Complicated plot? No problem! - Authors A.I.

Alessandra Torre
May 14, 2024

In our most recent First Draft Friday, I was joined by the Hugo and Nebula winning author David Levine to discuss how to get your hands around a complicated story and put it onto the page.

Here are some of my key takeaways from my discussion with David:

  • Understanding structure of plot: David defines the story as a collection of incidents, characters, and settings, emphasizing that the cause-and-effect relationships between them is the foundation of plot.
  • List all plot elements: David suggests starting with a clear understanding of all plot elements, whether through outlining or discovery writing.
  • Visualizing the plot: David introduces the concept of a plot as a four-dimensional array of incidents, each represented by a bead in space-time. These incidents are strung together in a narrative, which is the order in which they appear on the page or screen. He gives suggestions of how to visualize these incidents — write each on a Post-it note and rearrange them or use Scrivener.
  • Crafting cause-and-effect relationships: These relationships drive plot development. Every incident influences subsequent events, forming a complex web of interconnected actions and consequences.
  • Choosing narrative order: Authors have the power to manipulate the order of incidents to create desired effects on readers. Whether employing flashbacks, flash-forwards, or nonlinear storytelling, the narrative structure serves to engage and immerse the audience.
  • Managing multiple narrators: Handling multiple points of view and parallel plotlines requires careful orchestration. Techniques such as alternating between scenes, utilizing cliffhangers, and intertwining character arcs enhance narrative depth and engagement.
  • Balancing simultaneous events: Authors can depict simultaneous events by switching between scenes. Attention to pacing and tension ensures seamless transitions and reader immersion.

It was a great discussion, one you won’t want to miss! Click below to watch our 30-minute session and hear the questions we answered from the live audience. Keep scrolling if you’d prefer to read the transcript.

More info:

Try out Marlowe, our A.I., for a critique of your novel:

Check out David D. Levine’s books on BingeBooks.

Enjoy the show? Check out our past First Draft Friday episodes.


Alessandra Torre: Hi everybody, and welcome, welcome, welcome to First Draft Friday. I am Alessandra (AR) Torre, your host with Authors A.I. and today I am joined by David D. Levine, who is going to be talking about writing complicated plots and how you can wrap your head around a complicated plot so you can figure out how you’re going to get it down on paper. And this is a topic we’ve never talked about. I’m really excited to jump into it. I can already see some people chiming in from YouTube and Facebook. Hello. So David, do you want to introduce yourself to the audience? 

David Levine: Hi. My name is David D. Levine. I always use the middle initial because David Levine is a really common name. I’m a science fiction writer. I’ve been in this business since right about 2000. I’ve sold four novels and over 60 short stories. I’ve won a Hugo, a Nebula and a bunch of other awards. And I love to talk about the craft of writing. I love to teach about it. And I’ve been giving a lot of thought recently to the structure of plot, the relationship between the plot and the narrative. I’ve got this idea that I call “plot considered as a four-dimensional array of brightly colored beads.” OK. It doesn’t have a really pithy name yet. It’s related to a theory called Narratology from the 20th century. It’s not Narratology, but there are some concepts that it shares with Narratology. 

Alessandra Torre: And just for those watching, we always have an interesting group of everybody from aspiring to super-experienced authors. If you can tell a short story, which is an extremely difficult thing to do, actually, to have a middle, beginning and end, and do that well, then it really gives you a fantastic foundation. So I’m excited to learn this specific thing from you. So if I’m an author and I have a super complicated plot that’s brewing in my head. Where do I start with your process? 

David Levine: So I’m going to start off by saying that I’m going to be using some terms in very specific ways. I’m going to talk about the story, the narrative and the plot, and I’m not going to be using these words in the usual definitions. The story is kind of a collection of all of the ideas, characters, settings and incidents that make up the story. Like if I started to say, “So there’s this prince, he’s the Prince of Denmark, right? And his father is dead. And he has this thing — he talks to a skull, and then there’s the head. There’s a sword fight, and there’s a poisoned sword. And he’s got a girlfriend named Ophelia.” Okay. Now, these are in random order, right? I’m mixing together really important plot points and really unimportant plot points. But you recognize this mess as being the story of Hamlet. So that’s what I think a story is. A story is a bunch of related stuff that’s all kind of hanging around together in the universe as a big sort of cloud. And some parts are really close to the center of the cloud, and there are other parts that are peripheral only marginally connected with the larger story. Because stories are big and fuzzy. And sometimes it can be hard to tell where one story ends and another story begins, right? So the story is composed of what I’m going to call incidents. 

And, I’m not going to talk for the moment about characters or setting or world-building. I’m just going to be talking about story and plot. So the story consists of a bunch of incidents. These are things that happen. And specifically, an incident is something that occurs with at least one character in a specific time or place. So if you’ve got Hamlet staring off into space and talking about “to be or not to be,” that’s an incident. Even though there’s only one character. And the fact that it’s taking place in a particular place isn’t really relevant because it’s really mostly taking place in his head. But it does happen at a specific time, and he is in a particular place when he does it. So you can imagine that you could have two incidents that are happening at the same time in different places. Like you’d have two people having an argument over here at the same time you have two people having a sword fight over there. Okay. So you can have incidents that are separated in space, but at the same time, or alternatively, you can have two incidents that happen in the same place at different times. I can have an argument with somebody in a room and then go out and come back and have a different argument with a different person in the same room, same space, different times. 

Okay. So you could imagine each of these incidents as a bead. A little colorful plastic bead with a hole in the middle. And it exists at a point in space time in four-dimensional space time. So it has an x, y, z, and a t. I’m having an argument with somebody in this room. It happens in this room at this time. And later on I go away and I come back and I have another argument in the same room. Same x, y, z coordinates, different t. Or you can have two different things happening at the same t and different x, y, z. Okay. And it’s easy when I talk about a story being this sort of messy cloud of incidents, it’s easy to think of them kind of drifting around. But really each one is fixed. You know, if you have two people having an argument in a room at a time, then that happens at that time and no other time. Okay. So it is a particular x, y, z and t. And you have another incident that takes place in a different x, y, z and t. Now if you have two things that are happening at the same place at the same time, like for example, suppose you’re having two people having arguments on either end of the same dinner table. Okay, that is a thing that happens in real life, and it’s a thing that happens in story as well. How do you deal with that? I’ll be talking about that in a minute. Okay. You’ve got this connection of incidents. And just imagine them. Just kind of hold that array of beads in your mind. And now think about this. There are cause-and-effect relationships between some of these incidents. You know, for example, somebody might jump off a bridge because they had an argument or Hamlet might stab Polonius through the arras because Polonius cries out. 

Alessandra Torre: You need this to happen for this to happen. 

David Levine: Okay, so there’s a cause-and-effect relationship and that cause-and-effect relationship between incidence is the foundation of plot. You may have heard the phrase “The king died and then the queen died” is a story. It’s not much of a story. “The king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. E.M. Forster was the one who said that. The connection between the two incidents is not just that one happened after, but that one happened because. That connection of this happened because that earlier thing happened is the foundation of the plot. If you don’t have cause and effect you may have a bunch of incidents, but they don’t string together in a way that makes a satisfying story. So that cause and effect relationship, unless you’re writing a time travel story – which I’m not going to get into …

Alessandra Torre: I can’t even imagine beads with that!

David Levine: Cause and effect relationship is always chronological. It’s always a chronological order that this happens and then this other thing happens because of it. So the cause always precedes the effect. And if you think about the plot structure of Hamlet, the first thing that happens chronologically is that Hamlet’s father is killed. Okay. That’s not on the stage. It’s alluded to on the stage. But the first thing you see on the stage is Hamlet walking around, and he hears some guards saying that we saw a ghost. Right? So the first thing that happens in the play chronologically is not the first thing that happens in the story chronologically, because that first incident, that inciting incident, the murder. Because of the murder Hamlet decides that he needs to take revenge. Also because of the murder, Hamlet’s uncle marries Hamlet’s mother and becomes king. So those two effects (Hamlet vows revenge and the uncle becomes king) are both descended from the same cause. So you can imagine that there’s kind of a complicated nested tree structure. You’ve got causes that spurn off effects. 

These effects then become the causes of additional things. Sometimes things are descended from two causes, you know, two different things happen. And because both of those things happen, the third thing happens. So it’s a complicated, intertwined tree structure of all of the causes and effects of the incidents that make up your story. Okay. So if you can imagine the story of Hamlet is a pretty nasty tangle of causes and effects. It’s all chronological, but you can’t just put all of the incidents in the story on the stage chronologically, because if the first thing you show is the king, the people don’t have any idea what’s going on. They’re not invested in the story. You don’t necessarily want to put the first thing chronologically in the story on the stage as the first thing the audience sees. So I’m going to introduce a new term. The term is narrative. This is a term that I’m using in this particular way. It’s not something you’ll see anywhere else. I say that the narrative is the order of the incidents on the page or on the stage or on the screen. So the author’s job is to take these incidents and put them on the page in an order that delivers a particular effect. 

Okay. So, you know, so maybe you’re writing a comedy, maybe it’s a tragedy. Maybe you want the readers to be confused at least some of the time, but you’re trying to achieve a certain effect. And in order to support that effect, you put the incidents of the story on the page in a certain order. That’s why I call each of these incidents a bead rather than a marble. Because what does bead have? Bead has a hole. Okay. So imagine that you have this tree structure of all of these incidents connected by their cause and effect. And then you take a string and you thread it between the beads and then you take those threaded beads and you bring them out in a nice straight line. Okay. That’s your narrative. That’s the order of the incidents on the page or on the stage. Okay. So you’ve got a lot of power as the author in choosing which incidents to actually put on the page and which ones you merely refer to. I mean, the ghost tells Hamlet the story of the murder, but for example, Ophelia’s death is only alluded to. It’s not spelled out in detail exactly how Ophelia kills herself. Only somebody rushes in and says, oh my God, Ophelia is dead. So some incidents are shown on the page and some are only told. 

A lot of people will say, “Show, don’t tell.” But honestly, you got to do some telling because if you showed every single thing, if you wanted to make a movie about World War Two, it’d have to be five years long. You can’t show every single thing. So you have to choose what you’re going to actually dramatize, which is to say what you’re going to put on the page or the stage and what you’re just going to tell about. So one of the choices that you make as you’re threading these incidents into your string of beads is which things are you actually going to put on the string and which you are just going to allude to? You may have a flashback, you may have somebody mentioning that something happened. So you choose which incidents to put on the string and what order to put them in. Generally speaking, you put things in chronological order, but there are some powerful reasons when you’ll want to have something out of order. Maybe it’s supposed to be a surprise. Maybe it’s a revelation of something that happened beforehand that the character wasn’t aware of until just now. You may want to put in a flashback. You may want to put in a flash forward. You may want to skip a bunch of years and just kind of snip out that bunch of beads and tie the other two together. 

Your job as a writer is to put all of the incidents of your story together in a single line because the reader is going to read the book one page after another. It’s to take all of the things that happen to your characters and somehow or other, put them in an order that creates a particular emotional effect in the reader. And so the exercise that I do when I teach this as a class is I ask the students to take their existing work in progress and write down a bunch of the incidents in their story, each one on a little post-it note, and then try putting the post-it notes in different orders and say, “Huh, if we don’t reveal that this thing happened until much later in the book, then that’ll be a fun surprise. Or that’ll make the motivations of the villain more mysterious or whatever.” There are all sorts of reasons for you to put things in different orders and try it. Just boil things down to little Post-it notes. Or if you use a program like Scrivener, you can do it on the screen and just shuffle them around and see., “Huh. Wouldn’t this be more interesting if we showed it in a different order?” 

I give this as a two-hour lecture demonstration with exercise. But I just gave you a 15 minutes summary of the idea, which is that the story is a loose collection of related incidents. The incidents are connected through cause and effect. The author’s job is to choose the incidents and put them in order in a way that creates the desired effect on the reader. And the plot of the story is the cause and effect not necessarily the same as the order in which they appear on the page. You may have seen a movie called Memento. So in Memento, you see the things that happen within the scene chronologically, but then the whole scenes are presented in reverse order. So the plot of Memento is something that you can only know until you’ve seen the whole thing. And you and you actually see the beginning. Because the beginning of Memento is the very last scene. You won’t know what the plot was until you’ve seen the whole movie, and you can reconstruct the incidents that occurred in chronological order. So there’s a distinction between plot and narrative. And as a writer, you can use the difference between them. You can introduce tension between the narrative, which is to say, the order in which things appear on the page and the plot, which is to say, the cause-and-effect relationship between them, in order to surprise your readers or satisfy them by giving them information that they either didn’t expect or were expecting or hoping for, but didn’t have all the information they needed in order to understand that it’s coming next. 

Alessandra Torre: Or figure it out. Yeah. So I love that you were able to condense that because we have some great questions. I love the chatter that’s happening on YouTube. But Christine says, “Okay, so with all of that said, how do we get our hands around a complicated plot?” If we’re sitting there and we understand the bead analogy. And we’re sitting here with that story and all of these different things and pieces. What are our first and second steps? 

David Levine: I gotta say, I’m an outliner. You know, I’m the kind of person that likes to know the whole thing. 

Alessandra Torre: And I’m a pantser. So let’s see how we do this, okay? 

David Levine: Right. Okay. So as an outliner, I need to understand the whole plot before I can really start constructing the story or the novel. Okay. But even if you’re a pantser. One of the things that I’d like to say about the difference between plotters and pantsers is you’re going to have to do the work one way or another.  Either, upfront you design your plot, and then you sit and write it, or you pants your way through the plot, and then you look at what you’ve got and you realize, okay, this is what I was working on this whole time. So the pantser, I said. 

Alessandra Torre: Even as a pantser, I have that jumbled mess that you said. Like, I know oh, there’s this and there’s going to be a scene about this.

David Levine: Plotters straighten it out before beginning to write. The pantser puts that jumbled mess right on the page just as it is. And then it’s the pantser’s responsibility to take that jumbled mess and polish it into something that a reader will enjoy, okay? If you plot, then you start off with the ideas and maybe you write them on little pieces of paper and shuffle them around on your screen or on your desktop. Or if you’re a pantser, then you probably write the whole manuscript. And then you look at what you’ve got and say, “Well, you know, this scene happened before that scene, but it would really be more interesting to the reader if they didn’t find that out until later.” So you take that scene and you move it. You say, okay, now it’s good. It happened near the beginning of the book, but I’m not going to show it until later. So I’m going to put it in as a flashback. Okay. I think that the way that you deal with a complicated plot is whether you pants it out and have a complete messy manuscript, or you plot it out and have a messy outline. One way or the other, you’ve got to get all the ideas straight. And then you have to understand the plot. 

You have to understand the cause-and-effect relationships. What happened because of this and what didn’t happen until that other thing happened. You have to understand all those things before you can really decide what order to put them on the page. And this understanding that I’m talking about, it doesn’t necessarily have to be conscious. You know, you can listen to your subconscious, you can listen to your subconscious say, you know, this really needs to be a flashback. And if you’re the kind of person who likes to listen to that, if your subconscious says something like that, then go for it. You know, because your subconscious knows an awful lot about the story. I always write my stories from the beginning to the end. I almost never write things out of order. And I will very often come to the end of the story and discover that the hinge, the linchpin of the climax is something that I had put into one of the early chapters just as a fun detail, you know, just something that I threw in because it sounded interesting at the time. I believe that what’s happening, it’s not that I was psychically able to predict that I would need this thing later in the book, but that my subconscious has been chewing on that thing for the whole length of time I’ve been working on the story, and so it’s like, okay, I know what that thing is and how it fits in with the rest of the story. And I can pull it in here either literally or thematically. It’s something that’s connected to the end of the book. 

Alessandra Torre: I love that and something that you mentioned earlier, and I just want to make sure everyone watching catches it. As you mentioned Scrivener. I either write in Word or I write in Scrivener and the difference is whether or not it’s a complicated plot. If it’s a complicated plot, then I have to write it in Scrivener, because I would be like a crazy person trying to write it in Word. So if you’re watching this, one of the best things about Scrivener is that each scene is like a puzzle piece, like a bead, and it makes it so easy for you to just rearrange those beads, and you can color code them to be this character’s point of view or this sort of thing. You can rearrange them at will and I love that feature especially with complicated plots. 

David Levine: Everything that you just said. I’m exactly the same. I may be a plotter instead of a pantser, but I will use Scrivener for novel and novella-sized things and Word for short stories.  

Alessandra Torre: Yeah. Christine from YouTube says she’s a pantser. She uses Scrivener and agrees 100%. Yeah, I think back to my early manuscripts when I was cutting and pasting in Word and trying to figure out where I was. 

David Levine: Yeah. And then there’s also that thing about Word crashing when the file gets too big. I don’t know if it does that as much anymore, but it was sure a problem when I was starting out. 

Alessandra Torre: Oh, with Word? Oh yeah. I haven’t experienced that. But that would be brutal. 

David Levine: I love Scrivener, but it’s too powerful a tool for a short story. 

Alessandra Torre: Yeah I agree with that. I can see that. So if we’re dealing with a complicated plot and multiple narrators, do you have any advice? When you mentioned that cause and effect tree, is that another thing that you actually put on paper? Or is that more an in-your-mind type thing?

David Levine: I’ve never actually drawn the tree up. Never? Hardly ever, drawn the tree out. It’s a way of thinking about the plot that usually I don’t think about the tree. I think this happened because this happens. And then because of that, this happens, and then because of that….I’ll have this string of incidents and this string of incidents and then they’ll connect together in some way. If you have alternating point-of-view characters, then one character is following one plot line, another character is following another plot line. Sometimes they may have incidents in common, like there’s a thing that happens that affects and is affected by both plot lines. So you can have the two plot lines come in and share some space for a while and then diverge off. And so each of those plot lines is very typically, although not always, the property of a particular point of view character. So you have one character following one plot and another character following another plot. Usually, they will intersect in a multi-POV novel. Usually, they will intersect or they may join. I’ve written and failed to publish some insanely complicated novels. I had one where there was one of the two alternating points of view that started in January and ended in December. While the other point of view started in November and also ended in December. So you were bouncing back and forth between past and present, and the two were getting closer and closer together until they met up toward the end of the book. Okay. And so that is something that although I wrote this book before I had developed this theory with the beads. But the idea of these two different plot threads, they influence each other, they are influenced by each other. And the question is, how do you put the incidents? Because you could if you told that story in chronological order, then you’d have one character bopping along by themself for 11 months, and then you’d introduce the second character who comes in out of nowhere toward the end of the book. Then there’s a whole bunch of incidents at the end. Okay. So, I chose to tell it in that complicated way because that was what the plot seemed to demand. I didn’t sell that one. 

Alessandra Torre: Earlier in this chat, you mentioned having two conversations happening at the same time, different ends of the table. So how would you put that on paper when you do have two things happening at the same time. 

David Levine: There are a number of different techniques. Think about Shakespeare again. There’s a lot of times at the climax of especially history plays where you’ll have a scene that says “elsewhere in the battle.” Battles are big, messy things. And to put a whole battle with a thousand men and horses and all that, you can’t put that on the stage at The Globe. You know, you’ve only got like ten by ten feet. So even though different incidents may be happening at the same time, you as a writer have the power to choose what to show them. You show a full scene, or at least enough of a scene to feel satisfying. And then you bop over to another scene. So you show some people fighting, and then you kind of put that on hold and go over and show some other people fighting. Whether it’s a movie or a play or a book, there are things that you can do to indicate to the reader that these two things which I’m showing you, one after the other, are actually happening at the same time. And you can show a complete fight, and then you switch over and you back up many minutes or hours and then you show a complete other fight. Or you can bop back and forth between them. Show maybe a couple of paragraphs or pages of one fight and then just the climactic moment, you leave the reader in suspense and you go over and show the other fight for a while, and then you leave the reader in suspense, and you go back and show the other fight for a while. So you can cut back and forth. 

David Levine:  This is something that I’ve very rarely seen done in fiction, but if you read a play script, you will sometimes see that if two people are talking at the same time, you’ll actually see the words written in two columns on the page. So the two actors are speaking at the same time and it’s up to the actors and director to carefully manage the timing and the volume such that you direct the audience’s attention to one or the other because, a play, unlike some other kinds of entertainment, you only get to sit through that particular live performance once. So the actors and the director have to understand which of the two speeches is more important for the audience to be paying attention to. And there are things you can do to direct the audience’s attention to one or the other. So I have very rarely seen dialogue put in two different columns in prose. It can be done, but more frequently it’s just a matter of you’re going to bop back and forth and you either show all of one thing and then rewind by a considerable period of time and show all of the other things. Or do you show them in snippets? And how big are those snippets, and when do you choose to switch between the snippets? Do you wait until something has come to a point of satisfaction (a breathing point) and then cut over to the other? Or do you cut between them at the moments of highest tension in order to raise the reader’s level of suspense? Okay, so these are all techniques that the author can employ. And it’s up to you to decide which technique you want to use. And the great thing about text is when you’re drafting, it’s completely malleable. You can try something and say, “Huh. That doesn’t work as well as I thought it would. Let’s try something else.” 

Alessandra Torre: I love doing that, switching between plot arcs and things like that. I like doing it at a moment of high, like a cliffhanger moment. And I’ve also hidden something… Like they’re really absorbed and interested in this, and they really want to get back to that storyline and then I take them somewhere else. And sometimes that’s where I’ll slip in something that I’m trying to get past them because their mind is still thinking about this. So they kind of look right over like the big clue that I’m giving them. But then later they’re like, “Oh, that’s right. I did read that, but I didn’t pay attention to it at the time.”

David Levine: Putting something in that’s important in such a way that the reader doesn’t recognize how important it can be tricky. It can be tricky because if you de-emphasize it too much, they might miss it completely. 

Alessandra Torre: Yeah. Well, we are out of time. Okay. If anyone has any final quick questions. They’ll have to be quick, but speak now or forever hold your piece. David, it was fantastic to have you here. If someone is interested in reading your books or hearing about…because you said you also teach, where can they find out more about you? 

David Levine: Well, That’s my website. And, there’s an Upcoming Appearances tab on my website, where I talk about the conventions that I’m going to and the classes that I’m teaching, sometimes online, sometimes in person. At the moment, I think the only thing coming up is I’ll be teaching a class called “Enhancing Your Writing By Engaging All the Senses” with Scribophile in just a couple of weeks. That’s an online class and you’re welcome to sign up for it there. There’s a link. And then otherwise, I’m definitely going to be at the Nebula weekend. If any of your listeners are going to the Nebula Awards weekend, I’ll be there. I’ll be appearing in a couple of panels at that. And then, I will be at the Worldcon in Glasgow. And I’ll be the Writer Guest of Honor in Portland, Oregon, in November. So, yeah, I love to talk. I love to talk about writing, and, if you find yourself in the same physical space as me, you’ll probably find it difficult to keep me from talking about it. 

Alessandra Torre: And if they are interested in reading one of your books, where would you suggest they start? 

David Levine: If you want a novel, I’d suggest you start with Arabella of Mars. It is a Regency steampunk space opera. Takes place in an alternate universe where the sky is full of air. And, back in the 1800s, people were traveling to Mars and Venus by sailing ship. And it’s got Martians and automata, and a plucky female character who dresses as a boy. And, it’s a romp. And then I’ve got, as I said, over 60 short stories, and they’re all very different from each other. A lot of them are available for free online. And there is a tab on my website that says Free Fiction, and you can find links to all of them there. 

Alessandra Torre: Fantastic! Well, you are a great guest. Thank you so much for being here. And for those of you who are listening, please join us at our next First Draft Friday. If you’re watching on YouTube, please subscribe to the channel and on Facebook, please join the group. And, this is brought to you by Authors A.I. And we are in the middle of a crowdfunding campaign that just launched this week. So if you haven’t checked that out and you are watching this in May, check us out over on Start Engine. Thank you guys. Thank you so much, David. It was great to have you. And we’ll be back in two weeks with another First Draft Friday. 

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