ANNNND…. Complication!

A standard story is a long-term situation that has a tendency to further complicate itself, and complicate itself, and complicate itself some more, until it runs out of new complications and gets resolved. I can deal with that. But what starts getting to me is those stories where instead of the overall plot being one that acquires complications the way socks being worn in a dry field acquire burrs, it’s a single situation that’s suffering from overcomplication. It’s been being dealt with for a while,and just as you think it’s just about resolved and we can get back to the major plot, BOOM! Another complication. I’m not saying don’t ever do it; I’ve seen it work. But on the other hand, as I pointed out in my post about plot twists and ninjas, it starts to strain after a while.

So. If you must complicate a situation more than once or twice, what should you keep in mind?

Try to keep your number of situational digressions to a minimum; the longer they are, the more of a minimum you should keep them to. Three is okay. Five is doable if you’re really good. Past that, you had better be playing Mouse Guard with a group of players that can’t roll well to save their lives.

Try not to repeat yourself by having the same complication twice in one overall situation. The sudden reappearance of your villain once is interesting; twice is annoying and likely to result in villain saturation. If you’ve already done “this character’s been swiped by ninjas while we were talking”, at the very least have a different character go missing or a different potential abductor, preferably both.

The more complications you have, and the longer you take to get through them, the more you should balance it out with a clear sense of contribution to the plot. This goes double, at least, in a serial format, where people are actually having to wait through digression after digression; a lump format is a lot more forgiving, since it doesn’t add the week after week of breathless anticipation crushed under the iron heel of “Now what?”

Foreshadow your complications as much as possible. Sure, it eliminates the surprise when you pull out your plot twist, but if the characters were almost in the clear and the plot twist popped out with practically no warning, it can be a bit frustrating. You can do this once. After that, people are going to be getting more and more irritated with each new one.

Treat everything with the utmost efficiency; if you can’t be simple, at least be fast. Remember, you’ve got a big overarching plot of which this is only one part. People are going to want to be getting on with the plot, and the longer they have to wait for it, the less they’re going to appreciate the interesting information and the snappy one-liners you’re dropping in the meantime.

Complications to a single situation don’t have to be plot poison, but they’re as likely as not to endanger the rest of your work if not treated with extreme caution. Good luck!

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