Writing Complex Stories vs. Confusing Stories
Fantasy and science fiction as writing genres hold so many possibilities when it comes to creating a vibrant story (not that other genres don’t). I’m just saying that because both genres produce works that focus on worldbuilding and rich descriptions, writers’ minds go crazy with creating their own universes. It is definitely possible to go overboard on everything else and neglect the story. And when so many other things are added in, your story can become confusing. This is called overcomplication in writing.
With so many possibilities for creativity to seep through, how much story is too much story? What happens when a plot goes from merely enticing and complex to overly complicated and confusing? Here are a few things you should know about what happens in an overcomplicated story. You can then avoid these when writing in fantasy or science fiction (or any genre!).
The Plot Gets Lost
This is probably the most obvious aspect to overly complicated stories. The plot is so stuffed with everything else like description and worldbuilding that readers are left wondering when the plot is going to move forward. This makes for slow starts (usually in the beginning when a lot of information appears). It can also mean a drawn out climax, where all the information you’ve stuffed in now fights for the right to be there so their lose ends can be tied up.
Imagine, for example, that your protagonist is tasked with hunting down a dragon. He then finds out that his sister has developed an army of dragons through political manipulation to take down neighboring enemies. This adds complexity in that the protagonist’s mission is affected by this bigger force, one that affects character and story development as the protagonist now has to make new and harder decisions. But then imagine another antagonist shows up and it turns out to be someone we’ve never heard of at all, and he’s got an entirely different agenda. Then a couple of subplots are thrown in. You get the idea. How do they all connect without confusing the readers? How will all these stories reach a satisfying conclusion if they’re battling for the reader’s attention?
Cut down on both the mechanics of your story as well as description. For one, know when too many twists and surprises can make the reader lose focus, like the example above. Then focus on the imagery (the five senses) of a scene, but know when too much description is too much. Be concise. I often find myself describing a scene then going back and cutting what I realize is redundant or what’s obvious to the reader. Those are two major pitfalls in description that just take up more word space, but that’s what editing and rewriting is for. And when you cut down what’s not needed, your description becomes richer, now that only the good stuff readers can engage with remains.
The World Gets Lost
Worldbuilding and story go hand in hand. A story thrives in a unique working universe and you can organically introduce new aspects to your world as your characters walk through it (and your readers too). But if you’re so focused on introducing and keeping track of all the components to your story idea, you end up spending less time developing your world. On the other hand, you might even be so focused on developing your world that the story gets lost that way. You end up spending so much time on the culture and society that the interesting people in them are pushed aside. Your readers become bored.
Worldbuilding isn’t just about putting your story and characters in a setting different from the real world. You world has to make sense and have its own rules, and your readers need to get a good idea of how it works. Keep a balance between the plot and the world by only explaining what your readers need to know at that time. Introduce cool stuff, but make sure the plot progresses. Don’t spend too much time on the little details that readers don’t need to know or care about. Sure it’s cool that your nomadic fictional culture has thirty different words for “ice,” but who cares if there’s a dragon flying your way and they have to stop it?
You Lose Readers and Your End Goal
Readers aren’t going to stick around if they can’t figure out how your world works or what’s supposed to be going on with the plot. They won’t see the point in reading to the end. It’ll all just be more explanations and less payout if you try to have every single thing you’ve inserted into the plot make sense. So a story and world that confuses readers keeps them from engaging with the work and wanting to find out more.
Also, with so many different things stuffed in, the very purpose of your story gets drowned out. You might have had a simple idea and end goal in mind when you first started, but all that has changed with the amount of extra stuff you’ve put in. All great stories start with a simple idea, a scene, anything. However, once you start building on it, adding layers of complexity, you can lose sight of what your idea was originally for and about because of everything going on.
Of course, your end goal can change. You could decide that you want your story to be about something else thematically. Or you could decide that you want the plot to go in a different direction, focusing on an event from a different perspective or even telling the story of a different character. Whatever the case, know what your end goal is and actively work toward it without letting too many other things get in the way. When you do, you guide yourself and your readers toward the ending, building a cohesive story as you go.
This doesn’t just apply to science fiction and fantasy! Any genre can be overcomplicated. It’s just that these genres can experience these pitfalls since there’s so much emphasis on world along with story. Don’t crowd the plot with things that aren’t needed. Keep it simple, but stay creative and add a little flair to your idea. The story will speak for itself.
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4 thoughts on “Here’s What Happens when You Overcomplicate Sci-fi and Fantasy”
This is all so true; you have some great thoughts on this topic! It’s always disappointing for me to see that an author had so many good ideas but didn’t know how to communicate them clearly, so the book ends up not too great overall because it’s confusing and overcrowded. You have to find that sweet spot where you don’t over- or under-explain! Would you mind if I reblogged this post on my blog (a short excerpt with a link back to the original post)? This is such an important concept that I’d love to share with other writers!
Thank you so much! Yes, that would be amazing! I’m so glad you liked it.