Life may be this tangled, but it’s the writer’s job to unsnarl it.
In real life, we encounter tremendously complicated, knotted, and snarled situations all the time. One person is mad at you because of the way you treated a third person, who in turn is asking you to be nice to a fourth person you despise because that fourth person wants to know what you think about the first person. Etc., etc. We weave tangled webs in our lives, but that sort of interaction just isn’t feasible or readable in a short story. Complexity can be good, but it must be orderly complexity, something that can be woven into what Nabokov called a “web of sense.”
So how do we create a web of sense in our stories? The first step is not to directly transfer a real-life story onto the page. We have to think about it as an author and creator and artist, not as a reporting journalist. We have to shuffle and rearrange things until they come to be more coherent and have themes, tropes, metaphors. Real life doesn’t have a tremendous amount of that stuff, but art needs it in order to move us and point out more clearly what is significant in real life.
After the jump: how to make sense out of the snarl.
So say you’ve got an idea for a story. Sometimes it’s a good idea to simplify things way down at the beginning and boil it down to a few questions.
First: why are you telling this story?
What’s so important about this story? What idea does it hold that makes it unique and worth telling? Try and boil it down to one sentence in your head.
Second: What is the big theme of this story?
This shouldn’t even be as complicated as a whole sentence. Imagine the prevailing theme or feeling that will echo throughout the story. Is it lonliness? Jealousy? Heedless ambition?
Third: who is this story about?
Again, you’ve got to keep it simple. You’ll have plenty of time to elaborate later, but you must start with a simple premise, something that can be plumbed deeply, but doesn’t have a tremendous amount of surface width. So who is your character? What is their gender, age, and profession, and what is their primary concern right now? That’s all that you should be asking yourself for this exercise.
Once you have these three snippets of information, you have the basis for a story that is manageable. Go down deep, don’t skitter around on the surface. If you have too many tangles going into your story, you’ll never end up working them out in a satisfying way. The more compelling stories start with a simple premise and then gradually reveal greater complexity.