fallen. The first book Gardens of the Moons was pretty complicated with a LOT of POV characters which was challenging to follow. What made it easier to follow for me as a reader was that he took a huge story and broke into a few different acts, that were further subdivided into smaller chapter. Each act focused on a group of characters and he then tied it together at the end.

    The plot of Gardens of the Moon was essentially a story about an independent kingdom/city-state trying to avoid being taken over by the large empire. All the characters and subplots worked towards that goal.

    SO I think it is possible if everything is working towards a common plot goal/theme.
  9. Chasejxyz

    Chasejxyz Inkling

    Here's a thought exercise you should try. Imagine you're submitting this story to an agent, they like your query and your sample pages, now they want your full manuscript AND a summary. The summary needs to be 1 page (500 words), and it needs to tell the whole story. This is not the back of the book blurb, it's the "plot" section of a Wikipedia page.

    I did this for my current manuscript when it was at ~190k words and got a 580-word summary. 6 characters are mentioned: the main character (pov1), the mentor (pov2), the love interest, the current monarch, the next monarch, and the bad guy. I have 4 pov characters and 18 characters that I've made tags for in Scrivener, plus tons of other characters that have minor roles. So this means either 2 of those povs aren't actually all that important to the real story, or the summary is missing something critical. But it has all the most important bits, it has a clear rise in conflict and resolution. The story is, ultimately, about the main character and her part in this much grander conflict, and anything else is nice to have but not required. Would it suck to cut out those 2 pov characters? Would there be things the reader is missing? Absolutely! But I can say "oh btw this happened off screen" and the reader won't be lost. We didn't need Han Solo to recount the Kessel Run in detail to convince Luke to hire him and his ship. The reader doesn't need their hand held every step of the way.

    If we want to get philosophical, everyone and everything is all connected, so any story that is about a conflict that is about a group of people (such as a war or natural disaster) involves countless characters who each have their own unique viewpoints that help illustrate the whole of what happened. But we only follow a few characters closely so we can develop a relationship with them, we can actually care about the stakes and what happens to them. Read Dune if you want to see a Very Big world and Very Big book that has multiple POV locations and settings, including entirely different planets! But the story, ultimately, is about Paul, so whenever we're away from him, what we're seeing directly has to do with him, either people talking/thinking about him or creating challenges that will affect him.

    You can also try the snowflake method. Your story is already written, but this is going to help you write that summary/figure out what is the most most important. "Kill your darlings" is a phrase for a reason.
  10. Mad Swede

    Mad Swede Inkling

    I didn't try to simplify the overall background plot. What I did do was break the story up into several books, each of which can be read on its own but which together build towards the final denouement.
    cak85 likes this.
  11. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    >First question I'd ask is what is your story about?
    To which I'd add: *who* is the story about? No list, just one character. Every story is about someone, even though there are many other characters on stage with them. Even though the story can't be told without them.

    It's possible that the story isn't overcomplicated but is in fact not actually a story. It's a world with a history where lots of things happen. The trick is to make that into a story.
  12. Chessie2

    Chessie2 Staff Article Team

    My 2 cents: plot shouldn't be complicated. It should be straight forward and clear enough to give you a path from start to finish. What should be complex are your characters.
    jacksimmons likes this.

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