One for the creative writers, although I suppose a lateral shift might put it within reach of journalists/technical writers.

As authors we all want to write, I would imagine:

  1. Something that many people will love to read.
  2. Something that has some intellectual worth.

However accessibility and depth are, at best, uneasy bedfellows. People love Lord of the Rings because of its rich backstory but many are put off by its dense prose.

I am frequently dissuaded from reading novels (particularly SF) because they present themselves as challenging the intellect while actually seeming to just want to be wilfully bizarre.

Given the choice between something I can relate to and something that purports to help alter my perception of reality I will go for the former every time, and so will most other people I know.

Even so, it is possible to confer depth upon the accessible. Weirdly The Da Vinci Code, for all its bad points, made some very dry theorising in the politics and history of religion into a bestseller. Not that I'm recommending the "Dan Brown school of literary success".

All I'm pointing out is that sometimes complex ideas can be made accessible. The best way I have ever managed to come up with of making this the case in my stories is to "be careful" and I have to say that I'm not always successful.

Also I know that if something is just accessible without anything complex it becomes dull, an also-ran, unremarkable. So it would seem that some complexity is essential to getting the balance right.

So, does anyone have any techniques they apply in trying to make the complex accessible? How successful do you think they are?

4 Answers 4


Well, that's a complex question :P

There's lots of different kinds of complexity, requiring different tools - a complex character is different than a complex setting; a complicated plot is different from a plot expressing a complicated idea.

Here's some guidelines I can share, from hearsay and from experience. I tend towards SF/F examples; hope these are clear.

Show, Don't Tell: Though this rule of thumb doesn't always hold, it's particularly apt for expressing complexity. Don't say that something is complex. Don't explain in detail how complicated it is, nor how to understand it. Rather, show, in the action, the complexity you're striving for. Demonstrate that the subject is not simple - maybe some characters don't understand it, or clearly struggle with it, or would like to resolve it, or appreciate its many-faced nature. And then, to explain the complex element, show different parts and aspects of it - each alone, and how they cohere into a whole - to let the reader get the sense of how they gradually come to understand the complexity.

Don't Infodump Until The Reader Wants It: And, when you need him to know it, make him want it. Introduce information when it's clear to the reader that this information is interesting and important; not before. "I'll explain the nature of 12th century water pumps, and that will assure that the rest of the story will be entirely clear" makes sense to the author, but if the reader has no obvious incentive to get through the description, he won't. If that detail is truly necessary, the trick is to come up with a good reason that info will be important NOW ("Dad, Dad! Jimmy just fell into a 12th century well!"), and that will give you the reader's interest long enough to get across the information that you need him to have later.

Make The Complexity Central To The Story: Self-explanatory, I should hope. There's no point in being complex just for the heck of it. If the complex element is what the story is about, the reader will naturally be interested in it (assuming you've made him interested in the story), and be willing to devote effort to understanding it.

A good example of this is the honored tradition of science fiction detective stories, like many of Asimov's robot stories. Science fiction introduces new worlds, with imaginary concepts with imaginary rules, that the author might desperately need the reader to understand completely. If the story is an investigation story, why then, the protagonist is exploring the world by his very job description. All he does in the story is explore the world; understand the rules; figure out how everything works. That's a great way to take a lot of details that might not interest the reader - e.g. how the Laws of Robotics work - and make them interesting - e.g. by having a murder investigation hinge on clever manipulations of the Laws. This is also basically what Dan Brown does - it's not an art&history lesson, it's a treasure hunt for a dastardly conspiracy! WE MUST DISCOVER THIS INFORMATION! IT'S REALLY IMPORTANT AND INTERESTING etc.

Build It Up: Complexity takes time. Don't try to get it all across in the first scene (not even by showing!). It'll be tough to cram in all you want, and let's be honest - complexity is something that dawns on you gradually, with time.

George RR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire has a vast cast, byzantine politics, huge world. But he starts out with a very tight focus - a single family, and mostly the children, who don't know much about everything that's going on. From the beginning, he gives lots of hints that things are changing and danger is afoot. Gradually, all kinds of hooks start fleshing out, and more and more threads get time in the spotlight... but never before some buildup to the fact that these threads are interesting, dynamic, important - maybe mysterious and dangerous, even. Nothing comes out of the blue. Complexity shows up only after initial interest have been established.

Similarly, in Dragonlance, lots of readers love Raistlin as a complex character (I know, I know - not exactly great literature... but bear with me). At the beginning, all you see of Raistlin is how bitter and standoffish he behaves, and his brother's love for him. Gradually, his actions show more of who he is, and more of his past is revealed. And note that not very far in at all, a "complex" note is tossed in - with this dark character showing compassion for a lowly, miserable creature. So pretty soon, we know that Raistlin is dark, but also has a more complex nature than just that.

In summary: don't try to convey all the complexity at once; do give clear indication that certain things are complex, incompletely understood, and have interesting secrets to discover later.

Define Clear Questions To Be Explored: Complexity isn't mere richness of detail. It's things being... complicated. Unclear. A really good way to do this is to set up questions about the element. Not only do questions interest the reader - by presenting the element as something complex enough to have questions about, oblique enough that figuring out the element's nature isn't simple, they demonstrate that the element is truly complex, and reinforce the sense of complexity that you're aiming for. Open questions make an element complex, intriguing, and unpredictable.

My tip here is to set up such questions clearly and explicitly - make the reader anticipate the answer before he gets it (if he gets it), rather than giving it to him in the expectation that he will appreciate the added complexity.

House is a great example of this technique. House is a misanthrope, but he's also unpredictable and complex. At any given moment in the series, there are several questions open on House's personality and psyche. What was House like before his leg surgery? What is he willing to do to keep his job, or his team? How much does he care about his patients? We don't just grow to understand him better - the questions are posed first, and then we gradually fill in the answers. And raise new questions, of course.

Complexity Evolves: The longer you spend in a single mileau, the more details and history you build up, even if it begins simply; complexity can easily evolve by continuing to extrapolate past elements into new stories, and playing existing elements off against each other.

A lot of series (TV and books) bank heavily on this - think of the Star Trek universe, of soap operas, of Doonesbury or of Order of the Stick. They start out simple, sometimes even simplistic - but with time, they grow and sprawl, and from their unique configuration of not-terribly-interesting ideas, and from the simple accumulation of time and history, they extrapolate something new and unique. That's why lots of things might "only get good halfway through Season 2" or whatnot - leading some to try to start off directly from mid-Season-2 to begin with. This technique can have its own issues, but it can work very well - skip past the first 10 stories; get to the stuff that can only happen once those stories have happened - making those stories, by necessity, relying on a more complex history, and being more complex themselves.

That's it, I think. Hope these observations are helpful :)

  • I should start incorporating GRRM into more of my answers, then :P
    – Standback
    Feb 19, 2011 at 21:17
  • Updated, with the expanded version of the last two points.
    – Standback
    Feb 19, 2011 at 21:18
  • For the fact that there is an itemised list of checkpoints which give points for review when looking over work this one gets the green tick. Thorough work, good stuff.
    – One Monkey
    Feb 21, 2011 at 12:29
  • For the record Song of Ice and Fire bores me rigid. I couldn't relate to anyone in it and gave up after 200 snooze inducing pages. Obviously his methods for managing complexity fell short in my case. Oh well, everyone else seems to like it.
    – One Monkey
    Feb 21, 2011 at 12:33

I had an English professor once who advised me to write papers discussing a book "as if you were explaining it to a slightly stupider classmate who had also read the work in question." His advice is condescendingly worded, but the general theory is sound: take your complex idea and break it down into simpler pieces.

Once you have your complex plot carefully constructed in outline form (and you've run it by a few betas to make sure the logic holds), write it out using, well, small words. Imagine that you're trying to present your plot to a bright 10-year-old. You can always go back in a later draft and condense anything you've over-explained, but for your first or second round, keep it plain.

In fact, if you have any kind of recording device (video or audio), record yourself explaining your complex plot to a friend, and then use that as a framework for the text. You'll see in the course of explaining it verbally and the subsequent give-and-take what needs to be spelled out and what can be implied.

  • +1 for the advice, which is a start. Interesting that you assume I just mean plots... I do, but that's not all. I think there's a degree to which a story should be about something and that something could be philosophically complex so how to not tie yourself up into knots with that? And how to integrate it into the flow?
    – One Monkey
    Feb 18, 2011 at 13:53
  • 1
    I think the same advice holds. If you can't explain it to someone in a way which can capture their interest, your castle is built on too high a cloud. If you can't find an organic reason to hook your Grand Theme into the plot, either write a blog post about the Grand Theme and get it out of your system, or change the plot. Feb 18, 2011 at 14:32

Take a look at the work of Robert J. Sawyer and Terry Goodkind. Both authors tend to inject philosophy into the middle of plot. The complexity of the plot is substantial on its own as well. I have read critical reviews of both authors saying that their philosophical diversions are not appreciated, but I have yet to see them described as "inaccessible".

In addition to the idea of verbally presenting the complexity to someone and fielding their questions, it often helps to build an onion in point form: layers viewed from the outside that can be peeled away as the story progresses. Each inner layer explains and supports the next outer layer, but at first the reader only sees the outside. Raistlin was a great example. The subplots and politics in David B. Coe's Forelands series are also revealed in well-crafted stages.


I love writing complexity in to a universe. Frequently my stories come with thousands and thousands of facets that have nothing to do with the story. I'll expound on something for a page and a half that no one cares about and isnt particularly interesting.

and then I'll look back at what i wrote, rip it out, and just hint at it. This tends to leave the reader with a sense of something more, something grander than just the basic story i'm writing. Some times i'll put these things down in an index or something, for interested parties to look up, but usually i just throw them away. As far as the universe goes... A reader doesn't need complexity itself, they just need to feel that there is more to the universe than the tiny sliver that you are portraying.

This of course is my biggest beef with writing like in star trek, they spend 20 minutes an episode expounding on the minutiae of nonsense just to make it seems 'sci-fi' or something. And then the only people actually care about that technobabble are the same people who turn around and bite them in the ass for inconsistencies.

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