There’s probably some irony in trying to make the subject of complexity itself a simple discussion.
“It’s too easy to cross the line from complex to complicated. And complicated is bad.”
-Chuck of SFDebris
If I was to describe the current state of storytelling, it would be as the “first draft era.” Frequently I find myself describing movies (and some other stories) as “a solid first draft effort.” Why?
To me there is one clear sign of the first draft of a story vs a later, polished draft. The first draft is pretty complicated, while the later drafts are complex. What does this mean?
Well first, let me remind you that above all, you have to write the draft. So if you haven’t already, go back and read my previous post and remember that you have to create first. What I’m about to go over is like step 2 (or 12) of the process – you have to get to step 1 before this part. And that covers whether you have written a full draft of the story, or you’re just creating the outline. Whatever your process, you must create. And if you worry too much about whether the story you’re making is complicated or complex, you’ll never make it very far. MAKE FIRST. Then we proceed.
Now, I again want to quote Chuck of SFDebris from his excellent Empire Strikes Back review:
“If you pile up enough simple things, you get something complex. But complexity comes from fewer things that are in and of themselves possessing of numerous facets.”
To over explain the point, complications are a very easy thing to put into a story – whenever you need something to happen, introduce something or someone new. You just want to get the story done, you just need the characters to be places and do things, toss in something to make that happen. It’s natural to the process.
But now the draft is finished. And unless you want to make a comedy (where “complicated” is often used quite well to set up jokes) it’s time to reduce the complications in the story, while increasing the complexity. While there are a lot of ways to go about this, one easy first step to accomplish this is to look for overlaps in the story. If some characters or scenes or plot points seem to be doing the same things, work on combining them together.
Now I’ve edited enough things to know how this often goes: “they can’t go together because they’re totally different, and if I remove [thing] then I will lose [something].”
Well… that’s the point. Think about your story in a new way. Make yourself stretch past the first draft. Because you’ll find that as you combine things, the complications in your story will decrease, while the complexity of the story will increase.
And it will be much better for it.
Let me give an example from my own efforts in broad strokes.
I was working on a kind of fan fiction once upon a time. Something in the Supernatural world involving a “crew” of hunters. (think of it as my own dream spin off) I had a rough plan laid out of a “season” of 10-12 short stories/novellas with a few “arc episodes” in it and a few “Monster of the Week (MotW) episodes” in between, even a 2-part “mid-season” finale planned out.
I finished a draft of episode 5. It was a MotW where the protagonists started robbing a casino, only for it to turn into a ghost hunt partway through. It was… fine. Even one of my friends kind of liked it when they edited it. The problem was… it didn’t grab me. I didn’t want to go back to it and polish it, and if I – the writer – wasn’t thrilled by the story, could I expect it of the readers? Yes it was about a “day in the life of” the main characters as well as giving each them a chance to shine, but that was it. It was all really about a 10 page short story stuffed into a 50 pager.
So I followed the suggestion above and looked for overlaps. It occurred to me that while the main characters were focused on the ghost, there was a villain off screen looming over the story – the mob that ran the casino. The plot hook operated by the protagonists robbing the place by rigging a jackpot prize in their favor – which happened to include a night’s stay in the fanciest suite. They want to leave, but one of the heard rumors from an “extra” in a scene that the room is cursed and is determined to stay.
Hm, could I combine the two? What if the mob owner of the casino asked the heroes to take care of the ghost problem? That worked a bit better, but it bent against the ascetic of the world I was trying to build.
Then I looked back at earlier episodes and for more points of overlap. Oh look, back in episode 2 the main characters’ paths had crossed with a mob.
That’s when it all came together.
If I made the casino owner a member of the same mob they ran into episode 2, then the protagonist were staying in the room at his invitation because his organization was grateful for the help (we now learned) the main characters had unwittingly provided this mob. In the interest of honor, the protagonists needed to be reward by him. Now we had greater tension as the protagonists didn’t want to vacate the offer right away and offend their host, but they still wanted to leave soon before their robbery was discovered. (I had also toned down their effort a bit more here to make it more subtle.)
Then another overlap occurred to me. The “arc villain” of this first season was a government “operative” kind of fellow steadily hunting down the protagonists. Several of the episodes by now had concluded with a scene of the arc villain on the hunt, and I was planning on the same here. Why not tie it all together?
Now I had a story where the protagonists were compelled to stay in the casino because of their past actions, while very much wanting to leave because of their current actions. Meanwhile the mob owner had recognized one of them from wanted posters and contacted the arc villain about it. Now he was not just offering them the room out of “obligation” (though there was a bit of that to it), but also because he wanted them to stay until the arc villain arrived. Now the reveal of the room being cursed fit even better. The protagonists suspecting something of the owner (not realizing he was holding them in a gilded cage for their true enemy) investigate and discover the room is cursed, leading them to think they’ve been set up for the robbery.
Finally, I had a story I was excited to work on. I had a draft that was much better than the first. The plot steadily tightened and everything pulled towards a captivating climax.
By reducing the number of moving parts in the story, I had added layers to the existing, crucial pieces of the story which opened up more depth and complexity to everything. The story grew richer and more compelling when I forced myself to think about it from a different angle and bring overlapping parts together.
It’s a way to make your story more complex, yet less complicated.
(if you would like more examples or exercises of this from say… pop culture or your own efforts, leave a request below)