Welcome all dreamers, fantasists, bibliophiles, and romantics. Join me Mondays and Fridays for speculation about other worlds, exploration of the human heart and soul in fiction and fact, sojourns in history and science, advice and tidbits in the realms of story, and thoughts on everything in between...

Friday, June 21, 2013

Writing Complex Plots

Plots, the fictional sort that comprise the events in a book, come in more variations than breakfast cereals. Certain genres expect certain things in the plots of their books. Some plots are very straightforward and simple. Others are harder to identify. And then there are those that are complex and multilayered, and these last can be exceptionally challenging to write. For those of us who enjoy writing and reading them though, they can be extremely satisfying.

However, when holding several strings at once, it’s easy to get things knotted and messed up or simply to get overwhelmed. So here are some things I’ve found are crucial for stories with complex, multi-layered plots.

Everything must hang from a single conflict.

Like the spine of a body or the bolt that holds a beautiful chandelier up, there must be one single arc or conflict that strengthens and holds the whole thing together. In The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien, everything hinges around the quest to destroy the One Ring. Naturally, there are other, smaller plots and conflicts, epic proportions of them in fact, but everything can be traced back or impacts the behind the scenes mission to destroy the ring.

All plots must be interesting in their own right

This can be particularly challenging, especially as a writer who will undoubtedly fall in love with the whole creation but might miss the fact that a plot doesn’t engage most readers or doesn’t fully make sense. However, each plot layer must have its own conflicts, each character his own goals and motivations. Everything needs to be engaging and gripping, not just the main plot or the main couple plots, all plots and subplots.

The climax must solve multiple plots at once

If it didn’t, an author would have to write climax after climax, and very quickly, they would lose their impact. Further, a climax which resolves several plots at once helps solidify the impression that they were all connected in the first place.

The themes must apply throughout all plot layers

Themes aren’t typically the first thing a writer considers, but at some point, they should be. If the same theme is threaded throughout a story’s complexities and layers, it strengthens the theme and better binds the whole thing into a unified body rather than lots of divergent little plots gripping hands and trying to run in multiple directions at once. Themes help unify. Let them them by weaving them through every layer.

Make connections as much as possible and then make more

Presumably, each plot or layer will connect to at least one more, but that’s not enough. Find ways for all the layers and subplots to impact each other repeatedly. The main plot impacts smaller, subplots, which have consequences with characters that impact back into the main plot, like a water cycle. Everything hangs on the same main conflict. The intricacies can be exquisite, but without the multiple points of connection, the story is not strong enough to hold itself together.

For those of you who like complex plots, what do you think helps make them work? What are some of your favorite books with complex plots?


  1. You sum it up so neatly, Laura! nicely put!

  2. Although I'm late in responding, I love complex plots, both as a reader and a writer. They're much like puzzles to unravel, especially when I start contemplating how they all those plot points must ultimately converge.

    When an author makes me think as well as feel, I'm engaged on multiple levels. The Lord of the Rings is an excellent example of a series with a complex plot as you noted. I find that most fantasy novels usually fall into that category. The Coldfire Trilogy by C.S. Friedman is a favorite series of mine for its complexity.

    The same holds true of almost anything written by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child in their Aloysius Pendergast series. I easily "disappear" into books like those!