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I have recently discovered that the plot and cast of characters of my novel is so unbelievably complex that I am the only one who can actually understand it. I have too many characters, with too many subplots, and so many different events involved in the conflict that I can't even concisely explain the plot anymore.

I don't really want to cut characters, because even though there are a few of them that aren't as important they are some of my favorites and still have important roles in the main storyline. Additionally, without understanding the histories of the characters and the subplots relating to them you can't grasp their motivations and the reasoning behind their roles in the main plot.

I'm currently using a plot outline template to try and simplify the story, but all I'm doing is confusing myself.

Does anyone have any advice on figuring out what is necessary, and cutting out what just makes the plot hard to understand?

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    What exactly do you need help with? How to cut down your story? Finding software that helps you in visualizing your plot more neatly? Learning techniques to explain your plot as concisely as possible? Turning your work into a series? I'd love to help, but currently you only state that what you have is and needs to be complicated, but you are confusing yourself. I can't see a clear question that I could try to answer. – Sec SE - clear Monica's name May 4 '18 at 11:18
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    I'd also like to know what your story is for. If you're planning a TV show or novel series, where the plot will be spread across a number of instalments, this level of complexity isn't a big deal. If you're planning a movie script or a single novel, suddenly you're in trouble. – F1Krazy May 4 '18 at 12:15
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    I am voting to temporarily put this question on hold as "Unclear what you are asking". Once the OP has clarified what the exact problem is they are trying to solve instead of describing the current situation, which is inviting speculations on what the goal really is, I will check the question again to see if I should retract my close vote or vote to reopen in case it gets put on hold in the meantime. @EmmieCG: Please edit your question and add a clear question at the end instead of a general call for help. – Sec SE - clear Monica's name May 4 '18 at 12:15
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    Have you heard the expression "Kill your darlings"? Sometimes you have to remove your favorite stuff for the sake of the story. – Ken Mohnkern May 4 '18 at 12:44
  • @Secespitus To me, and the other two answerers, this question is pretty clear. Maybe it is simply not a question for you? Please leave open. – user29032 May 4 '18 at 13:14
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(I think you know what you have to do ... It hurts, but do it.)

Here's the format I would follow to cut darlings in your situation. I'll assume you are writing a novel, some sort of fiction.

  1. Do you have a main character? (Or do you have an ensemble cast.) I'll assume one main character.

  2. If you have a main character, is there a single 'high stakes' idea that this character works toward?

This is the conflict - and through a series of try/fail and try/succeed, the main character will reach the climax of the story and either succeed or fail in the final 'try.'

Everything else should go. It will hurt, but less so than 30 years ago when we worked on typewriters. Save the bits that you cut for other stories.

Subplots are great - and it sounds like you have many - this gives you the option to pick the best one and ditch the rest.

See your situation as an opportunity. You have a block of marble in front of you. You see the art in it. You know that perfectly good marble will be lost when you take that chisel to it. Sculpt that baby anyway, into a masterpiece.

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    Congrats, you wrote the only answer that I think guessed completely correctly what the OP wanted: a process to find out which parts are confusing and a way to prune the current draft into a workable format that in the end will be an improvement when compared to the current version. +1 from me – Sec SE - clear Monica's name May 4 '18 at 17:20
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    Side note, if you save the other stuff for other stories you can tie all the stories together really well if you want, rather than adding on afterwards. – Feathercrown May 4 '18 at 17:23
  • Ha, sorry for the confusing question (I hope I've fixed that) but you did a fantastic job of answering it. I especially relate to the sculpting analogy, as I am an artist too. – EmmieCG May 4 '18 at 19:54
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Painful as it is, circumstances like this can warrant writing an entirely new draft from scratch. Your memories of the characters and plot points from the current draft would inform you in such an effort, but you're liable to produce a "greatest hits" rewrite in which those minor characters you like become more major characters.

I had to do this once because, for an experiment, my draft 1 was pantsed instead of being plotted the way my novels usually are. As soon as I finished that draft, I knew it was bad enough (for largely the same reasons as you've encountered) that I'd have to start all over. One might call what I did originally a mistake, but an entire novel-length exploration of my characters is arguably the most detailed plan I could use to plot draft 2. In writing draft 2, I found that:

  • Even though much of what had been in draft 1 wasn't revived, draft 2 was substantially longer than draft 1, not shorter, which gives you an idea of how much better I found myself exploring great characters I realised shouldn't be minor;
  • Draft 2 also had, in my opinion, a better plot, one that was simpler and yet had more ingenious details under the hood;
  • I came away feeling like I couldn't have written such a good draft of that particular story if I'd done it any other way, if only because it was a cat-and-mouse plot and I may have needed draft 1 to get my head around the cleverness of the mouse.

I can't guarantee it would work for you, but you owe it to yourself to at least bullet-point such a hypothetical redraft to see what ideas your existing draft gives you. You're likely to find that your best characters now drive your plot, which is arguably better than designing the plot first, then making your characters fit it.

How can this strategy identify the current sources of plot difficulty? In my experience, it's not so much that I noticed what I'd take out as what I wanted to write a second time. Novels shouldn't avoid complexity; they wouldn't be 50k+ words if they did. "Difficulty" in a plot is more about the way it's complex: too many disconnected ideas not going together well. Good complexity is like a sprawling tree, each branch subdividing a few times; bad complexity is more like a plant whose growth has been restricted by weeds, that also make it harder to see where one plant starts and another ends. Maybe the reason my draft 2 was longer is because the "less" I kept could be better fleshed out that way.

  • Your answer could likely be improved if you mention how starting from the start will allow the OP to find out which parts are hard to understand as the process for finding these difficult parts is what the question is about. And how are the once-minor-now-major characters related to finding out which parts of the current draft the beta-readers found to be difficult`? – Sec SE - clear Monica's name May 4 '18 at 17:18
  • @Secespitus That's a good point. I've added a paragraph at the end to discuss that. – J.G. May 4 '18 at 17:28
  • I understand the revising of the main characters, but I actually think what will benefit me most will be getting rid of the characters that don't pertain to the plot (even if I love them). This still was a big help though, thanks! – EmmieCG May 4 '18 at 19:53
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I assume that this is your first attempt at a novel, and that you are suffering from a strain of "worldbuilder's desease".

Brandon Sanderson has dedicated one of his lectures to the problem, you may want to check it out. Usually the affliction is worldbuilding too much, but in your case what has happened is that you apparently love plotting and characterization so much, that you have done it so excessively that you have lost sight of the story you want to tell.

Worldbuiling, plotting, and characterization are all fun and valid endeavours, but in writing they serve a purpose: that of telling a tale. There are jobs in other industries where all people do all day is create worlds (e.g. in game development) or characters (e.g. in animation), but we as writers have to always consider whether what we are doing will lead us to a publishable book (or short story) or not.

As the other answers have already pointed out, you now, that you have become lost in your plotting, have two options:

  • prune your plot until you have a well-shaped story for one novel
  • find segments that you can turn into individual novels in a series

What you do, will depend on you, the story, and what it means to you. I cannot tell you. But if you decide to prune or write a series, I can give you some advice on how it might be done.

Prune

What you currently lack is distance for a good overview. You are deeply entangled in the details of your plot, and no longer see what its overall shape is.

To gain this overview, as J.G. has suggested in their answer,

  • let your project rest for some time (a few weeks may be enough, three months are ideal); you can use this time to begin your next project
  • without re-reading anything, after that hiatus sit down and write an outline of what you remember; this outline is not a draft, so don't worry about language and detail, just jot down the main story as you remember it
  • this outline is your overview
  • use this outline to write your novel; only look into your notes and what have you, if you need to remember something essential you forgot; do not use your notes to re-create your original mess
  • after you have written your first draft, let it rest (and work on your second project again); if you can and want, give your first draft to beta readers
  • revise your draft, submit, publish, etc.

Now – and no earlier – go through your original notes and see which parts you can use for another project.

Write a series

I won't go into writing a series, as the answer by @Pawana contains most of what you need.

Just remember that it is not necessary to tell one story in one book. You can have one book for each viewpoint character, or one book for each storyline, or one for each location, or whatever the elements you identify, and it doesn't matter if there is some overlap and repetition between books.

Instead, I'd like to address writing the book you have.

Write a complex novel

There are many bricks of novels that contain complicated and complex tales. They are not easy to write, but it can be done.

How you do it will depend a bit on the kind of story you have. Is it a main storyline with many sidelines? Is it several parallel storylines? Whatever it is, try to draw a graph. And don't waste your time trying to find the ideal software to do this. Simply grab a big sheet of paper and a pen and begin. If you make mistakes, erase or paste over or use another sheet.

This graph doesn't have to be perfect either. If there are some strands of the network that you don't know yet where they should go, make a note and then leave it at that. Your story will change in the writing anyway, so don't get caught up in another attempt at perfecting your plot. Just draw a rough map of what is where (or where you think it is), and then leave it at that.

And then start to write. If you story has a clear beginning, start there. If it doesn't have one, start with a scene that for you represents the kernel that made you begin working on this idea. Or simply start anywhere – novels don't have to be told chronologically, and they don't have to be written back to front.

Be prepared to write a few drafts and revise heavily. Add in things you forgot and additional layers of complexity at each revision. If your story is complex, then your writing will be a more complex process than that of other writers, but don't let that give you the impression that you are doing it wrong. Each novel and each writer is unique, and there is no wrong way, if it works for you.

  • Your advice on pruning might be relevant to the OP, but the series part should probably be reworked to be more of a frame-challenge as the OP does not want to write a series. The same applies to a complex novel. The question states that it's about learning techniques to find out which parts are necessary and which are hard to understand, which is currently only indirectly referenced in your answer. I also disagree on your view of game development and animation. If all you are doing is worldbuilding and no story-telling, character design, mechanics, developing, ... you won't finish a game. – Sec SE - clear Monica's name May 4 '18 at 17:11
  • @Secespitus I said that in animation there are people who work on characterization alone. They work in teams. Others write the narrative or draw the panels. Where did I say that there was no storytelling in animation? Similarly, in game development there are people whose job it is to build the world. They don't write stories. Other team members do. Where do I say there is no storytelling in game dev? – As for the rest, I'll think about it when I find the time. – user29032 May 4 '18 at 17:28
  • The bit about separating out parts for later projects is especially helpful, and thank you for the link to the lecture! – EmmieCG May 4 '18 at 19:47
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The other answers have indicated a need to prune, which is likely the best approach. That doesn't mean your characters are dead.

Look at it from a different perspective. Now you can promote those characters to protagonists in their own stories. Maybe they share the same universe, maybe not. You can decide that later.

Right now, you need to identify the primary story arc for this piece. Some characters and events are absolutely necessary for that arc to make sense and feel authentic. Everything else is a candidate for pruning. Importance to the story is a bigger priority than your personal attachment.

If you really like a particular character and his story but he just doesn't fit well into your existing work, then maybe you already have the seed for your second novel. Or maybe it'll end up as a few short stories instead---you don't need to decide right now.

You can keep the story clean (i.e., clear to your intended audience), give some characters a bigger spotlight, and build a foundation for more fiction all at once. You're not giving up anything at all; you're gaining a lot.

  • The question asks how you can figure out what should be pruned. Could you elaborate how to do that? Currently you only say that you shoudl prune and what to do later once you've pruned but now how to figure out what to prune. – Sec SE - clear Monica's name May 4 '18 at 18:36
  • Boy, were you right about that. Somewhere in the process of editing, I dropped the most important part. – DoubleD May 4 '18 at 18:43
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1) You had to have some plot (or situation) to begin the book.

Although that obviously underwent revisions; you now have a beginning, and an end. Of the first character(s) introduced, how do they figure in the end, as the last characters doing/saying anything? Those are the endpoints of your arc. Presumably they went up or down in between, but that is the original straight-line plot. I will talk in percentages of the book since I don't know how long it is; and ACTS generally follow percentages.

Alice goes from one state on Page 1% to another state on Page 100%, with "stuff" happening in-between in a way that affects Alice, motivates Alice, or changes her mind until she is the new Alice we see on page 100%, which is where we leave her (perhaps for now, perhaps forever).

Once you have these endpoints, focus on Alice. Fill in this arc: If you are a "natural" storyteller following your instincts; look around page 15% (midpoint of ACT I); you should see something affect Alice that drives her to the end of ACT I. Look there (page 30%), How much has Alice changed by then? She likely has the central dilemma of her arc. Look around page 50% to 60%: You should be seeing the central turning point of the whole story (often a setback, sometimes a new understanding by the characters). Again, how has Alice changed? Consider page 90% to 95%: You should be heading into the final conflict and wrapping things up.

All this applies to your other characters as well, just in a compressed and offset form. If you introduce Barry on page 5%, you might take him to the end (page 100%), or if his job is done before the finale, say goodbye to him at, say, page 85%. Then the middle 80% is how his arc goes from start to end; so see if that is true. Note these are rough percentages; in movies they will often be quite precise but in a novel you have wiggle room of 5% or so of the total length.

2) Use more chapters, separate your characters better.

Chaptering is an art. At the end of a chapter, any span of time may pass, the viewpoint may change, the location may move to another galaxy.

Although I talk about the Three Act Structure often, there are good arguments that few things are actually in three acts, that is just a reference point. A better definition of an ACT is that the ACT is over when something (seemingly) irrevocable happens. A decision is made. Or an action is taken. or a FACT is learned. Alice realizes Bob is a killer; that is the end of an Act. (It is not entirely irrevocable, she may learn she was conned, etc.) Bob realizes he must kill Charlie or go to prison, that is the end of an Act. Bob tapes a bomb to the underside of Charlie's car, and after some consideration, flips the switch to arm it and walks away. End of Act. Or instead, takes it off and leaves, he can't do it. End of Act. Something (big) has changed. Now, it has not yet changed Bob's knowledge that he risks prison if he doesn't kill Charlie, it means he realizes he can't kill Charlie. This is why I say seemingly irrevocable, it feels irrevocable to the character, but in time maybe Bob thinks of another strategy, one he thought impossible before. Maybe he learns Charlie might be bribed.

By this definition, some movies have 30 acts, some books several dozen.

Try to understand where your Acts (by this definition) begin and end. Take note of the changes. Whatever changed in the Act to end it, those are the (many) turning points of your story, and constitute a kind of action-outline of your story. If you have a hundred Acts, or two hundred, A line or two for each is still much more concise than the current several pages you have for each. Look for those "seemingly (to the character) irrevocable change" points as your mile-markers.

You can even use these as chapters: Readers understand chapters have an element of being self-contained in some sense. You can make the chapter run from just after the end of ACT x to the end of ACT (x+1). Then, even if there are things going on with other characters, make sure this chapter focuses on whichever character(s) are going to be influenced by the (one and only) irrevocable change of that chapter.

3) Add complexity gradually. Get back to your simple plot and simple idea.

Begin with that, and add complexity more gradually. Introduce your characters and what they want or need more gradually. Carry the reader along with you, give them time to learn and understand what is going on, and why. There is nothing wrong with having many chapters, give them a chapter each to focus on Alice, then Bob, then Charlie, then David, then Elaine, then Frankie. Any of the other characters can appear in Frankie's introductory chapter and some should, for continuity's sake. But teach slowly. You can introduce Alice and Bob together, but focus on Alice. Then focus on Bob and introduce Charlie. You can jump to David and Elaine, perhaps Elaine interacts with Alice or learns something from her.

Don't be in a rush. Reader's can handle a complex plot, but not if you throw it all at them all at once. Bring them along, one new loop in the knot at a time.

4) Gain perspective.

In order to gain perspective on your whole story, you need to boil it down to its essence. Not be rewriting, but by breaking it up and summarizing it somehow. This "turning point" method is one way; something seemingly irrevocable happening is your segmentation point. Everyplace that happens, so each segment has one and only one turning point. Now you can summarize that segment by its turning point. What happened?

Another definition could be "a scene of continuous time" for some character(s), an unbroken stretch of time while Alice runs through the park or Bob plants his bomb. The turning points generally seem to coincide with the end of such scenes, but not necessarily; so I prefer the turning point which gives something concrete to describe.

In any case, to figure out how to simplify your plot, you need an overview of it you can see all at once; what is major and what is minor. This post is to help you see ways to arrive at that and understand what is important and what is not.

If you have segments that seem to overlap; that may or may not be a good thing, just cut where the turning points are. If your turning point 67 occurs three sentences after turning point 66, no biggie: You can note that 67 requires incidents in 64,65, and 66. To simplify you might consider unraveling that mess into four distinct turning points; but it isn't always possible. IRL some things happen simultaneously; Alice's turning point with Bob may be inextricable from Bob's turning point with Alice. But when they are separable with some imagination, do it: Simpler is better. So two scenes, one about Alice's turning point, a second about Bob's turning point, is better than one scene where they are jumbled together. For example, Alice may decide she is breaking up with Bob in one scene, so the next scene is just informing Bob and him having his crisis over that, instead of both turning points happening in the same scene.

  • A little hard to understand (the paragraphs are rather dense) but I get the general ideas. Thanks, especially the bit about going back to my original ideas. – EmmieCG May 4 '18 at 19:46
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    Apologies; I did not have the spare time to write less! :-) – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica May 4 '18 at 19:48
  • No problem, thanks for taking the time to help at all! – EmmieCG May 4 '18 at 19:59
  • P.S. If you tell me what was dense, I can edit and clarify it. If you were confused by the percentages; they are percentages of total story length, measured in pages, words, whatever you can check easily. If you are not familiar with the three-act structure; here is a detailed article on how to use it: writersedit.com/fiction-writing/literary-devices/… – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica May 4 '18 at 21:46
  • No, it's fine! I have actually seen the three-act structure before, and am currently using an outline template based on it, and I understood the percentages pretty decently. It really just took me reading through your answer a second time to understand it better! – EmmieCG May 7 '18 at 8:49
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Maybe your story isn't made for one single novel. Sometimes your plot comes with so many essential storylines, that are important for the main story arc.

What I would suggest: Try to sort the characters in the categories "Main Char" and "Sub Char". Main chars are important for the progress of the main story or for understanding the main story. Then seperate the stories in "Main Story" and "Sub Story". Main stories are worth to tell. They are the core feature to the whole plot. But don't miss the Sub stories. They drive character development, tension grow and much more. Not even starting with deepening relationships between characters and so on.

If you split your stories and chars into these sections,you are able to make 2 choices. 1. Erase some stories: If you cut some Sub Stories, that have almost nothing to do for the plot, you can have a more clear way to see your story. 2. Divide stories into arcs or novels: If you want to keep every story, try to hold a few together and outline it better.

That would be my way to solve your plotting problem But I bet there are plenty others.

EDIT: As Secespitus mentioned as comment in your post. The question itself is not really clear. I assumed you need a technique to make the story more clear for yourself. So if the question is something else, I'm open to correction or revoking my answer for better answers

  • The OP mentions that they are having trouble finding out which parts are necessary and which are hard to understand (not "not necessary", but "hard to understand"). Your argumentation in the second paragraph could probably use a bit of editing to make it more obvious how to find out which parts are difficult. Just telling them to find out which parts are necessary and which are not is not really useful as the process/technique to do this is their main problem. And they are trying to prune the existing novel. If you advocate multiple novels you should make the frame-challenge more obvious. – Sec SE - clear Monica's name May 4 '18 at 17:15
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    I have separated out my characters and plots like you've suggested, and it's been really helpful. Who knows? I may create additional books in the same series once this one is done if I feel happy with it. – EmmieCG May 4 '18 at 19:50
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Who says it’s too complicated, with too many characters? Would you tell that to Tolstoy or Tolkien or Martin?

Either way, what’s the absolutely basic outline? “Boy meets girl” sounds too extreme for me but “there’s this character, who does that thing, which leads to this outcome…”

When “does that thing” is “goes on a quest” then at this level, that’s enough. The quest might involve three or 27 adventures; that’s irrelevant detail.

Assuming you’re working towards an outcome - else, no story - how is that measured against your starting conditions? What changes; how does it change and why?

Look more obviously at Arabian Nights or more obscurely at Ancient Evenings and notice how easily irrelevant side-lines cab be woven into any story… and how, just as easily, they could be cut out.

  • So first off, there are angels and demons (but this is not linked to religion). Soon after the two main characters meet, one of the sub characters shows up and warns everyone that the archdemon of wrath (Aelio) is planning an attack, therefore causing the second war for Lumefernus (the world the story is set in, the earth equivalent). The main characters must then survive the war and hopefully, save the world. It's an action-romance in a fantasy setting. – EmmieCG May 7 '18 at 8:22

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