Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Narrative Complexity

Complexity in fiction is … well, a complex topic.

Clearly you don’t want to write something so complex that it leaves readers perplexed and frustrated. At the other extreme, readers are quickly bored by a story that’s too simple.

Complexity, which is best understood as the degree to which there is variation in the results each time you sample something, is important in fiction only because the world in which we live is complex. Romance is a simple example of the complexities with which we deal: each time we interact with that certain someone we come away with a collection of indirect evidence that we’re rising or falling in his or her esteem but rarely anything definitive. Compared to the simplicity of species that go into heat or spawn at the same time each year, it’s a wonder we ever managed to reproduce.

In terms of plot, complexity is what makes books necessary: you don’t have a novel if you don’t need several hundred pages to fully understand what’s going on.

The art of the storyteller is to take what looks like a complex mess of unrelated threads and weave them into a tapestry that, when fully revealed, shows the reader how to make sense of it all.

It’s a topic to which I’ve devoted enough thought that I’m giving a presentation tomorrow (7:00 pm on Thursday, January 17, 2013) at the Pleasant Grove Public Library (Pleasant Grove, Utah) as part of their Professional Writers Series, titled, “Weaving a Complex Narrative: How to Write Like J.R.R. Tolkien in Three Easy Steps.” I’ve also made the presentation available online at for those of you who may be interested but unable to attend.

Image: Simon Howden /