Layering Plot in Fantasy Stories

From the expansive complexity of the Wheel of Time and other such fantasy epics to the more focused, linear storylines of standalone books, there is no denying that the fantasy genre has a wide breadth of plot types. But which is better? How do you know when your plot is too complex, or too simple?

If you’ve been here for long, you will know by now that I definitely advocate doing some kind of planning before you start writing. Even if it’s just a simple plan. Having some plot that is written even just in bullet point form will drastically improve your story’s structure and integrity. So let’s assume, going forward, that you have a plan, and that you’ve started writing. You’re even most of the way through your draft at this point.

And you’ve started to get that awful feeling: what if I’ve gotten the complexity wrong?

Identifying your current and intended plot types

The first thing to do is identify whether your plot is too complex or too simple. Which means establishing at the outset the most important thing: do you want your story to be one or the other? Would you rather it was somewhere inbetween? The answer to this question isn’t a pre-determined one. You don’t have to write a story so complex your readers need to take notes just because you’re writing a fantasy novel. Really.

Yes, those books are amazing and yes, you might be choosing to write one – and that’s fine. My favourite books are in that vein. But they might not be what you’re writing – and that’s fine! What matters is identifying what you want to write, and what’s right for your story. Then write that. Stick by it. Incidentally, this is also the hardest thing to do. Because how do you tell how complex your plot is?

You know your story intricately at this point. To you, there’s no mystery in it, because you know everything. This means that what might actually be quite complex can seem, to you, to be very simple. In my experience this is a lot of what leads to people thinking their stories are too simple. The best defence for this is getting other people to read your work and give you feedback on it.

You can also take a little time off from writing it, then come back to it and read it fresh. This is something I do, and will be doing when I finish the complete first draft of my next novel in just over a month. With that distance, you’ll be (in my experience) better placed to see the shape of your story.

So that’s how to work out where you are and where you want to be. Now how do you fix it if there are problems? Here’s some advice for each level of complexity.

High complexity: Drawing it out

If you’re going for a really complicated plot, you’re going to need to prepare more. This isn’t surprising, and it’s what I’ve found to be the most important thing in writing a story of this nature. As a result I approach writing this sort of story quite differently to others – where normally I would plan more widely and in stages, for complex stories I plan intricately.

Timelines are one of the ways of visualising plot that I’ve found the most helpful. Especially when you have many groups doing things at once – it means you can always reference who is where. When I was working on a commissioned novella for Labyrinthe LRP, I had notes on who was where in the battle at any given time, who they were fighting and what they were doing. And even with these notes, I still sometimes mixed myself up!

So go hunt down all those story planning techniques, those diagrams that help you see your plot. Dive headfirst into them, and you should find they help you see when too much is too much, or when you’ve been neglecting a thread of your plot.

Mid-level complexity: Adjusting your plot lens

Protos, the novel I’m working on right now, has a moderate level of plot complexity. This mostly means that I spend my time worrying that it’s not complicated enough – that I haven’t interwoven enough threads of different things.

What has really helped me is not so much changing how I’m writing, but changing how I think about that writing. In an ensemble cast, wide-ranging, very complicated story you’ll get a lot of back and forth between concurrent plotlines. In a moderately complex story, it often works slightly differently – a lens that focuses on different places at a time.

When you start to think of it like that, you alleviate some of that fear. It’s not that my world or story aren’t wide-reaching enough – it’s that I’ve turned the camera on this particular side of it. Often, this is even done without changing the focus characters. Protos, for example, has only three points of view, but travels to many places and highlights each of those main characters in turn. It’s a camera that has been following the same path, but occasionally looks back and forth, observing things in a new but continuous way.

Seeing my novel in this perspective has really helped me gauge the complexity level a lot better. So if you’re struggling to conceive of your novel’s shape, try thinking of it like this – it just might work.

Low complexity: It’s about the details

Just because your plot isn’t wide reaching and complicated doesn’t mean it isn’t deep. Some of the best “low complexity” stories have twists and surprises and much more. In reality, they’re not actually less complicated – they’re just more focused. So let’s right now do away with the notion that your story is worth less because it’s not as complex. It can be just as powerful – if not moreso.

If you’re writing one of these, it’s all about leaning into that decision to write a focused story. The depth of your story is in the details; in the writing. In how intensely the reader feels the path of the characters. How clearly you paint the picture of their world. You can have so much fun in tracing and bringing to life that depth, and you’ve got the room to do it.

Whichever of these paths you take, remember that the most important thing is not to compare. Go for the complexity and breadth that suits you, and your story. It doesn’t matter what other people are doing; their stories are not yours. This one is.

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