My Love Affair With Complex Narratives

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.

There are several types of complex narratives, including:

  • 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 POV’s: 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. Otherwise, you just have a schizophrenic sounding narrator.
  • Converging Plotlines: Two seemingly unrelated, simultaneous plotlines 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 backwards 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.

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 writers 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 have a preference for simple or complex narratives?