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How Complicated is too complicated?

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nhyatt

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Fellow Fantasy writers:

I'm noodling over the plot of a new book and have been thinking about books that have been successful in reaching the hearts and minds of their audience. I also wondered why some books are a huge success while others die on the vine. Why are Philllip Pullman, Garth Nix and Jonathon Stroud so successful? What do you think? How complicated should a plot be? I find myself researching up the wazoo before writing anything down - then hope my book doesnt turn into a Phd dissertation!

Well, my thoughts at midnight (or 1am after the time change)....
#1 - March 09, 2009, 12:39 AM

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I know this may sound like a cop-out answer, but... A plot should be as complicated as it needs to be in order to tell the story you want to tell. I don't know that you can give a cut-and-dried answer for this, because it's one of those things that just depend. Now, if your story becomes really convoluted or difficult to comprehend, it's probably too complicated. Otherwise, I don't think you can make a blanket statement that will apply to all or even most stories. JMO.

#2 - March 09, 2009, 12:51 AM

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I agree with Carrie...it's a little like asking, "how high is up?"  So long as you're keeping part of an eye on the target audience for your story (YA or MG or whatever) don't worry about things like "is is too complicated?"  Just tell your story, because you can ALWAYS revise afterward.

Good luck!
#3 - March 09, 2009, 05:38 AM
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m_stiefvater

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Mmm, see, I do think there is a definite answer for this, but I think it's a macro versus micro discussion. How focused is your book? How . . . intimate?

Like . . . Lord of the Rings. It's this sweeping epic that spans a long period of time and tons and tons of characters -- the plot is bigger and all of the infrastructure is bigger to support that. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is the same way. A lot of high fantasies are, I think -- fat books, lots of characters, intricate plots. JELLICOE ROAD is an example of an intricate plot in contemporary YA, instead of high fantasy (and a really, really well done example).

Me, on the other hand . . . I think I write pretty intimate, zoomed-in novels. There may be intricate plots happened elsewhere, but my readers only get to see a little corner of it, only what affects my two or three main characters. I think it makes my novels pretty easy to summarize and also makes the characters easy to empathize with, but it's definitely character-based, not plot based. I'm thinking books like HOW I LIVE NOW (which has a major terrorist takeover happening, but we only see the bits that affect the main character) and MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD (with a tangled legal problem which is only seen in limited depth through the main character's eyes).

So I think you have to decide what kind of story it is you want to tell, and narrow or widen based upon that. I decided because of what I liked to read the best.
#4 - March 09, 2009, 06:24 AM

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Like . . . Lord of the Rings. It's this sweeping epic that spans a long period of time and tons and tons of characters -- the plot is bigger and all of the infrastructure is bigger to support that. . . . So I think you have to decide what kind of story it is you want to tell, and narrow or widen based upon that.

LOTR is a great example of two different things: it may be sweeping and epic and have a cast of thousands, but the heart of the story is very simple and straightforward: Frodo must destroy the ring. Or: Frodo must destroy the ring and Aragorn must accept the throne. I agree with Maggie about deciding what story it is you want to tell. As you're deciding that, maybe it would be helpful to narrow "what story you want to tell" to its most elemental form--the heart of the story--and then see how much scaffolding you need around it to support the building of that story.
#5 - March 09, 2009, 07:03 AM

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I think Maggie has a great point about finding the focus of your story and then deciding how to address the plot. 

I'd frame it a little differently, though it's basically the same idea: Make the plot as simple as you can for the story you want to tell. 

Especially when writing the first draft.  I find it much better (and easier) to build on complications through drafting than to subtract.  It's less overwhelming to get to an end and think, ok, how do I build on this, and where can I add/foreshadow or put in new scenes/characters, than it is to get to an end and have to unravel one or three or five threads that you don't know where they're going.  Hmm... Maybe this is more of a craft-based answer than a meta or story-telling answer.
#6 - March 09, 2009, 09:04 AM

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I agree with miss Marissa, it's like asking "how high is up." So as long as the plot does not overwhelm your characters--that meaning you focus too much on world building--I think you'll be fine. Dragons and mystical lands are great, but without characters to fight these beasts and wander these magical plains, then you really don't have a story, just imagery slapped onto pages.

As far as I see it, I don't think fantasy plots can be simple anymore, because it is such an overdone genre that a mundane plot will seem boring and easily predicted--that puts a reader to sleep. Instead, give us twists and turns that will make us gasp in fear, put your characters through pain so that we may cry for them and add mystery so sinister we will be forced to chain ourselves to the pages.
Those who succeed know that nothing in fantasy is original, so instead of trying to claim sovereignty over the genre or their plot, they simply tell the story in a manner that:

(1)The reader falls in love with your characters. This is a must if you want to succeed.

(2) Makes the reader question or draw comparisons to actual reality. 

(3) Forces the reader to exhibit an emotion. You can't be a good writer if the reader doesn't laugh and or cry. 

(4) Makes their style and voice evident.

(5) The 'WOW' factor. This is a magical quality and is determined by the writer's luck--not skill. This I think is affected by the publisher, agent, time, place and economy. The same rules you would apply if you were starting up a business. You must have timing and you must choose wisely the people who will help you on your journey. The same rules you would adhere to when you are building the management team of your company. Because your novel IS a business.

Those who understand this will not have their books end up on 'the vine' as you put it, but will instead build their business into a franchise and market it as such. But you must have a great story, enticing plot and relatable characters.

If I knew your category: MG or YA and your genre: Historical Fantasy, Crossover Fantasy, etc. Then I might have been able to offer you more concentrated advice. But good luck nonetheless, it's always great to meet another fantasy writer.


-Tyson
#7 - March 09, 2009, 03:16 PM
« Last Edit: March 26, 2009, 07:31 PM by Tyson D. Mc Donald »
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m_stiefvater

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As far as I see it, I don't think fantasy plots can be simple anymore, because it is such an overdone genre that a mundane plot will seem boring and easily predicted--that puts a reader to sleep.

See, I disagree with this. I don't think it's a twisty new plot that keeps readers reading -- I think it's the characters all the way. I mean, if you have the world's most cunning plot twist (The Sixth Sense!), sure -- but for me, what keeps me reading fantasy is real, new characters interacting with plot elements.
#8 - March 09, 2009, 05:22 PM

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(4) The reader falls in love with your characters. This is a must if you want to succeed.

I think I would rocket this up to #1. HP has a pretty complicated plot. JKR is a plotting genius! But it's the fact that people fell in love with Harry, Hermione, even Snape that kept the world enraptured. There's a sculpture at a park near where I live (it's really cool, actually--a LOTR-like castle you can climb up in) with a picture of Gandalf on it. It's not the twists and turns, it's the characters--in this case, Gandalf--who lives on.

A complicated plot is only fun when you care about the characters. When the plot twists are caused by/plunge/elevate your characters. When instead of merely saving the world (which is a nice backdrop), your MC must save something terribly precious to themselves, something they can hardly imagine winning, yet are terrified of losing. Agent Kristin Nelson quoted one of her clients once with something like, all conflict is personal. And it's true. Your plot can be complicated and amazing--as long as the reader never loses the heart of the characters. And if you have characters to fall in love with PLUS an amazingly complicated plot with twists and turns to make you gasp---sign me up, I'm there at the midnight party! :)
#9 - March 09, 2009, 05:48 PM

Chelsea

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Why are Philllip Pullman, Garth Nix and Jonathon Stroud so successful?

I haven't read Garth Nix yet, but as for the other two...  I think the giant, complex plotting makes the books "big," but I think it's the gripping emotional pull that makes them successful.  (I was listening to His Dark Materials on audiobook at work, on headphones, and had to go hide in the basement during the ending because I was afraid I was going to cry.)  Both series tie the emotional pull of the characters into the big, grand fantasy plot, and I think it's this more than just it being "complex fantasy" that makes them a success.  So I'd say don't make something complicated just for the sake of being complicated if that's not how you naturally want to write it.  But if you WANT to make something really complex, go for it!  Don't worry about it being too detailed or having too many twists--it'll seem a lot simpler once it's on the page and all the kinks are worked out.
#10 - March 26, 2009, 06:52 PM

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I think I would rocket this up to #1. HP has a pretty complicated plot. JKR is a plotting genius! But it's the fact that people fell in love with Harry, Hermione, even Snape that kept the world enraptured. There's a sculpture at a park near where I live (it's really cool, actually--a LOTR-like castle you can climb up in) with a picture of Gandalf on it. It's not the twists and turns, it's the characters--in this case, Gandalf--who lives on.

I would go so far as to say that many readers remember the characters better than the plot, anyway.
#11 - April 03, 2009, 08:13 AM

Just a thought. Think about a fantasy movie done WELL in under two hours, whether based on a book or not, particularly one that doesn't rely primarily on snazzy visual effects. Good fantasy movies tend to have no more characters that are really needed, and a good feature-length movie doesn't ramble off on tangents, but delivers scenes critical to the key story.

Also, while on the topic of movies, a good book targeted at screen writers but also good for novelists is STORY by Robert McKee. The book includes his perception on the strengths of each story medium: movie, novel, play. And he also describes what aspects go into creating a powerful story rather than just compiling a bunch of scenes.
#12 - April 03, 2009, 10:21 AM

Be prepared to do some serious revisions. I threw some complicated mindbenders into my novel and have been editing it for ages.

Try to focus on your most important big idea to guide your story (like in His Dark Materials, the Dust is really the big thing). Then keep in mind that all other related ideas, plot twists, etc. are going to have to take a back seat. A lot of them will probably get cut. It's all about letting your most important idea take the spotlight.

Also, get crit partners. Seriously dedicated crit partners.
#13 - April 03, 2009, 11:28 AM
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I like concrete, solid answers to reasons why the magical stuff is occuring. It can't be "For some reason, a stream of fire shot out of your fingertips." I'd prefer something like "The consuption of salty foods activated the dormant genes of the fire god that exist within you, and that's why the fire shot out of your fingertips!"
#14 - April 14, 2009, 05:15 PM

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I like concrete, solid answers to reasons why the magical stuff is occuring. It can't be "For some reason, a stream of fire shot out of your fingertips." I'd prefer something like "The consuption of salty foods activated the dormant genes of the fire god that exist within you, and that's why the fire shot out of your fingertips!"
Yep. I share the same peeve. I need to understand why that is taking place. The why is important to me and in my novel I explain the reasons why the things are the way they are in my world because for me, as a reader and a writer I just have to be in the know.

I disagree with you Whizbee. Entirely. It takes a really great writer to handle multiple plots in a single book and an even greater one to place them together without confusing the reader. However, as much as it is standard to focus on one plot, it is not required. I honestly, truly, greatly (I'm dishing out the 'ly' here) believe that it can be managed if you make them character driven. Even if not character driven make them about the character.

I also would like to comment on Miss Maggie Stiefvater's comment. I think you are selling yourself short if you believe that a twisty new plot does not keep people reading. Certainly it is the characters who keep us turning the pages but as much as these characters can tug at our hearts, you have to remember it is our minds we read with. Every book...rather, every bestselling book has lovable characters AND a twisty new plot that keeps us turning the pages. One cannot exist without the other:

(Take 1) (Character) A young boy falls in love with a girl who happens to be his greatest enemy.

(Take 2) (Character) (Untwisty Plot) A young boy falls in love with a girl who happens to be his greatest enemy and sparks a war that will put their love to the test.

(Take 3) (Character) (Twisty Plot) A young angel falls in love with a demonic girl who happens to be his greatest enemy. Though their love is forbidden, it is the child she carries that will spark a war that will put their love to the test. For within her womb sleeps the ender of worlds, a being who will rise to defy the lord our god.

I'll leave it to you to decide which is better. If you can manage to make a twisty plot that is drenched in emotion, to me, I believe that is what keeps people reading.  :smile
#15 - April 17, 2009, 08:41 PM
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Every book...rather, every bestselling book has lovable characters AND a twisty new plot that keeps us turning the pages. One cannot exist without the other.

I'll leave it to you to decide which is better. If you can manage to make a twisty plot that is drenched in emotion, to me, I believe that is what keeps people reading.  :smile

Former editor Thomas McCormack agrees with this quite a lot in his book The Fiction Editor (which I highly recommend, although it is extremely dense reading). Interesting characters who DO something make for a good book! I have been known to throw books that are either all plot or all character and devoid of the other half...
#16 - April 17, 2009, 09:25 PM

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Former editor Thomas McCormack agrees with this quite a lot in his book The Fiction Editor (which I highly recommend, although it is extremely dense reading). Interesting characters who DO something make for a good book! I have been known to throw books that are either all plot or all character and devoid of the other half...
Correct. If showing is better than telling, why not an active character instead of a passive one. However, I can't picture a book not having its characters DO something. Maybe it's that I haven't read as widely as you but perhaps you can give me some examples.

A writer is a storyteller, someone who can weave intricate plots and lovable characters that set our minds alight with fancy.

I've always wondered what editors meant when they say write the best book you can. And just recently I finally figured it out. We can only write as far as our minds will take us, after that it's just craft and a lot of luck. Set aside the intrusions of skill and circumstance and all we are left with is our imagination.

This is what makes every writer unique. How well we apply our imaginings onto paper is the true test of our skill and for those whose dreams are not as rich as those who are, they will find themselves lacking in some sort when paired with someone who can weave a magical tale like, well...magic.
#17 - April 18, 2009, 02:10 AM
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Well, I like to name the books I like and leave the ones I didn't anonymous because what I hated can be the very thing someone else loves. But I have read books that are all about pretty prose at the expense of an actual story, and books where the characters all sort of wander around and ALMOST do something, ALMOST cross paths (those are the ones I throw the hardest--they are also the ones that sometimes win awards). The ones with tons of chase scenes and action but that have cardboard characters with unbelievable situations/connections to other characters don't tend to get thrown, usually because I don't get past the first five pages.

Really, though, I think it's safe to say that the ideal is a book where the action/plot/complications are intrinsically linked to the complexity of the character; that every plot turn has meaning/stakes to the MC and occurs directly as a result of that character, and is not just an interesting device. I guess that's what can make a book "too complicated" for me--if the characters are not sufficiently developed to sustain the plot twists, if those twists don't arise naturally out of some need or overcuriosity or weakness of the character--then it's hard to feel the weight of the twist and to care, and therefore remember how it all fits together. Conversely, if a character does have all those things and then it doesn't spawn enough action, it feels like the plot is slight.
#18 - April 18, 2009, 06:07 AM

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Well, from what you've described I can honestly say I'm on the right track when it comes to my novel. Of course that's yet to be seen and the true test will arise when/if it ever gets published.

I still find it hard picturing books that have characters that just wander around. I mean, no matter what the goal shouldn't they be moving toward it, even if it is the first in a series? And more importantly shouldn't the author KNOW how to pace? Isn't that our jobs? I believe I need to read outside of fantasy or at least read other genres and authors, 'cause so far the books I've read have been amazing.

I see where you're coming from with the device thing. I think this is so because the author cannot or doesn't wish to address the emotional complications that will drive the character onward. Let me tell you it is very hard and it takes practice--hence experience--and one's own emotional baggage to pull it off.

Thanks for this olmue, it is always a pleasure hearing from you and you've given me a lot to think about. Even if I wasn't on the right track, this post alone is one to make someone stop and think. Even though, it is just your opinion.

-Tyson

 
#19 - April 18, 2009, 12:45 PM
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