A Writer’s View: Complexity And Convolution

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr – and hey, think this should go on the Sanctum too?)

Working on “A Bridge To The Quiet Planet” is interesting as in some ways it’s very complex, a tale of a world of science and sorcery that survived a world-shaking war, and the lives of those centuries after the trauma.  In other way’s its simple – it’s a heist/chase story that goes Cohen Brothers, just with a sarcastic sorceress and a disreputable used bookseller.

Complexity in stories is a challenging area of discussion, because it often seems what people say is complex is anything but to me..  As my friend Serdar notes in his blog:

Now, Steve did specifically say complex stories. That could mean one of a number of things, not all of them what you might think. Complexity in a story is too often assumed to be convolution, as in a plot that is very knotty and full of double-reverses and whatnot. I tend to stay away from such things if only because I am not nearly smart enough to pull them off, but also because I have a different idea of what kind of complexity is relevant in a story. For me a story is complex if the pieces in it have a lot of thematic richness, or if the characters are multidimensional and humane. It’s not if I need a map in the endpaper and a list of dramatis personae.

This pretty much hits the division on the head for me.  A story can be convoluted but not complex – a Wile E. Coyote mess of tricks and craziness can exist atop a simple set of characters and tales.  A story can be complex with deep richness and many facets, while being straightforward.

What I realized in my writing is that complexity and convolution are not the same thing, and separating them in your mind is valuable for a writer for several reasons.

First, to separate them is to ask what you’re wanting to write.  Do you want to challenge the audience with double-backs and twists or do you want them to experience richness?  Or both?  To separate complexity and convolution is to help you set goals.

Secondly, to separate them is to ask when is one or the other appropriate within a story.  One part may need complexity, one part may need convolution.  It is possible what seems to be appropriate may, at later examination, not be – a complicated murder plot may be more interesting from the viewpoint of a character who has it figured out, so you can explore their character.

So I’m writing a story that’s complex (in characters) but the overall plot isn’t overly convoluted (it’s straightforward) once you know what’s going on.  This is actually important because if I added convolution to the story, the book might be longer but also more confusing due to the setting’s many unusual elements.

Complexity isn’t convolution.  They may exist together, but can be happily apart – and keeping that in mind will enrich your writing either way.  Plus, it’s OK to write one, both, or none – just know what you want.

(Oh and if you need some other creative boosts, check out my book on Creative Paths!)

– Steve