Writing Advice #36: Overcomplicating

So, a while back I was asked this question:

How do you avoid overcomplicating a story? By that, I mean that there are times when you’re trying to make your story imaginative and/or not derivative, but the result has too many plot threads, science fiction or fantasy elements that are both vague and overexplained, and long speeches at the end of the second act explaining the evil plan or backstory.

This is a flaw that I’ve seen even in GOOD stories…but what’s a good yardstick for knowing when you’ve thrown too many ingredients into the soup?

Yeah, this is a tough one, no two ways about it.

In the end, it’s partly “go with your gut.” But we’ll try to synthesize some general rules today.

There’s an old saying. I believe it comes to us from the world of journalism, but it applies equally well to just about any kind of writing. To wit:

A story is not everything that happened. It is every important thing that happened.

This is something that we must bear in mind when we write.

Writers live in the worlds they create. Whether your story takes place on the third moon colony of the Flagrinobian Empire in the year TE 56 or on a washed-out family farm in the 21st century, you come to inhabit that particular universe. You tend to know everything about it, from every possible angle, and there is often a real temptation to tell all of it.

Can it be done? Sure. Of course. Great literature is replete with examples of massive epics that sprawl all over the place, telling tales of entire lineages and whole nations. Of course it can be done.

In general, though, it’s best done sparingly. Rare is the story that really needs that kind of heft. Rarer still is the writer who can manage it.

Rarest of all is when the two intersect.

So, how do you know when enough’s enough? How do you know when to drop that subplot or excise that supporting character?

This is not easy to talk about in the abstract. And I’m afraid that the only piece of work I know well enough to use as an example is, well, one of my own.

If you’ve read Boy Toy, you should get all of what follows. If not… I’m genuinely sorry. You’ll probably still pick up on most of it, but I can’t make any promises. This is the only way I know of to discuss this issue because I wrote Boy Toy, so I can speak not just to what was cut, but also as to exactly what the reasons were. I can’t really do that with anyone else’s work.

So first of all, you might want to go here: Deleted Scenes. 

That’s a page on my website devoted to deleted scenes from Boy Toy. I decided to post these scenes because there were an awful lot of them cut and I thought readers might be interested in them. Each deleted scene also has an introduction from me wherein I explain why I cut it.

I won’t repeat myself here. You can read that stuff if you want to.

But the question wasn’t about just cutting scenes. It was also about overcomplicating the story. So I want to talk about whatwasn‘t deleted, about the stuff I intended to put into the book, but — in the end — changed my mind about. And about whole story threads that got chopped, as opposed to mere scenes. You can find it all on the same deleted scenes page, but I’ll list it all here for you, too:

SUBPLOTS THAT WERE CUT FROM THE BOOK:

* Zik proposes to Michelle after prom, leading Josh to wonder if his best friend has lost his mind. This also causes a rift between the two of them — Zik desperately wants to win the final ballgame so that he has a shot at being drafted by the Major Leagues, but Josh doesn’t care about the game.
* Josh’s father is seen throughout the book filling out crossword puzzles, almost fanatically. At the end of the book, Josh can’t believe how calmly and rationally his father is handling his mother’s infidelity. That’s when he happens to open Dad’s crossword puzzle book and finds every puzzle filled out with words like, “Bitch,” “Unfaithful,” “Whore,” “Liar,” “Adulteress,” and the like.

SUBPLOTS THAT WERE NEVER ADDED TO THE BOOK:

* A special study project Josh was working on with his calculus teacher. This was intended to drive home Josh’s math genius and to show that he had at least one relationship with a trustworthy adult.
* The revelation that Josh’s Dad was obsessed Eve and had a computer archive of all the news stories about her.
* The full story behind Eve’s time as a high school teacher.
* Based on things said to him by Dr. Kennedy and Eve, Josh begins to wonder if he was abused when he was younger, before Eve met him, by his own mother.

OK. So, why did this stuff go? Let’s take them one at a time.

First up: Zik proposes to Michelle, with all of the complications that arise from it. This subplot actually made it into the draft that I sent my editor, but in the end I cut it. Why? Well, because it was just One More Thing. The original purpose was two-fold. On the one hand, it set up a rift between Josh and Zik, cutting Josh off from his best friend when he needed him the most, so that Josh would be forced to operate totally on his own. On the other hand, it also set up Josh to mirror his own mother’s comment from years ago, when she told Josh he couldn’t possibly be in love with Eve. When Josh says the same thing to Zik, in the present, it’s the shock that makes him realize that he’s been mis-identifying “love” his whole life.

Well, I realized a couple of things. First of all, I didn’t need this whole subplot in order to separate Josh and Zik at a crucial moment. It was bound to happen anyway due to Josh’s behavior at the ballgame at the end of the book. And Zik’s devotion to Michelle made it very easy to still have a moment where Zik proclaims his undying love for her and Josh reacts to that.

FIRST LESSON: When you can accomplish the exact same thing without a subplot, you really have to ask yourself if you need that subplot in the first place.

Second up: Dad’s crossword addiction. OK, I actually liked this bit. It was a little running gag throughout the book, where Josh’s dad is constantly filling out crossword puzzles. It’s only at the very end of the book that you figure out what he’s been writing. I didn’t want to cut it (especially because for the big “reveal” I actually designed a crossword puzzle that was filled out), but my editor thought the book was way long (it was) and she thought my carefully handcrafted puzzle was “gimmicky.” (Gah!)

But here’s the thing: I realized that as much as I loved the subplot and my puzzle, it was in no way essential to the story. It was well-done and interesting, but it told us absolutely nothing about Josh and nothing about the story as a whole.

SECOND LESSON: Even if something is cool and interesting, if it doesn’t directly impact the main character in some compelling way, do you really need it?

Third: Josh’s calculus project. Again, there were two things I was trying to accomplish here. One, I wanted to show how big Josh’s brain was. And two, I wanted to show him with at least one healthy adult relationship, since every other adult in his life was a loser who failed him.

Two things happened here: 1) I realized that Josh’s big brain was already plenty on display, given his constant mental calculation of baseball stats and other stuff. 2) I decided, the hell with adults.

No, really. The hell with them. Who the hell cares? I don’t write books about adults. I write about teens. And here’s the thing: The book isn’t about Josh’s relationships with adults (well, sort of…). The book is about figuring out your past, dealing with your baggage, and trying to move on to the future. (I just realized — Bruce Springsteen dealt with the same theme twenty years ago in a song that was under four minutes and did a better job than I did. Goddamnit!)

That theme has NOTHING to do with relationships with adults.

THIRD LESSON: If you’ve already proven something, don’t prove it again.

FOURTH LESSON: If something doesn’t dovetail into the overall theme of your book, question it.

Next up: Dad’s obsession with Eve. This one’s easy — again, like the second lesson, it didn’t directly impact Josh. It was just a weird, skeevy detail about Dad. Ultimately, this isn’t Dad’s story, so who cares if he was obsessed with Eve? Could I have made that into an issue for Josh? Well, sure. But he already had enough issues with his father; the book didn’t need more.

FIFTH LESSON: Enough is enough.

Next: Eve’s time as a high school teacher. This one is EASY. I decided that I was going to write a book all about Eve someday, so I would save that stuff.

SIXTH LESSON: Sometimes when you have too much plot, it’s because you’re trying to cram too many books between one set of covers. (I see this a LOT with sci-fi and fantasy, too. I tell someone, “You should cut this and this and this,” and they say, “Oh, no, that’s setting up for the next book in the sequel!” Uh, guess what? If it seems extraneous to the FIRST book, no one’s ever gonna read the second one, Sparky.)

Last, but not least: Josh’s suspicions that his mom had abused him as a child. This was tough to get rid of. I mean, it was REALLY tough. I spent a lot of time and effort planning out how I was going to make this work. I had it all worked out my head. I even had a climactic scene sketched out in my mind, where Josh confronts his mother. And if you read Boy ToyVERY closely, you’ll notice some artifacts of that aborted plotline, floating in the text like the wreckage of a ship that went down a long, long time ago.

But ultimately… Ultimately, it just seemed like too much. This is the one I can’t intellectualize. I just KNEW somehow that this was going too far, that I risked diluting the story by putting too much into it. It would be exhausting to the reader, to go through this long, long book with all of the revelations about Josh’s past and Eve’s behavior and to hit a climax on that story…and then to say, “Oh, and guess what? That’s not all! Guess what ELSE happened…maybe…”

At some point, you have to let the reader go. At some point, you have to say, “This is where I stop.”

SEVENTH LESSON: Like in the beer commercials, know when to say when.

If you look at those lessons, here’s what you glean, in general: You can avoid overcomplicating your story by remembering the main focus of your story. Even the most complicated thriller has a single overriding theme or arc to it. Focus on that. If something doesn’t directly impact that central theme or plot, then take a close look at it. You don’t HAVE to cut those elements. Plenty of stories have divergent plots or characters that manage to contribute to the story, even in oblique fashion. So I’m not saying it’s an automatic chop. But what you DO need to do is identify those elements and look at them very closely. IF your story is overcomplicated and IF your story lacks cohesion and IF your story seems to run off the rails, the problem lies somewhere in those “extra” elements. It may be one of them or some of them or all of them.

But that’s where you need to look.

Whew! I hope that helped! Next week, some more Q&A ’cause I’ve gotten some terrific questions! And if you want YOUR question to be answered, please post it in the comments below for everyone to see and I promise I’ll get to it!

Comments

  1. Ahnai Deveraux says:

    First off, Oh my God you’re writing a book about Eve??? Yes!
    Second, I really wish you would have kept that Oedipus Complex subplot. I understand why you removed it but since I have an obsession with any and all things sick or taboo you could say I’m biased. That being said I still want to say I love Boytoy. Seriously, it completely changed my view on love and on how adults treat children and it just moved me so much. We’re reading the Great Gatsby in school and I cant help but whine to anyone and everyone that instead of reading books that are unnecesary and overly complicated we should be reading books like yours that are actually relevant and interesting. I guess it all goes back to the way adults treat children.

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