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It’s Simple, It’s Complicated, It’s a Novel

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How nice when a novel boils down to one simple idea.  Oh, my life as a literary agent gets easy!  Pitching becomes a breeze.  Everyone from editors to reviewers are happy too.  There’s little to explain.  No one needs to be sold.  The story sells itself.  The premise rings like a starting bell and the horses are off and galloping away.  The novel has practically written itself in our brains.


High concept novels have instant appeal but reading a novel doesn’t happen in an instant.  There are hundreds of pages to fill.  With what?  That’s where this business of writing fiction starts to get complicated.  A good idea gets you going but going where?  How do you hold readers’ attention for so many pages?  How do you keep readers immersed?  How do you not disappoint?

And what about the flip side?  Suppose you are writing a novel that you can’t easily explain?  What if it’s complicated from the get-go?  What if there’s no pitch, no log line, no elevator, no reductive copy that can capture your story?  What if what you’re capturing is life itself in all its shades of gray and nuance?  What if being complicated is the whole point?

Either way, how are you supposed to make your sweeping novel simple when you’ve got ten minutes or less to sell it on that awful day while sitting across a tiny table from a literary agent in a room packed with other whiz-bang writers pitching their novels at top speed?  It isn’t fair.  Anyway, isn’t fiction supposed to work against our Tweet-short, Insta-blip culture in the first place?  It’s long form, for god’s sake.  We’re supposed to get a lot out of it, not get done with it in as little time as possible.  Right?

So, should fiction be simple or complicated?  If a novel is simple to explain doesn’t that make it hard to spin out at sufficient length?  If it’s too complicated to explain does that make it too murky for readers to grasp?  Hey, let’s be honest.  No one wants to write Finnegan’s Wake.  At the same time, no one wants to write an Aesop fable.  (Try putting that in your query e-mail, eh?  My 423-word epic tale captures a universal truth for the ages.  Good luck with that one.)

Breathe.  High concept novels have wisdom to glean from irreducible fiction.  At the same time, complicated stories can benefit from finding within themselves the simple truths that are the secret source of their power.  Simple story ideas need to get complicated.  Complicated novels grain force if, when all is read and done, they can be summed up simply.

Let’s make this idea easy…and at the same time complex.

The Simple Business of Impact

Novels are about characters and what we remember most about characters is what they are like.  They intrigue us.  They entertain us.  They surprise us because we never know exactly what they’re going to do or say.  They can be stuck in place but nevertheless journey.  They can change but somehow remain exactly like us.  We relate to them no matter how different their times or circumstances.  We wouldn’t want their problems but their lives are so dramatic that we wish we could be them, or at least speak or dress as well as them.

There is a difference, however, between protagonists and secondary characters.  Main characters generally present us with a complexity that makes them feel real and fascinating.  Secondaries, by contrast, can be written to single out a human drive or foible.  Think Mrs. Bennet, Hermione Granger or Eeyore.

Antagonists, too, can be complex and understandable or, the other way around, simple and beyond understanding.  Overall, I find that antagonists are the most memorable when they present us with a puzzle.  When we don’t understand villains, we somehow cannot let them go.  We are compelled to create their origins stories.  Think Mrs. Danvers, Nurse Ratched, Hannibal Lecter or the Wicked Witch of the West.

Society as a whole is in reality a complex construct, but in stories it can break down into stark divisions.   At the same time, what is society except a collection of simple human hopes, fears and behaviors?  Any one of those can seize control of mass numbers of people and, in story terms, can turn disturbing when those human traits grow predictable, ugly and/or unstoppable. Think Oliver Twist, 1984 or To Kill a Mockingbird.

Sometimes an author’s intention is broad and encompassing, for example in sagas and epics.  It’s not wrong to want to show us a lot but what unifies and simplifies a sprawling story?  If the perspective is not a single character seen over time, it then is either successive generations or a kaleidoscope of points of view.  Whatever the case there is a lens, or there are multiple lenses, focused on a simple question, such as: Who am I?  Who are we?  What makes this place the place that it is?  The answers are multifold but without simple driving questions to unify vast experiences we will quickly feel lost.

Another way to unify a sprawling or a sweeping experience is to build it around a single objective or event.  Odysseus had many adventures but his main goal was to return home.  Hamlet muses at length about the human condition but, really, he has just one job to do.  Mrs. Dalloway, meanwhile, has much to tell us about a woman’s experience but all of it is told in the span of one day.  Jay Gatsby represents the excesses of an entire decade but the true excess is his simple desire to win back his lost love, Daisy Buchanan, which he does with tragic results.

Novels that encompass all of society are often built around simple and singular tragedies, injustices and crimes.  The clash of cultures in A Passage to India, for instance, is filtered through an alleged assault and the subsequent trial.  The Hate U Give obtains its drive from one police shooting of a Black teenager.  Always there is a protagonist caught squarely in the middle of conflicting social forces.

When a story intention grows as grand as capturing the human condition, the effect can be strong when it causes us to look in a mirror.  Mirrors come in many forms.  Robots and cyborgs.  (The Foundation series, The Murderbot Diaries.)  Apocalypse.  (On the Beach, The Stand.)  Last one alive.  (I Am Legend, Bird Box.)  Survival.  (Lord of the Flies, The Life of Pi, The Martian.)  War.  (Too many examples to mention.)  Social survival.  (The Handmaiden’s Tale, Beauty Queens.)   Ghosts.  (The Turn of the Screw, Beloved.)  Svengali characters.  (The Magus, The Secret History.)  Articles of clothing.  (Pearl earring, red slippers, traveling pants.)  An animal.  (The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Warhorse.)  Philosophy, faith.  (The Stranger, Siddhartha, The Prophet.)

Baseball.  Chess.  Quilting.  Clubs.  Grand Central Station.  The list goes on.  The point is that a subject as broad as life itself is best approached through a tight focus.  The narrower the window, in a way, the wider the view.  It is of course not enough just to have a cool idea.  A simple concept or focus is only the center of gravity around which a thousand complications and nuances will orbit.  Without that center, though, the gyre widens and widens until it flies apart.

Complex stories are also punctuated by high moments.  Atticus’s summation to the jury in the trial of Tom Robinson.  “Reader, I married him.”  Katniss Everdeen volunteering to take her sister’s place in The Hunger Games.  The deaths of Beth March, Lenny Small, Alaska Young, Johnny Cade.  (“Stay gold, Ponyboy.”)  The meaning of “the silence of the lambs”.  The twist in Gone Girl.  High moments are emotional punches and hoorays.  A complex story can come down to just those, the highly human, ticking seconds of living that makes us who we are—and which make a complex story ultimately simple.

Does any of what we’ve been thinking about today have a use in your WIP?

Practical Complexity and Simplicity Made Simple

  • What contradiction inherent in human nature does your protagonist embody?  Show each side at work.
  • What single human trait does one particular secondary character represent?  Exaggerate that and show us how.  When is this character the most inflexible?  When does this character become harmful, comic or exasperating?
  • How is the main problem facing your character one that none of us would ever want to face?  Make it more agonizing.
  • How is the main problem facing your protagonist one that, in one way or another, faces all of us?  Make it, in one way, more ordinary.
  • Got an antagonist?  Twist that character in some way that is maniacal, extreme or evil.  Don’t tell us why, but do give that character more power and scope.  What’s the worst thing he/she can possibly do?
  • Your protagonist may not know it, but he/she is on a universal human quest.  For what?  What does it take to answer that question, find that self, or arrive at that place?  Add experiences that put your MC on that road, through its twists and turns, and finally to a destination as unsought as it is important.
  • What is the one simple thing your protagonist must do?  List everything that makes that impossible, then add a few challenges more.
  • What is the object, idea, group, or place around which your protagonist’s story revolves?  Make it central enough to serve as your novel’s title and icon cover image.
  • Can you compress your story’s timeframe?  What can you invert?  In what way can the storyteller (that’s you) manipulate the tale to conceal, falsely foreshadow, create a pattern, work a trick, or in any other way play with the reader’s head?
  • The social forces at work in your story world also work directly on your protagonist.  How?  What conflict does that create?  What tragedy results?
  • What in this story world is the mirror to our human nature?  What is the microcosm?  How central to the novel can you make that element?  Can you focus the whole novel around it?
  • Somewhere in the story, wring our hearts.  Say, I love you.  Say, I forgive you.  Say farewell.  Cause us, your readers, to exclaim: Ah ha!  Oh no!  Get away!  Ha, he had that coming!  Please, please, please!  Never again, not in a million years!  Now I’ve seen everything!  All is lost!  Praise God, it’s a miracle!
  • What’s the worst mistake that your protagonist can make?  Uh-oh.
  • What is the most heroic thing your protagonist can possibly do?  Go ahead.  Now more than ever, we need heroes.

Simple story concepts spin off complex developments.  Complex stories have at their heart a simple human truth.  Having either firmly in hand will make the writing process easier.  Simple?  Complicated?  A novel is both—and so is writing one.

What is your simple story idea which will turn complex?  Or, inversely, how is your complex story underpinned by a simple truth?


About Donald Maass

Donald Maass (he/him) is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist, The Fire in Fiction, Writing the Breakout Novel and The Career Novelist.

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