How to write a complex story (part I: Theory)

In this article, we will seek to demonstrate that it is possible to construct the complex plan of a narrative work, without even needing to know its content.

In other words, it is about learning to write plot structures that are interesting, endowed with meaning, by playing on the plot parts and on the actantial roles of the character sets.

(To learn more about story structures, check our Storytelling courses.)

Definitions: plot and character set

The plot

First we need to define what we call a plot.

Any story, any narrative form whatever the medium, stages at least one plot. Long and complex stories tell dozens or even hundreds.

A plot can be defined as follows: it is a series of actions undertaken by a main character endowed with a goal, the Hero, which leads him from an initial situation to a final situation, passing through an intermediate stage.

The minimum structure of a plot is therefore:

  • Initial situation
  • The Hero has a purpose
  • Development: the Hero tries to reach the goal
  • Final situation (goal achieved or not)

If we develop this plot a little more, it leads us to formalize any plot in this form:

  • Act I
  • Initial situation
  • Triggering incident
  • The Hero has a purpose
  • Act II
  • A certain number of adventures: the Hero encounters obstacles and Helpers, the Antagonist (and his Helpers) generate (s) obstacles
  • Act III
  • Crisis: the Hero is confronted with the main Antagonist
  • Climax: the goal is reached or not
  • Final situation

The character set

Every plot has a character set.

A character set is a series of characters directly involved in a plot.

The character set consists of at least one character, the one who has the goal: the Hero.

So we can imagine this plot reduced to the minimum necessary, with a character set consisting of a single character:

  • A woman is hungry
  • So she’s going to buy herself a sandwich
  • And she eats it.

Such a plot is admittedly highly uninteresting, but it works.

To become interesting, a plot needs opposition. Other characters must oppose the Hero’s goal and make it more difficult to achieve. These “characters”, moreover, are not necessarily human: they can be things, facts, situations.

So let’s take our too simple plot, and complicate it:

  • A woman is hungry and has nothing left to eat at home
  • But she lives far from any commerce
  • She wants to order a pizza but notices that her phone is cut
  • She goes out to take the bus, waits a long time, and a passerby informs her that there is a bus strike
  • She wants to walk, but a heavy rain starts to fall
  • She hitchhikes, and runs into a pervert, so she makes him stop and flees
  • She goes home, still hungry

In this plot, the distance, the phone breakdown, the bus strike, the rain, the pervert, are characters who play the role of Antagonist. The Heroine fails to achieve her goal, because of these Antagonists too strong for her.

Hero and Antagonist are the 2 most important actantial roles in a storyline, but there are 4 other types:

  • Hero’s Helpers: they help the Hero to try to reach his goal
  • Antagonist’s Helpers: They help the Antagonist try to prevent the Hero from reaching his goal
  • The Mentor: he gives the Hero the goal
  • The Skeptic: he dissuades the Hero from wanting to achieve his goal

If we take the last plot by adding characters having these actantial roles, it can give:

  • A family is hungry and has nothing to eat
  • The lazy man sends the woman to look for food
  • The children are against it (one thinks it’s raining too much to go out, the other thinks the father should go himself), but fail to dissuade her
  • The woman gets out, wants to take the bus but realizes that there is a strike, hitchhikes and comes across a pervert whose passenger encourages her to attack the woman, who manages to escape
  • Drenched, in shock, the woman sees a car stop and recognizes one of her good friends
  • He takes her to a store where she does her shopping, then brings her home

In this plot, the wife is Heroine, her husband is Mentor, the children are Skeptics, the bus strike, the rain and the pervert are Antagonists, the pervert’s friend is the Antagonist’s Help, and the friend of the woman is Help of the Heroine.

Thus, we see that there is no character unless we endow him with an actantial role. We must therefore distinguish between these two concepts. The same character can hold different actantial roles in several plots of the same story — for example, being a Hero in one and a Mentor in the other — and he can even play several roles in the same plot: a character can be both Hero and Antagonist, for example if a Mentor forced him to achieve a goal.

Now that you have mastered the concepts of Three Acts plot and acting characters with actantial roles, let’s see what we can do with them!

Make complex plot structures

Knowing how to tell an interesting plot is good.

But it’s poor, potentially monotonous, and necessarily brief: you can’t write a 200-page novel or a 2-hour movie with one plot, one goal, one set of characters. You also cannot render the complexity of the real or of a fictional world with a single plot.

This is why you have to know how to tell complex stories, make many plots.

With 5 or 10 plots, you can keep the audience in suspense for 200 pages of a novel or 2 hours of film. But if we are content to string together complete plots one after the other, we find the same problems as in the stories with a single plot: it’s poor, monotonous, simplistic.

It is therefore necessary not only to know how to create series of plots, but also to know how to cut them up and arrange them in complex structures.

These plot structures can formally belong to 4 types:

  • Serial plots
  • Intertwined plots
  • Included plots
  • Factorial plots

Let’s study them in more detail.

Serial plots

This is the most basic structure: a simple chain of plots.

  • Plot 1, then Plot 2, then Plot 3 …

Yet this is the structure of the Thousand and One Nights.

You can make it more interesting if you pass data from one plot to another — for example characters in common, or the end of one plot is the starting point of another.

For example, we can imagine telling a kind of tournament:

  • Plot 1: character A against character B, A wins
  • Plot 2: character C versus character D: C wins
  • Plot 3: character A versus character C, etc

In this way, a general suspense is created which goes beyond the framework of each plot taken in isolation.

A number of TV series roughly correspond to this serial plot plan, although instead of plot they are plot structures: thus each episode of the Columbo, Friends, and House M.D. series has exactly the same plots structure (these are usually structures that intertwine 2 or 3 plots, including 1 major plot and 1 or 2 minor plots).

Intertwined plots

This structure cuts the plots into pieces, and then tells the elements one after the other, so that at each transition there is a suspense about what will be the continuation of the plot.

Here is for example the possible plan of a story which intertwines 2 plots:

  • Plot 1 Act I
  • Plot 2 Act I
  • Plot 1 Act II
  • Plot 2 Act II
  • Plot 1 Act III
  • Plot 2 Act III

The Friends series worked this way most of the time: one character, usually one of the 6 recurring characters (Chandler, Monica, Ross, Rachel, Joey, Phoebe), becomes the Hero of a major, bigger and longer plot, and another character has a smaller problem and becomes the Hero of a smaller, more anecdotal and shorter plot.

The advantage of this structure is that it breaks the monotony, provides suspense, allows two-tone play (one more dramatic, the other more comical), and mobilizes the same characters in various actantial roles. (e.g. Monica is the Heroine who must succeed in baking a chocolate cake in the minor storyline, and she is the Heroine’s helper of Rachel in the major storyline where the heroin Rachel suffers heartache because of a man who plays the role of Antagonist).

We find this plot structure in Pulp Fiction: the story of Butch is cut into parts, before and after his boxe match, before and after his meeting with Marcellus and with the pervert cop.

Included plots

This structure presents a minor plot, included during a major plot.

This is often the case with flashbacks: we tell a plot, then we stop, we change the setting, we tell a memory, then we come back to finish the current plot.

The advantage: the framing plot is enriched with the content, meaning, information and emotion of the included plot.

For example, a love story is told, then one of the 2 lovers tells a traumatic memory, and this touching scene encourages the other lover to redouble their tenderness; thus the included plot has reinforced the motivation of this lover who is the Helper of the Hero whose goal is to be loved.

Factorial plots

This is a special case where a minor plot becomes one of the dramatic moments of a major plot.

A good example: the structure of each episode of the Columbo series.

In each episode we have:

  • A minor plot, where character A commits the “perfect crime” on character B
  • Then a major, bigger and longer plot, where Columbo investigates, discovers progressively what happened in the minor plot, and ultimately proves character A’s guilt.

In this case, the minor plot corresponds to the beginning of Act I of the major plot.

Note how the same character, A, is Hero in the Minor Plot (goal: kill B), then Antagonist in the Major Plot (goal: prevent Columbo from stopping him), while Columbo is Hero of the Major Plot (goal: to stop A), and absent from the minor plot.

So, from these 4 plot structures, and even more by mixing them together, you can conceive endless complex stories.

Next part

That was the theory of how to write a complex story. Now, let’s study some cases and see how we can apply our plot structures to them.