Friday, October 1, 2021

For Writers: 3 Tips to Untangle a Complex Plot

by A.C. Williams @ACW_Author

I have really long hair, and there’s nothing worse than when it gets tangled. Tangles don’t just go away, either. The longer you leave them, the worse they get. And then when you finally take a brush to them, it hurts like the dickens to get them all out. 

A nice personal tidbit, right? But what does that have to do with writing? Well, when I think about tangles and having to invest hours of painful focus to get all the knots out, I think about some of the tangled plot lines I’ve had to edit over the years.

There’s little in the writing life more painful than a tangled plot. Your story threads get all knotted, and your characters get lost in the chaos. And straightening it all out HURTS.

So is there a way to keep your plot from getting all tangled and complex? Not always, but I have three questions I ask myself that usually help me decide what to keep and what to toss.

3 Questions to Help Tackle Plot Tangles

1. Why are you writing this story?

Is it the lesson you want your readers to take away? Is it a character arc that your protagonist or antagonist follows? Is it experiencing the thrill and wonder of a fantasy world? What matters the most?

Novels are complex things by nature, and it’s easy to get distracted and wander off after every squirrel that darts across your path. But not every squirrel is worth chasing. How can you tell which ones you should chase and which ones you should ignore? Know your why.

If you’re writing primarily to sell books, you will need to stay within the boundaries of your genre. You should also stick to recognizable tropes. Knowing this will inform your character arcs and your plot lines. 

But what if your objective is to make your readers think? To leave them with a challenge? Well, then maybe your story shouldn’t follow an expected trope. If that’s your why, it may be a better idea to bend the genre rules. 

Regardless, knowing the point of your story will help you make the important decisions when it comes building your plot structure. 

2. How many characters do you actually need? 

This is a tough one. How many characters should a story have in it? How many characters should a story follow? And, along with this, how many of those characters should get a voice in the story itself?

I wish I could tell you there was an easy answer, but there isn’t. There’s no one-size-fits all solution for this one. It will vary from story to story. 

What I have noticed over the years, though, is that many writers believe that an excellent novel has both a complex plot structure AND complex characters. And that’s not necessarily untrue, of course, but it’s much harder to pull off than it sounds. If you think about some of the greatest stories in literature, they usually only have one or the other. 

A complex plot structure makes it very difficult to pull off a complex character, and vice versa. That’s why we usually see a simple character with a complex plot (Murder on the Orient Express), and a simple plot with a complex character (Pride and Prejudice). If you aim for complexity of both plot and character at the same time, they will diminish each other. 

Do you need a gardener AND a beekeeper? Does your story need a mechanic AND an engineer? Many times, if a single character doesn’t have a complete story arc, the best way to fix it can be to take another character with an incomplete story arc and combine them.

And as far as how many perspective characters you need? If you’ve never written an ensemble cast novel before, please don’t try to write a book with seven POV characters. Ensemble casts are much harder to write than they sound, so give yourself a few years to learn how to write a single perspective novel extremely well. Then you can add other perspectives in. 

3. And finally, how many subplots do you actually need?

This is connected to the previous question about the number of characters you should have. Once you have a feel for how many characters your story needs, you can make a better decision about the number of subplots that are appropriate. 

This also depends on genre. High fantasy usually has many more subplots than a murder mystery or a romance novel, but that’s because most high fantasy novels are expected to be longer than other genres. 

Just keep in mind that your subplots are less important than your main plot. Remember your why. Even your subplots should connect to your story’s purpose. If they distract from the purpose of the story, you don’t need them. 

Not to get controversial, but the 2017 movie Star Wars: The Last Jedi offers a good example of a useless subplot. The movie featured a casino subplot that played no role whatsoever in the storyline. It didn’t move the story forward, grow the characters, or establish important story elements. Personally, I enjoyed the movie overall, but that particular part was more of a distraction than anything else.

In storytelling, distracting your readers is a huge no-no. We can’t give them an excuse to quit reading.

So keep your story simple. Don’t get bogged down by complicated plot structures or overly complex character designs. Tell a great story with relevant emotional appeal and do it using captivating characters who know what they want.

Stop those tangles before they start, and when it’s time to brush your plot out, you’ll have much smoother sailing.


A.C. Williams is a coffee-drinking, sushi-eating, story-telling nerd who loves cats, country living, and all things Japanese. She’d rather be barefoot, and if isn’t, her socks will never match. She likes her road trips with rock music, her superheroes with snark, and her blankets extra fuzzy, but her first love is stories and the authors who are passionate about telling them. Learn more about her book coaching services and follow her adventures on social media @ACW_Author.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent advice. I sent word to my critique group today about needing help with this very thing. Isn't God so good in His timing? Thank you!