Critique Technique, Part 22—Overly-Complex Plot

Knotted ropes
Photo credit: Boaz Yiftach via

In a way it’s hard to say that a story’s plot is overly complex. Many stories have multiple plot lines, each with their own subplots, and yet the story “works”: the reader can understand what’s going on, the plot lines all make sense (eventually, anyway), and things come together at the end. Maybe the conclusion doesn’t tie everything together in a pretty bow—if the book is part of a series, it shouldn’t unless it’s the last one—but the story doesn’t end in a Gordian knot, either.

So the question isn’t whether a story’s plot is too complex, but whether it’s too complex for the space allotted to it. Is there time for the various plot elements to be explored in enough depth and detail for them to all make sense? Or, did the author, in trying to craft a complex plot, simply try to do too much? Too many plot points or plot lines, too many characters, or any combination of these can turn what should have been a fascinating puzzle into a complete muddle.

If You Can See It All

If you’re reviewing a stand-alone piece—a short story or non-fiction article, for example—and you’ve got the whole thing in front of you, it’s easy enough to evaluate the plot. If it’s too complex, the piece may:

  • Feel rushed, as if the author is hurrying to cram everything in before the end; and/or
  • Not have a clear protagonist (or antagonist), or the characters who are supposed to fill these roles appear infrequently while the author chases other plot lines; and/or
  • Make you wonder why certain events or characters are included. Events may happen but then are never followed up on, or a character appears, and seems important, but then disappears; and/or
  • Contain other details that seem important but are never followed up on, or are contradicted later without reason; and/or
  • Leave you wanting to know more, with the sense that the author knew things she didn’t tell but should have; and/or
  • Leave you confused, not having gotten the information you needed to make sense of what you had, or overwhelmed you with too much information.

Some of these points—such as leaving out key details which the reader is then supposed to pull out of the subtext or context—are techniques literary-fiction writers sometimes use, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. Creative non-fiction can use these techniques, too, but only with caution.

Of course, you need to know what genre a story is a part of, whether fiction or non-fiction because different genres are more or less receptive to complex plots.

If You Can Only See a Part of a Piece

If you’re reviewing a part of a longer piece, such as one or several chapters of a novel, judging whether a plot is too complex for the space allotted to it is much more difficult. Each chapter and each story line has its own plot elements, of course, but they won’t necessarily be linked together yet. If you have an outline or synopsis of the entire book, you have a tool to evaluate a chapter’s complexity. If you’ve seen—and can remember the details of—previous chapters, that can also help.

If not, you’re going to have to fall back on your own writer’s sense of what works. You can:

  • Discuss the story with the author;
  • Make notes to help keep track of the various plot lines; or
  • Flag events and details that don’t make sense or seem out of place to see if they’re justified, explained, or resolved later.

There’s one other factor to consider, irrespective of story length or type: whether one or more plot lines are necessary to the story at all. This is a question that can generate a lot of angst and consternation in the writer because he may well consider every piece critical.

Tough. You’re doing the author a big favor if you can demonstrate that the story will be better—tighter, clearer, more focused—if certain material is taken out. The thing is, you’ll need to be able to see the whole story, more than likely, to be able to make a strong case for this position. If you don’t have that information, you can at least discuss it with the author. (NOTE: “Spoilers” are not relevant in a critique setting. If you need the author to reveal how a story ends so that you can understand why a plot line or event is important, she needs to do that.)

Questions For You

Here are some questions to ask as you consider a piece’s plot complexity.

  • Can I see how each plot line and subplot contribute to the overall story?
    • If not, why not? What’s missing?
    • Can the author explain how this event or plot line will be important later?
  • Does the story, or the part I can see, feel rushed, as if too much is happening at once or without sufficient development or explanation?
  • Does the author seem to be trying too hard to create a complex plot?
    • If so, what can be removed or simplified to improve the story, and why?
  • If you can see the whole story:
    • Can a plot line or subplot be removed from the story without damage? Might doing so make the story better?
      • If so, how or why would that improve the story?
    • Are the relationships and connections among the plot lines clear, or made clear at appropriate times?
    • By the end of the story, did I feel I knew enough to make sense of it and its plot lines? Was information left out that left me confused when that was not the author’s intent?

What do you use to evaluate whether a story’s plot is too complex or not? No need to get real complicated with your suggestions, but do put them in the comments box below.

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