Are you writing a complex structure?
As veteran Bangers know, I’m a huge fan of a complex structure in both novels and screenplays … So when creator of Atomic Blonde Antony Johnston got in contact offering a guest post about writing his own complex structure, I bit his hand off!
So if you’re struggling with your own complex structure, check out Antony’s tips and insights. Enjoy and over to you, Antony …
Books are like magic tricks
Books require sleight of hand, misdirection, and a grand reveal. But the truth behind any trick is often quite dull … The famous magician Teller says, ‘Magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect.’
When a conjuror makes a coin disappear, we’re amazed at the effect. We’re not thinking about the months they spent tediously practicing a few highly specific and lightning-fast hand movements, over and over and over again, to pull off an effect that only lasts a second.
Similarly, when we read a book we (hopefully!) experience great prose, engaging characters, and a compelling story that flows from one scene to the next with a sense of inevitability.
What we don’t see are the long months of mistakes, dead-ends, wrong turns, rough drafts, continuity errors, and rewrites it took to make it work.
STEP 1: Identify The Problem
I write a series of spy thrillers starring Brigitte Sharp, a hacker working for MI6. Each book is complex and multi-stranded. They all feature multiple points of view, a large cast, and several different storylines which all eventually, inevitably, converge. Several POVs follow completely different threads to the core strand pursued by Bridge.
This is even more true in the latest book, The Patrios Network
Here, Bridge is literally undertaking two different missions at once …
- To prevent a neofascist race war from breaking out across Europe, and
- To retrieve the stolen plans for a high-tech weapon
There are other storylines she isn’t even initially aware of too … Such as mysterious Twitter posts, a Russian whistleblower, and the gruesome discovery of a Chinese agent tortured to death inside a shipping container.
These complex strands all come together in the end, weaving into a climax where everything is connected. But performing this magic trick in each Brigitte book requires a lot of hard, tedious work and preparation.
First, each strand must be interesting in its own right. Then I have to distribute them evenly, so the reader doesn’t forget about a story thread halfway through. (Unless I want them to forget … but that’s still a deliberate choice that must be figured out).
These complex strands need to be paced correctly, so they all come together and converge at the right time for the climax.
Don’t Forget: The Hero Needs To Be Front And Centre!
I also have to ensure Bridge herself is centred, receiving more ‘page time’ than other characters. This is because readers expect and deserve that of the hero.
If you’ve read The Exphoria Code and The Tempus Project you’ll have seen this design in action already, whether or not you noticed it. Bridge’s chapters take up most of the book. Other stories and points of view placed between them, often alternating.
I also have a rule that Bridge is the only character permitted to have consecutive chapters. Every other POV gets one chapter before we switch away to someone else … often Bridge herself. This ensures that no other character dominates ‘page time’.
Admittedly, this can drive me to despair. Heaven knows there are times when it would be far easier for me to have two consecutive chapters from the same villain’s POV. But I know the end result will be worth it.
So this is how, halfway through writing The Patrios Network, I realised I was in a complete muddle.
I had the overall plot worked out, but maintaining the back-and-forth of alternating POV chapters was becoming a millstone around my neck. This book has five antagonists, all needing at least one POV chapter; plus Bridge’s colleagues in MI6, MI5, and the CIA; and a final ‘neutral’ character (whom series readers will recognise).
As a result, the manuscript was starting to balloon. I try to never exceed 120,000 words with the Bridge thrillers, but this book looked like it might hit 200,000!
STEP 2: Decide On A Solution
It didn’t take long to realise that I was trying too hard to give all of those antagonists page time. It also seemed I was laying a few too many problems in front of Bridge’s investigations. I was slowing her down instead of letting the story move along.
Having figured out these problems, I then had to decide how to solve them.
That’s when I remembered something Vaseem Khan told me when I interviewed him for my podcast Writing & Breathing.
Khan is a former management consultant. He uses colour-coded spreadsheets to plot and pace his award-winning crime novels. When we discussed it I gently mocked him as a nerd.
But now, like a drowning man, I was desperate enough to cling onto any piece of driftwood floating by. And so …
Yes, I made a spreadsheet! (see pic on left)
It’s pretty simple in design. The title of each column is a character’s name, each of whom I assigned a colour. In their column I listed the story events I wanted to see from their point of view, top to bottom. When I’d done that for every character and covered the whole story, I re-positioned them so that every event or time period occupied a single row in chronological order.
The screenshot you see here is of the final version (sorry for blurring it, but otherwise it would give away the whole plot).
When I first wrote everything out, many columns were filled with blocks of continuous vertical colour across several rows … while others had long gaps of blank space between events.
This showed me that several characters were simply dropping out of view for too long, while others had too much happening at once in a continuous block of scenes. No wonder the pacing felt wrong.
STEP 3: Evaluate The Results
Laying out the book’s event sequence like this also helped me realise some events were duplicated between characters. In a few cases it was important to show the same scene from different perspectives, but most of the time it was better to choose only one POV and discard the others. This allowed me to combine multiple coloured blocks into one, which significantly reduced the complexity – and word count.
Combining scenes like this meant I could now shuffle chapters around, moving and rearranging events along the timeline to maintain the style of alternating POVs without breaking the flow of the plot.
Finally, doing all of that allowed me to streamline some of the core Bridge chapters… and even cut several scenes and chapters altogether, removing those blockers to keep things moving.
As you can see, the final sheet is still complex; that’s a feature of the Bridge books. But the important characters have enough page time that readers can follow the story, and nobody besides Bridge dominates proceedings.
Nerdery be damned, the spreadsheet had worked!
Of course, when I resumed writing the manuscript things inevitably continued to shift and adjust. They always will. But this exercise proved that even a complex structure such as Patrios could be told in the style and length of a typical Brigitte novel … IF I was prepared to put in enough hard work behind the scenes.
Hard work that, like a magic trick, my readers would never see.
I don’t know if I’ll use this method again, and it might not work for everyone. But this time, for this book, it was absolutely the solution I needed. So when you read The Patrios Network and you’re enjoying the sleight of hand, the misdirection, and the grand reveals… spare a thought for the writer who spent more time on the magic trick than anyone else might reasonably expect.
Good Luck if you are tackling a complex structure in your own story!
BIO: Antony Johnston is a New York Times bestseller and creator of Atomic Blonde.
The Brigitte Sharp thrillers are in development for TV, and The Patrios Network is on sale now, published by Lightning Books.