Sep 12 2011

Creating complex fiction

I’m wondering if you can give some tips for creating more complex stories? I tend to gravitate toward writing stories with only a handful of characters, with only one or two subplots (the most I’ve done is seven primary characters, only one of whom is a POV character, and three minor subplots). This is fine, and I’m confident in my abilities to write these types of stories, but I’d love to try writing something…grander…than that. I’m just not really sure where to start or what to keep in mind. Any tips or suggestions would be great! Thanks! – Cameron Chapman, Vermont

Great question. One option is to write two completely different novels, print out the manuscripts, then shuffle the pages together like a deck of cards. Voila! Complexity.

Okay, probably not.

First, I’ll point out that there’s a difference between making a story more complex and just making a plot more complicated. Complicated isn’t always good. But if you want to go for more complicated, just keep adding new plot points and sub-plots and characters. Just don’t make it so complicated no one wants to read it. But that’s not what you asked.

There are more ways to develop or structure a more complex novel than any single blog post can address. So I invite any other writers out there to jump in with comments and share your experiences and knowledge.  The group here will be a lot smarter than any individual (like me).

And that segues nicely to one method to structure a more complex novel: ‘The Group.’

Instead of a single protagonist, or several individual protagonists, what if the protagonist is a group of people? Yes, the group is made up of several individuals, but there is a collective ‘group’ as an organism, person, or character as well. Think of the Lawrence Kasdan movie, ‘The Big Chill,’ as one example. There are seven primary characters. These adults, all thirty-something years old, were college classmates together some years before, and now they are gathered in a reunion of sorts because the eighth person in their group has committed suicide. They’ve gathered from around the country to attend his funeral and spend a weekend together. The interconnecting relationships, the memories, the shared grief and guilt over their friend’s death, and the emotions of coming together again after years of going in their own directions creates a tremendously complex plot.

Each individual in the group has his or her own story, his or her own conflicts. But the protagonist isn’t any of the individuals or all of the individuals, but the group as a whole and how the group comes to terms with grief and guilt, not just over their friend’s death, but all of life’s disappointments.

Rebecca Wells’ novel Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is another example of ‘the group.’ Lord of the Flies by William Golding comes to mind as well.

Another option to make a story more complex is to structure it in two different timeframes – current and past (or recent and more distant past). Back to ‘The Big Chill’ as an example, while there is some reminiscing going on about times past, the entire movie takes place over the course of one weekend. There are no flashbacks. There aren’t two different timeframes.

The novel, The Mercy of Thin Air by Ronlyn Domingue, has a single protagonist and narrator, Razi Nolan. The story, however, takes place across two timeframes. Razi is a young woman in 1920s New Orleans. She falls in love, and also has a dream of becoming a doctor – not an easy task or accepted profession for a woman in the early 20th century. Tragically, she dies at an early age. But the story doesn’t end there, of course. She remains ‘between’ this world and the next as a ghost. In today’s world, she hangs out in this old New Orleans house where a young married couple has moved in. Amy and Scott have their own set of relationship problems, and Razi involves her ghost-self in their lives to try to help them achieve the lasting love she was never able to enjoy.

But the story doesn’t start at the beginning in the 1920s, proceed to Razi’s death, then start up again 80 years later with the next plot development. That wouldn’t be complex. The story slips back and forth in time, drawing connections between the young Razi and the modern day Amy as the two story lines and the characters are intertwined with each other, until the resolution reveals an even deeper bond between the two women.

So not only is the story more complex with two timeframes, the overlapping structure of how it is told is also deeper and richer.

To tell a story from two timeframes doesn’t have to involve a ghost, of course. It might be the story of one character as a child or young adult and that same character years later. It might be intergenerational – the story of a man in World War II and his great-grandson in Afghanistan, their families back home, the letters they wrote, and a secret they share.

This is different from an epic novel that may cover several generations over the course of hundreds of years, but starts at the beginning and moves forward in time.

A writer can also go for the ‘grand scale’ novel. My favorite example of this – and one of my favorite novels of all time – is John Irving’s The World According to Garp. It’s a story that covers the entire life of the main character, Garp. It even starts before his birth and tells all the back story of his mother and how Garp came to be born (and named). But it’s more than just a novel about one man’s life from beginning to end. Everything about Garp is larger than life – starting with his mother and his birth. It stretches, but doesn’t break, credibility. It is perfectly grounded in reality, yet everything he does and all the rich characters that come in and out of his life are just slightly bigger, and odder, than reality. It’s much bigger than writing a standard, non-complex novel about one character’s life from beginning to end. Most lives, even of fictional characters, just aren’t interesting enough for 80 years or so to hold a reader’s attention from start to finish. But if that character is Garp, his life holds your attention throughout the novel, and plot threads that start in his childhood wind up in full bloom (for good or bad) later in life.

The character of Garp is a writer, and layered throughout the novel are the stories and novels Garp writes, drawing on the experiences of his ‘real’ life.

Beyond the grand scale of the story, a writer can also go for the grand scale of the story’s theme – a deeper, more complex theme. More complex than boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy kills girl’s parents. Go for the deeper motivations. Not just the conflicts between right and wrong, but between one right and another right, or between two wrongs, such as when a moral person is forced into a situation where she must choose the lesser of two evils knowing whichever she chooses, it will hurt someone she loves. Explore that conflict in depth. How does it affect the character, and how does it affect the rest of the story?

Are there at least two levels to your story? There’s the story level – the plot development, conflict, resolution. And there’s the character level – inner development, inner conflict, and resolution. Just as you may have sub-plots and plot twists, you might also add sub-character conflicts and dilemmas.

In the novel I’ve just finished, ‘Hannah’s Voice,’ I tried to go for something a bit more complex in structure. I’m not claiming I’ve succeeded, but that was my goal. The initial idea was for the main character, who starts the story at age 6, to become mute. After some initial inciting events in the early chapters, she stops talking. What made that more complex to write was that it’s in first person. That’s right, a first-person narrator who doesn’t talk. I had to stop and think about every single scene and how to present it, how to convey the story through her voice when she doesn’t speak, and how she will interact with other characters. On top of that, I had to keep it in the voice of a 6-year-old for the first 100 pages or so before the story skips ahead in time.

I also went for the grand scale, as her silence is misinterpreted by various groups and factions. From a child whose silence tears apart a small, southern U.S. town, she grows into a college student whose silence rips an entire nation apart. We’ll see if I’ve been able to get the words on the page to convey to readers the complexities of the story in my head, but at least that was my goal.

So a few ways to deepen and enrich your fiction:

-          The Group protagonist

-          Two or more timeframes

-          The Grand Scale (of a character’s life or of a plot with higher stakes)

-          The Grand Theme

And that’s only four out of countless ways to add complexity in story, richness in character, and depth in theme to your fiction.

I highly recommend two books that address this topic in much more depth and expertise: Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass and Between the Lines: Master the Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing by Jessica Page Morrell.

Now, time for everyone else chime in with your advice on what has worked for you as a writer or a reader on how to make a story more complex.

9 Responses to “Creating complex fiction”

  • M.M. Bennetts Says:

    I would have said the master of the multiple storylines and complex plot is Dickens, particularly in his darker novels, Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend. Novels which I cannot recommend highly enough, for just about every reason under the sun. For example, in Our Mutual Friend, it’s not exactly clear who the MC is…probably there are at least two…or three…or perhaps more. (Everyone has a different opinion on that.) And Dickens doesn’t play by the rules either–he resolves certain plotlines well before the end, even as he’s upping the ante in others. So, one might think of it more as a life-line than a plotline, because things don’t resolve neatly in life, though we frequently like to do so in novels. And it was Dickens whom I used as my template when I went to write my latest book–three different main characters, three different though intersecting plotlines and then, well, then I just let it happen. I did have a clue as to the end or how things needed to resolve–the history had done a lot of that for me fortunately–but how I got there built upon these three characters’ lives intertwining.

    In a way, to write a multilayered novel or a multiplot novel well, I think one needs to be willing to dare. John Le Carre writes these incredibly intricate plots and no one is exactly what they seem and if at the end, one has emerged into a brightness of understanding which equals pea soup, then one has succeeded. It takes guts to write like that. It takes time too–these novels aren’t written in three months. The percolating or fermentation period may be three to six months alone. And I think, I’m basing this on my own experience, they take a willingness to be that quiet and to listen to the thing unfolding, time and willingness to observe not just the blurred outlines of a story, but to wait until one can see the edges of character and emotion and place, and a willingness to follow the digressions and see how they resolve. And then just to write the thing and see where it leads.

    Two other novels which might be worth a look would be The French Lieutenant’s Woman by Fowles and The Chymical Wedding by Lindsay Clarke.

    • Robb Says:

      What do you mean? LeCarre didn’t write a novel every November during NaNo? ha. Good points on Dickens, a true master. Although his style is a bit older for most readers today, writers can still learn a lot from his approach to characters, setting, plot, etc.

  • Laura Lascarso Says:

    Good advice here. I tend to stay on the safer side with limiting my characters and keeping with the left-to-right time line, but I’d like to be epic in this way as well. I second your advice on reading The Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. What I liked best about it was the idea of writing with intention. Good stories are not usually accidents, but the result of a lot of practice.

    • Robb Says:

      Laura, I completely agree with that ‘writing with intention.’ If you’re writing with intention and purpose, then happy ‘accidents’ do occur. It’s kind of like those who work the hardest have the best luck.

  • Ali Cooper Says:

    Hi Robb,

    The first thing I’d say is that, if you are hoping for traditional mainstream publishing, stick with the simple, one-theme novel. Feedback I’ve received from agents and publishers, supported by non-genre novelists who’ve signed mainstream contracts, suggests this is what publishers are currently looking for.

    However, I’m a fan of the more complex novel, where several story strands happen in two or more time frames.

    My favourite is The Crow Road by Iain Banks, which combines a coming of age story with the hunt for a missing person. Although it’s told from the POV of Prentice McHoan, the author cleverly works in revelations from the past in the form of inferred knowledge from the missing Uncle Rory’s papers and diaries.

    I use multiple time frames myself. In my recently published Cave, Marty is trapped down a cave and tying to escape in real time (told in the present tense) while recalling the events of the previous year (in chronological order and in past tense) and assorted memories from the distant past.

    My favourite structure is to bring all the time frames and story strands together at a crisis point near the end of the book. It does take very careful planning to make sure events in different times are told at the right points in relation to the other time frames and plots and I tend to start with a sketch of things that have to happen on particular dates or in a particular order and fit other details in like a jigsaw. In this type of book, the plot and its resolution depend very much on the order in which facts are discovered or revealed.

    • Robb Says:

      Ali, thanks for stopping by. Great comment. I’ve read several books that use that combination of present tense and past tense together to excellent effect. ‘What is the What’ by Dave Eggers (I highly recommend) is one that used that approach. I’ve tested it out in short stories, but not in a novel (yet). It’s such a subtle and effective way to alert readers as to when they’re in the present-day scene and when they are in a previous timeframe.

  • Dan Holloway Says:

    Thought-provoking post, Robb. I guess the schematic way to think of the approaches you’re talking about is to break them into horizontal (expanding the number of POVs) and vertical (expanding the number of timelines). Another approach that we’re seeing more often is the seeming collection of short stories that are actually, somehow, a whole. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is one of the most ambitious examples of this. And more recently, and to huge acclaim, David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide.

    • Robb Says:

      Good points, Dan. There are so many ways to add complexity and depth. I love the short story collection that forms a novel. I was working on one of those myself when I set it aside to work on something else, but plan on getting back to it. Tough assignment to make each story a standalone, able to be read and enjoyed by itself, as well as to tie together to a larger whole. So you can add complexity to characters and their motivations/moral choices, POVs, timelines, structure, theme, scale…the possibilities and combinations are limitless.

  • Helene Young Says:

    Excellent topic as always, Rob.

    John Le Carre has always been a stand out writer for me and I love the intricately woven plot lines and deep characterisation that make his stories so compelling.

    I hadn’t tried to analyse the complexity of my own stories before I read your post, but I have now! I write from at least three POVs (up to five in Shattered Sky). Those lead characters all have different agendas within the story and are all destined to meet in the final scene. Being someone who is more of a panster than a plotter I’m not sure how I make that happen except by letting the characters tell their own story without too much interference from me.

    I too like the idea of complex morality – how can I make an evil man appealing or a good man cross the line? Most of my heroes anti-heroes have compelling reasons for their actions – not necessarily sound or rational I might add!

    And I second all the recommendations for Donald Maas’s Writing the Breakout Novel :-)