Keep It Simple? Or Complex?

In 2012, I decided for the first time to join the crazy international project known as National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for those who are familiar with it. Each November, hundreds of thousands of would-be authors are challenged to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.

Because it was my first time, and because I decided to do it at the very last minute (the night before), I opted to keep my storyline relatively simple. I decided for the first time (and what turned out to be the last time) to write a steampunk novel, or actually a steampunk western set in 1899. I took real historical characters that were alive at the same time and wove them together into a story that got then involved in a story of intrigue. At the same time, the story was simple.

It was called Tom Horn versus the Warlords of Krupp, and followed the famous ex-gunslinger Tom Horn, who is arrested in south Texas for a murder he committed years before. On his way to trial in Colorado, he is rescued by Theodore Roosevelt, then governor of New York, who knew Tom Horn from their Rough Rider days. Roosevelt hires Horn to protect and travel with his 16-year-old niece Eleanor Roosevelt across the United States and to Vienna to peace talks happening there. In the meantime, mercenaries hired by arms dealers are trying to stop them.

It’s a basic story: hero tries to get from point A to point B. Bad guy tries to stop him. I chose the story because I thought it was fun, and because those kinds of stories don’t have complicated plotlines that distract from other parts of the stories, such as action or characterization.

On the other hand, I watched the movie Serenity the other night. Every time I watch it, I am floored and amazed by the complexity and seamless way that Joss Whedon sets up the story in the first few minutes. There is a beginning within a beginning within a beginning. It’s complex, and it works.

So which is better? To keep your story simple, or to try to make it complex? Well, as I usually say, it depends. If you have a complex story to begin with, you probably have to start with a complex beginning. But if you’re a beginning writer, OR if you’re just starting a series, I don’t recommend a complex beginning. Complex beginnings are hard to do well, and are good ways to lose your audience.

In my Champion Trilogy, I start off with a pretty basic story. A pastor is disillusioned with his calling. He prays and asks for God to use his in a bigger way. As a result, he is caught up in a conspiracy that gets bigger and bigger as time goes on. The second book in the series uses minor characters from the first book as primary characters, and the story expands into multiple storylines. And the third book is more complex still. But it is all done gradually. I will have to confess, however, that this approach was more organic than intended. I just wrote the story the way it presented itself to me, and fortunately it worked out well.

The book I am working on now is complex, with multiple characters, several plotlines and is the second book in a series. However it doesn’t really continue characters from the first book. And I am worried about it. I’ve been writing for more than 40 years, so I don’t worry about my abilities as a writer. But that doesn’t mean the complexity of this book won’t be a problem. I’ve fallen on my face too many times in the past to guarantee I won’t do it again. But I also know that the best thing to do is go ahead and write the rough draft, then see if I can fix the problem.

So. Simple or complex? Let the story drive it, but be warned that complex stories are hard to write, hard to sell, and there are no guarantees they will work. But then there are no guarantees in writing at all, are there?