I’ve been grappling with the planning stages of a couple of new projects, and I’m starting to grasp the difference between complex and complicated. And here’s what I’m starting to think.
A complicated story is complicated because bits of it don’t make sense yet. A complicated story is welded together by chunks of exposition, flashbacks, backstory and coincidences. Every now and then, everything stops so one of the characters can ease us over an expositional speedbump by telling us why this shit is happening and what we can expect next.
A complex story is made up of interlocking simplicities, every one of which is so simple and primal that it can’t help but make sense. Each of those simple desires, obstacles and emotions is in conflict with everything around it, which creates a complexity of plot and character – but the central drive of the story is simple and obvious. Luke Skywalker wants to save the princess, and then the rebellion. He goes here and there across the galaxy, flies fighter ships, infiltrates an enemy space station, gathers allies, loses his mentor and even gets into a bar fight – but it’s all in pursuit of that simple goal.
The key thing is, every complex story starts off complicated. It’s complicated because you haven’t worked on it enough yet. So don’t settle for complicated. Keep putting in the prep time and the rewrites. It will be worth it.