Dear Editor: How Do I Fix a Novel Plot That’s Too Complicated?

—(Originally appeared in Publishers Weekly) BookWorks’ founder and veteran editor, Betty Kelly Sargent, is back with another answer to a reader question on how to keep a novel plot from becoming too complicated and confusing. This is where editing can save the day. Dear Editor: People tell me my novels are too complex. What should… [Read More]

—(Originally appeared in Publishers Weekly)

BookWorks' founder and veteran editor, Betty Kelly Sargent, is back with another answer to a reader question on how to keep a novel plot from becoming too complicated and confusing. This is where editing can save the day.

Dear Editor:

People tell me my novels are too complex. What should I do?

—Fred S.

"Omit needless words", for starters. That’s what Strunk and White suggest for all prose, and few would disagree. Lose the adverbs, simplify your descriptions, and then take out all sentences, paragraphs, scenes, chapters, and, yes, even characters that are not absolutely essential.How to fix a complicated novel plot by Betty Kelly Sargent for BookWorks.com

Do you have too many subplots? Can you eliminate one or two without weakening your novel plot? Go ahead and see what happens.

Revisit Your Outline

And ask yourself why the story got so complicated in the first place. Are you trying to include too much of what you learned in your research about, say, Paris in the forties, or the cause of the Spanish Civil War? Did you just become so intrigued with the ex-husband of the protagonist that you let his story dominate too much of your novel plot and distract from main events? Or maybe you started to lose your way because your sketchy outline kept changing in ways you hadn’t anticipated. You might take another look at your outline and do some revising. Maybe that whole chapter, on the protagonist’s father’s journey to America, could go.

Trim, Revise and Prune Your Novel Plot

Leaving things out is hard, and learning what to leave out is even harder. But once you get the hang of it, you’ll be amazed at how much more effective your novel plot can be.How to fix a complicated novel plot by Betty Kelly Sargent for BookWorks.com

Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd put it this way, in Good Prose: “Of the things we have learned in revising, perhaps the most important is the concept of sacrifice. Sometimes passages, even chapters, characters, or themes, that are perfectly good in themselves must go for the good of the whole.”


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2 thoughts on “Dear Editor: How Do I Fix a Novel Plot That’s Too Complicated?”

  1. Great idea! That is one thing I do struggle with at times–complicating my original plot. I have to then slow down and eliminate some scenes or change them. Readers seem to like my twists and turns, but when we have too many I think it confuses the reader, and it becomes more like work instead of entertainment to finish the story. Thanks!

    1. Thank you for sharing that, Gippy. Exacty! Plot twists and turns are a great way to keep your reader’s attention and engagement, but not to the extent that they get lost in them and lose the thread of the story. Struggling to keep everything straight can create frustration and heaven forbid, abandonment. Finding that balance takes vigilance but gets easier as you continue to hone your craft.

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