Complexity in a Simple Plot

Full disclosure: Short form fiction and I have never seen eye-to-eye. There’s a knack to it that I’ve just never quite seemed to get the hang of. There’s this gap between ‘self-contained story’ and ‘obviously part of a larger novel’ that I can’t quite seem to cross.

Part of it, definitely, is about complexity. Short stories and novels force the writer to approach complexity entirely differently. From one perspective, a short story cannot possibly be as complex as a novel, simply because it doesn’t have time to be. A novel can set up multiple interwoven themes and explore them from several angles. Indeed, it sort of has to, or it starts to sound thematically flat or one-note. Whether this is a detriment to a reader enjoying the story is up to the individual reader, of course, but the closer a  novel gets to single theme, the more it starts to sound like a Message Story, or at worst, propaganda.

By contrast, a short story, except in the hands of a very skilled author, usually has space to explore one theme, approached from a few angles at most.

Of course, it is preposterous to say that a short story must therefore be shallower or less meaningful than a novel. In fact, reputation says the opposite: short stories have a reputation for being thematically dense, while novels, except in particular genres, have a reputation for being frivolous entertainment. Mostly, this comes from the fact that the number of people who read literary and classic fiction recreationally is much smaller than the number of people who read only genre fiction recreationally, and that short stories tend to have a niche audience at the moment, so the short stories most remember will be from school, and perhaps from a few famous anthologies, which tend to attract more literary fare. Thus, short stories have become relegated to the arena of experimental fiction and deep reflections on the human condition.

So, obviously, short stories are able to convey a lot of depth and meaning, even a comparable amount to novels. But they do require an entirely different approach. While novels gain depth by examining the interactions of a few different themes and approaches, short stories are usually better served by choosing just one theme and either exploring one angle (or a very few opposing angles, depending on the length of the story) in greater depth.

Also, the ‘rules’ for writing need to be applied on a different scale. For novels, one of my personal favourite guidelines for editing is that every scene needs to do two things to further the story. For short stories, apply that to every sentence, and especially every line of dialogue. A short story still needs a complete plot, unless it is part of a series, but there must be fewer plot elements.

This is where movies must stop trying to be television shows. A movie is not a novel, it is a short story. Too many plots, too many themes, and too many interlocking elements will make the story feel bloated, chaotic and messy. Movies are better off emulating the short story’s hyperfocus, rather than whatever it is they’re trying to do at the moment.


I said this one would be coming soon, and looks like now is as good a time as any, while I’m starting to tweak the plan for my NaNo novel. I’ve noticed two things this time round – the first is that I may actually be a plotter, not a pantser (a realisation I think I’ve been putting off for about two novels now, and also hello, next blog post). The second is that I am a highly pretentious person.

I build stories from the themes out.

Yeah, I know, right?  I might as well be writing horrible Message Fantasy (Thanks to Limyaael for the term), where characters act as mouthpieces for an author’s perspective rather than characters, where the message is so pounded into the audience’s head that even the worthiest goal becomes trite, oversimplified and shudder-worthy.

But at the same time I did notice something while I was writing my last few novels.  I tend to write symbolism in without meaning it.  I’ll get through the story and then realise that where people stand indicates what relationship they have to each other, that drinking tea together means something, but coffee means something different, or that the layout of a room is definitely an indication of the character’s internal mental state.  I figure I might as well plan all this from the beginning, so it’s all consistent and contributes to an overall theme through the book, rather than being scattered or inconsistent.  So I guess what I’m really doing is planning in motif, rather than theme.

But then, without a theme, motif is just pretty window-dressing, so I suppose that’s a good enough reason to be thinking about things.

Still, it’s a little worrying, wondering if I’m walking into “pleasantly layered” rather than “preachy and obnoxious” territory.  There are a few ways to avoid this, I think – at least, I use these and nobody’s complained yet.  Well, not about my themes, anyway.

Always be as pretentious as possible.
No, really.  When picking a story’s theme, I stay well away from the following things:

  • Obvious or trite statements (be a good person, and good things will happen to you, for example)
  • Value judgements on specific ways of living (people who live in tune with nature are better people than those who don’t)
  • Absolutes (Characteristic X always leads to a better outcome than Characteristic Y)
  • Actually providing an answer to the theme in the novel.

If you are deliberately writing message fantasy, or stories with a clear moral, best of luck to you.  There’s a good market for them out there.  I don’t like them, and I don’t want to write them, so here’s how I avoid doing so.    But you’ll want to ignore those points above.

So, what do I pick as a theme instead?  Usually, something with a single-word synopsis.  Like, one novel, I wrote about Duty and Loneliness and Family.  Another, I wrote about Mythology and Love and Society’s Expectations.  That gives me a base to work from.  Then, I build in motifs (and yes, challenges for the character or plot points) that work into those themes, and support some interpretation of them.

Explore, don’t expound.
When I write a novel, I have lots of space and lots of characters to play around with.  So, for Mythology, Love and Society’s Expectations, I might have one character who, for whatever reason, has a particular thing expected of him, and that comes into conflict with what they feel they actually can do, and who they actually are.  But then, I have two other characters, one who is living quite comfortably within the expectations of society and believes they are actually the better way to do things, and another character who lives outside society’s expectations, but isn’t nearly so bothered by them, because they’ve learned to make what compromises are necessary (and only what compromises are necessary) to avoid the worst of the stigma.  Will I favour one flavour of happiness over the other?  Probably not – if the characters are happy doing what they’re doing, who am I to tell them they’re not?

My job is not to tell the readers which one is right – my job is to give several different points of view on the theme, and let the readers either agree or disagree with a particular person.

Involve everyone and everything.
No character should be “useless” to the story, and if all the story is intertwined with the themes, then all the characters should also be intertwined with the themes.  Should they all express all of the themes, or all express one “primary” theme, with some “secondary” themes woven throughout?  Not necessarily.  All expressing all themes could get quite cluttered and leave the characters feeling like a collection of traits, rather than a person.  All expressing a primary theme, with some secondary themes?  That could work quite well, but you don’t have to pick a “primary” theme for the story.   Let it grow organically – let the story dictate whether you’ve got primary themes and secondary themes or not.

And don’t forget your symbolism!  I find the trick with symbolism is to make it obvious it’s symbolism, but not obvious what it’s symbolising.  There’s a world of difference between having a manipulative character always offering people apples, and having a character carry an empty backpack everywhere, for reasons they never explain.  Obvious symbolism does occasionally have its place, but you can’t dwell on it.  Have one scene where a character’s setting up their house after quitting music forever to pursue a “real career”, and they put all of their music things in one room, and all of their work things in another room.  But then don’t mention it much, unless you’re telling the reader that they went into their music room, or perhaps that they refused to go into their music room.

Don’t let your characters know about it.
The characters pointing out all the symbolism is going to get tiresome, quickly.  Part of the fun of symbolism for those who like discovering it is the search and the hunt.  Having a character point out the hidden meaning behind the actions is going to ruin the fun for those readers.

Remember to make your story worth reading on its own.
A story might be a vehicle for meaning, but nobody’s going to get to the meaning unless you write a good story to go with it.  And there are going to be some readers who don’t care about your perfectly crafted mythology symbolism, who just want to get to the big confrontation about the failed engine.  That’s OK.  They’re allowed not to care about that.  You’re not allowed to insist that they have to care to understand or enjoy the story.  The book market is hard enough to get into these days without alienating readers because you’ve decided you’re highbrow.

Literary fiction authors, ignore that.  Your audience *is* looking for highbrow and occasionally incomprehensible.  Just keep on keepin’ on.

As always, thoughts?  What did I miss?  What do you have to add?  How do you guys deal with this problem?