Featured From the Archives: My Love Affair With Complex Narratives

Confession: I was going to use today’s post to wax poetic (or completely fangirl gush, I hadn’t decided yet) about one of the books I finished recently. But then I realized that next week already has two book reviews scheduled. So instead of subjecting to you to four straight posts of reviews, I figured I’d pull something from the archives. You’re welcome.

This particular post (which I can’t believe was written over TWO YEARS ago already) does have a certain relevance, though. Not just in my own work, but for what I look for in general. I suspect that a large portion of you out there are writers. And I further suspect that most of you, if not all of you, are aware of my position as Head of Acquisitions for REUTS Publications. (That’s not my official title, by the way, but you know what I mean.) And I would hazard that of those who both write and know I actively cull the query trenches for new victims (did I say that? I meant authors —  talented, amazing authors) there are even some who have heard or seen the #MSWL tag/site.

In case you haven’t though, that’s short for Manuscript Wish List, and yes, I have a profile there detailing what I’ve been tasked with finding. In it, you’ll see that I list “intricate, multi-layered narratives” as one of the things most likely to tickle my fancy. Some have even submitted with that particular desire mentioned in their query. But it seems not everyone really knows what that means.

Which brings us to today’s topic: defining exactly what I mean when I say “intricate, multi-layered narratives.” Keep in mind that this was primarily written in reference to my own work, but the definitions toward the bottom are certainly useful for querying authors. (And to those thinking of submitting to REUTS/me: bonus points if you use the correct terminology in your query. 😉 )

My Love Affair With Complex Narratives

by Kisa Whipkey

Originally Posted on 3/29/13

I had a revelation this week — I’m completely infatuated with complex narratives. More than infatuated, I’m like an obsessed stalker. I already knew that my WIP was a complicated son-of-a-gun, with layers upon layers of intricate plot threads. But when my “simple” rewrite of The Bardach suddenly decided to morph into a complete overhaul with an added web of complexity, I started to wonder if it was a pattern.

Every writer has their go-to storytelling device, and apparently, this is mine. Like some kind of virus viciously mutating my fluffy little ideas into beefy, hulk-like variations with mental disorders, complex narration has spread through almost all of my plot bunnies. I suppose that really shouldn’t be a surprise, given the type of entertainment I tend to gravitate toward (they do say writers should write what they love to read), but still.

Why do I feel the need to complicate everything? Is it to push myself out of my comfort zone, testing my limits as a writer and forcing myself to rise to the challenge? Or is it simply that those are the stories I most enjoy as a reader? I’m honestly not sure, but I suspect it’s a little bit of both.

I’ve been writing for a long time now — over 20 years if you count the embarrassing grade-school attempts my mom continues to mortify me with whenever she gets the chance. (Love you, Mom!) And I’ve been an avid reader for even longer. So maybe it was a natural progression that I would grow past the simple narratives and start searching for things that were more complicated and therefore interesting.

I think all of us start to feel storytelling overload in this entertainment-soaked digital age. Eventually, storylines become predictable, plot twists become stale, character archetypes become as familiar as our siblings. So when a book/movie/show/game manages to keep us on our toes with an unexpected curveball, we are instantly intrigued. I know I go from only halfway paying attention to fully engaged in T minus 2 seconds when I run into a story that is different, refreshingly intricate, or surprising in some way.

Complex narratives add that extra depth to a story, regardless of medium. When done well, they’re almost invisible. The only thing readers notice is total immersion in the experience. We’ve all felt it. It’s the difference between mildly enjoying something and being so hooked that you’re glued to the edge of your seat, riveted until it ends; finishing a book and then promptly forgetting it, or being consumed by the need to share its brilliance with everyone you know. In short, it’s exactly the kind of reaction every content creator hopes to elicit from their audience.

What exactly are these complicated creatures I simply cannot live without? Well, there are several types of complex narratives, including these fine specimens:

  • Flashbacks: The interjection of a past scene or memory that illuminates the current situation or provides insight into the character’s backstory.
  • Dream Sequences: Similar to flashbacks, this oft-scorned device introduces atmospheric foreshadowing, additional information, or mystery for the reader.
  • Repetition: Just like it sounds; the literal repetition of a scene, clue, theme, etc.
  • Swapping POVs: We should all recognize this one. Head-hopping has become a pretty popular method for providing readers with multiple perspectives inside one plot. Just make sure you keep the identities clearly separated, generally with a scene or chapter break.
  • Converging Plotlines: Two seemingly unrelated, simultaneous plotlines that converge at the end, where the connection and overall message of the piece is finally revealed.
  • Circular Plotting: The story circles back around to the beginning.
  • Backward Storytelling: The end is shown first. We then work backward toward it, explaining how the characters got there in the process.
  • Framed Narration: A story within a story. Or in my case, a story within a story within a story. It’s up to you how many layers deep you want to make it. As long as you can keep it all straight and clear enough for the reader, it’s all fair game.

I’ve used them all in some form or other without even realizing it. You probably have too. Even my first forays into storytelling (I’m not counting those frightening grammar-school moments, no matter how much Mom insists they’re legit) contained flashbacks, dream sequences, and framed narratives. Those of you who have read my short stories know that I graduated to a hybrid of backward storytelling and circular plotting with Confessions, and have now gone even further to converging plotlines in the new version of The Bardach and a combination of about 5 techniques, including repetition, in Unmoving. It’s taking an exhausting toll on my muse, that’s for sure, and has me screaming, “What’s wrong with a little simplicity?”

The fact is, there’s nothing wrong with it. The standard three-act structure with no fancy trappings has been the traditional storytelling format for thousands of years. But complex narration builds on that, creating a richer, more engaging experience for everyone. Isn’t that what every writer wants? To connect deeply with their readers? I know I do. I want to make people feel the way I have when reading some of my favorite books — nearly all of which utilized at least some of the techniques listed above. Maybe that’s where I learned it, emulating my favorite authors while searching for my own literary voice. In the end, who really knows? All I know is that my stories would feel extremely lacking without their complexity. And that’s as good a reason as any to keep including it, even if, as I strongly suspect, it’s at least partially responsible for my slacker status on the prolific-meter. 😉

How about you, do you prefer simple or complex narratives? Sound off in the comments below!

5 thoughts on “Featured From the Archives: My Love Affair With Complex Narratives

  1. I am so happy to have read your post, it was such an amazing read, one which I enjoyed very much! I have had time to check out your blog and I have to say I loved it! So keep writing so I can keep looking forward to reading your work! (:

  2. This will come as no surprise to you but I love complex narratives. Love to read them, love to write them. Sometimes as I am trying to lay out a manuscript, the complexity boggles my mind, which I never understand since I’m the one eh concocted the whole idea in the first place!

    I have one on a back burner that I still have to work through the intricacies. It’ll get there.

    • I just had to pull one of my WIPs for that same reason–it got too intricate for the way I tend to write, which is totally by the seat of my pants. In order to pull this story off though, I’ll need to actually become a plotter. We’ll both get through it though, and I’m sure our narratives will be all the stronger for the extra brainstorming time. 😉

      • Agree! This unruly manuscript is the reason I had to become more of a plotter! It’s been sitting in “time out” for almost a year while I worked on other projects. I am finding these days that I have put enough distance between me and that manuscript that I feel like I can revisit it soon with a better plan. 🙂

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