Critique Technique, part 22—Overly Complex Plot

Tangled rope

Photo credit: Boaz Yiftach via

In a way it’s hard to say that a story’s plot is overly complex. Many stories have multiple plot lines, each with their own subplots, and yet the story “works”: the reader can understand what’s going on, the plot lines all make sense (eventually, anyway), and things come together at the end. Maybe the conclusion doesn’t tie everything together in a pretty bow, but the story doesn’t end in a Gordian knot, either.

So the question isn’t whether a story’s plot is too complex, but whether it’s too complex for the space allotted to it. Is there time and length for the various plot elements to be explored in enough depth and detail for them to all make sense?

If you’re reviewing a stand-alone piece—a short story or non-fiction article, for example—and you’ve got the whole thing in front of you, that’s easy enough to judge. If the plot is too complex, the piece will:

  • Feel rushed, as if the author was hurrying to get to the end; and/or
  • Leave you wanting to know more, with the sense that the author perhaps knew things she didn’t tell; and/or
  • Leave you confused, not having gotten information you needed to make sense of what you had.

Those latter two points can be techniques literary-fiction writers use—leaving out key details which the reader is then supposed to pull out of the subtext or context—but that’s not what I’m talking about here. You, the reviewer, also need to know what genre a fiction story is a part of.

Creative non-fiction can use these techniques, too, but only with caution.

If you’re reviewing part of a longer piece, such as a single chapter, or even a group of chapters, of a novel, judging whether a plot is too complex for the space allotted to it is much more difficult. Each chapter has its own plot elements, of course, but they won’t necessarily be linked together yet. They might be occurring at the same time, or be linked in some logical way. If you have an outline or synopsis of the entire book, you have a tool you can use to evaluate a chapter’s complexity. If you’ve seen—and can remember the details of—previous chapters, that can also help.

If not, you’re going to have to fall back on your own writer’s sense of what works. You can:

  • Discuss the story with the author;
  • Make notes to help keep track of the various plot lines;
  • Flag events and details that don’t make sense or seem out of place at the moment to see if they’re justified, explained, or resolved later.

There’s one other factor to consider, irrespective of story length or type: whether one or more plot lines are necessary to the story at all. This is a question that can generate a lot of angst and consternation in the writer because he may well consider every piece critical.

Tough noogies.

You’re doing the author a big favor if you can demonstrate that the story will be better—tighter, clearer, more focused—if certain material is taken out. The thing is, you’ll need to be able to see the whole story, more than likely, to be able to make a strong case for this position.

So, here are some questions to ask yourself as you consider a piece’s plot complexity:

  • Does each plot line and subplot contribute to the overall story?
  • Does the story, or the part I can see, feel rushed, as if too much is happening at once or without sufficient development or explanation?
  • Presuming you can see the whole story:
    • Can a plot line or subplot be removed from the story without damage? Might doing so make the story better?
    • Are the relationships and connections among the plot lines clear, or made clear at appropriate times?
    • By the end of the story, do I feel I knew enough to make sense of it and its plot lines? Was information left out that left me confused when this wasn’t the author’s intent?

What do you use to evaluate whether a story’s plot is too complex or not?