Writing Advice #37: Undercomplicating

Last week, I talked about overcomplicating your story. That post resulted in a question about undercomplicating. At the same time, I received an e-mail about something related. So I’m going to tackle both at once.

Contestant #1:

My current WIP has a strong basic plot (I think), but my subplots keep fizzling. I’ve taken a bunch of time away from the book to investigate the backgrounds of each of my minor characters (and I think my writing has improved because of it) but the subplots still aren’t working out.

It’s an MG novel, so it doesn’t need as much subplot as a YA or adult book, but it just feels weird and choppy to me to climb through the scenes of the main plot like they’re some kind of ladder leading to the end. Not an uncomplicated ladder, of course…there are all kinds of problems…

OK, that’s the basic problem. The related issue comes from someone else and harks back to the very first Writing Advice post.

Contestant #2:

i’ve started on my million bad words and i have an ending and i have a beginning, and i knnow my characters well enough to feel like i know what they would do, but im finding it really hard to write a middle bit to my story. and i guess that’s probably the most important part. any suggestions?

Basically, in each of these instances, the poor suffering writerfolk are in trouble ’cause there’s not enough “there there.” In the first case, it sounds like the writer knows her story, but isn’t sure it’s deep enough or, probably, long enough. In the second case, the writer just has no idea how to get from A to Z.

Not enough complication? Well, maybe.

Look, I am well aware that the current trend in Big! Selling! Fiction! seems to be fat books that could — when hurled from a properly engineered catapult — breech the walls of a medieval fortress. And writers want to write stories that will be Big! Selling! Books! because, well, why not? Given the choice between being the rich, admired idol of millions and the struggling, unknown idol of a dozen, which one would YOU pick?

Now, I am all in favor of you guys making many, many millions off your future books (just remember Uncle Barry when the time comes, eh?), but let’s remember something very important from last week’s discussion on overcomplicating; namely that a story is not every thing that happens — it’s every INTERESTING thing that happens.

In the case of our first contestant, writing can be compared to cooking. Let’s say you’re making chicken noodle soup. Obviously, you need chicken and you need noodles. (Duh.) You probably also want to toss in some carrots, some celery, some pepper and salt… If you’re feeling all crazy and Emeril-like, you’ll toss in onions, mushrooms, thyme, a bay leaf… Great, right? Right!

But then you go nuts and you start tossing in peas, shallots, diced peppers, chopped rutabaga, pumpkin seeds, raw spinach, baking chocolate, and anise.

All good stuff, but you don’t really want it cluttering up your nice chicken soup, right?

Some stories — like some meals — are meant to be simple. I encourage you to take a good, hard look at your story. And take a good, hard look at last week’s discussion of overcomplicating, too. It’s possible that what you think is undercomplicated is actually just a tightly-told, taut narrative. Sometimes you don’t need a million character subplots because you’ve done a good job explicating the characters on their own. What you think of as “not complicated enough” may, in fact, be you AVOIDING the curse of overcomplication.

Ultimately, what matters is this: Is the story satisfying? If it is, then no one will say, “It needed to be more complicated.” They might wish it had gone on longer, but that’s just because they liked it so much. “I wish it hadn’t ended” is NOT the same as saying, “It was too simple.” The world is filled with heavyset tomes, true, but it’s also filled with wonderful books that don’t tip the scales at much more than 200 pages, and they rock, too.

Ask yourself if your story is satisfying. Ask yourself if maybe — just maybe — you’re aiming for some arbitrary goal: “I want my book to be as long as Book X. I want my book to be as complicated as Book Y.”

‘Cause here’s the thing: If you don’t know what you’re doing, then “long” just equals “Oh, God, when will it end?” And “complicated” equals “contrived and convoluted.”

Don’t add compexity to your book just because you think you need to! Complexity should grow organically from the story and the characters!

Let me give you an example.

I’m currently working on what is going to end up as a very long novel. The last thing in the world I want is an excuse to make it even longer. Now, I knew at some point that I would have my main character go on a quest of some sort. I didn’t really know the details of the quest and the journey definitely wasn’t as important as the destination. I just needed to move him from one point to another, preferably as quickly as possible.

And then… The Idea came. The Idea was a flash of insight, a notion for what the quest could be, how it would develop, and how it fit into the overriding narrative.

Problem: Now the quest is going to be pretty long. It’s not just jumping from place to place any more. It’s gotten crazier than that. But it makes such perfect sense and it fits in so perfectly that I just have to do it.

Notice that I was perfectly willing to forgo this. I was willing to go the short route. Indeed, I was prepared to do so and assumed that I would. I’ve only changed my course because The Idea fits.

It FITS.

You have to let your story dictate its own length and complexity. If you find yourself thinking, “I need to do/write this because…just because” then you’re on the wrong path.

So, Contestant #1, I encourage you to take a good, long look at your story. Especially in middle grade, I think you’ll find that a little subplot goes a long way. I’m working on my second middle grade novel right now, and I can honestly say this: Just because the story doesn’t have lots of off-shoots doesn’t mean it isn’t complicated and entertaining to the reader. Focus on the twists and complexities of your main plot, as well as the humor and tragedies befalling your characters. Natural off-shoots may suggest themselves. If so, go with them. If not: Don’t worry about it.

Now on to Contestant #2, who has a much more serious problem.

The point of a story is to take the characters (and, therefore, the readers) from point A to point Z on a spectrum. The characters must be changed in some way from the beginning of the book, otherwise what’s the point?

The middle of a book serves as a bridge from A to Z. It’s the transition period. Say your main character begins the story as an unrepentant womanizer and by the end is happily married. Well, what happened in the middle to change him? Why is he married now? Who’s the lucky gal? What has he given up in his transformation and what has he gained?

These are the questions you need to ask yourself.

Without knowing anything at all about your story, I would hazard a guess that the problem you’re having is that you’re not moving your character from A to Z, but rather from A to, say, B. Or C. You say you know the beginning and the ending, but not what happens in between. Well, if the ending is dramatically different from the beginning (as it MUST be), then the middle should suggest itself. You should have SOME idea of what to do in there, an inkling at the very least. You would start by moving him from A to B, then C, etc. Baby steps. You’ll get to Z eventually. But if nothing suggests itself… Then there’s not enough “stuff” that could happen in the middle. There’s not enough distance for a journey. So your story is staying home and watching TV instead.

Maybe the problem is that your character isn’t different enough at the end of the story. To use my example above, maybe he begins as a womanizer and by the end of the story, he’s not married, but rather has only decided to try his third date with someone. Sure, that’s some growth, but it’s not drastic or dramatic.

My advice to you is two-fold: First of all, re-think your ending. It may not be “far enough” from the beginning, and so the reason you can’t think of a middle is because there IS no middle! (Conversely, re-think the beginning: Maybe you need to start your guy at a different point in order to make the ending really sing.)

Second of all, check out the BLog entry on writer’s block. A lot of the suggestions there will help you brainstorm possible paths for your story to take. Start off by assuming that your ending is fluid, that the story may end that way or it may not. Then just spitball. Play the “What If?” game and start having your characters do crazy things. One of those things might spark something that leads you down a very interesting, very rewarding path.

As always, I hope this advice has helped someone out there! Please comment and ask questions below — I love hearing from y’all!

Next week: What to do with your life while you wait for the writing gods to smile upon you.

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