Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Complexity

I've been trying to figure out for a while how to write this post. I want to talk about ways to build complexity into texts without undercutting the integrity of the story. This is not an easy thing to explain in general terms because -- well, it's one of those "know it when you see it" things. But let me try to explain what I mean, and bear with me if this gets a little abstract.

There's a certain kind of easiness in books that can result from everything being very clear-cut. Most books aimed at younger readers have this ease, and many commercial books tilt toward this end of the spectrum. The good guys are always good, even when wrestling moral demons. They might face temptation, but they prevail. The bad guys are always bad, even when their motivations are explained in a sympathetic or empathetic way.  The characters say what they mean. There might be surprises along the way, but the action is clean and straightforward. We know what is happening, why it is happening, and what the consequences are. These can be excellent books -- "ease" is not code for "bad" in this case, but rather expresses a kind of clarity in the story that leaves less ambiguity for the reader. (ETA: The word "transparent" is sometimes used to describe this kind of writing.)

I don't like to use the word clarity here, really, because clarity in writing has a very specific meaning. Normally, when we talk about clarity, we are talking about the author's relative success in communicating a point to a reader. When the writing is clear, the reader understands the point the author is trying to make. When the writing is unclear, the reader is unsure of the meaning intended by the writer. All good writing is clear, whether it is simple/straightforward or complex/ambiguous.

The opposite of this, what I will call complexity, is not the result of unclear writing, then. Rather, the author's point is something that might be subject to interpretation, something that contains inherent contradictions or uncertainties. Think, for example, of "The Turn of the Screw" by Henry James. This is a ghost story -- or is it? A governess goes to a country estate to care for two children. She begins seeing adult figures who behave in unpredictable ways, and she learns that the former governess and her lover, an apparent molester, died before her arrival on the estate. The lover may have interfered with the children, as they say, and after an incident in which one of the children is lost on the grounds, the new governess is left alone at night with the older boy. She sees a reflection in the window. The boy tries to see it, too, but she prevents him. She tells the boy the dead man can never hurt him again, and the boy dies in her arms. The events in the story are presented with great clarity. And yet, literary scholars have been arguing for decades about whether this is a ghost story or a story about an insane governess who murders her charge.

The complexity comes from the ability to read the same thing in different ways without any loss of clarity. You can decide that the governess killed the boy, or that the ghost killed the boy, and either way, you could be correct. The text supports either interpretation. But what's more important, for our purposes, is that regardless of the interpretation you choose, the choice will not result in any confusion. The text is clear in either case.

So, if this is complexity -- a type of depth, perhaps, that allows for different shades of meaning -- how do we build it into the narrative? Can complexity be created deliberately? I think the answer is yes, but I also think there are many pitfalls in that path. The most common pitfall I see is the author who tries to narrate simultaneous but conflicting positions. At its most simple level, this is the character who is brooding over the unhappy state of her life in one paragraph, and filled with excited anticipation over an outing in the very next line. Is it possible for an unhappy person to look forward to an outing? Yes. Is it possible to present both aspects of that character in the same scene? Yes. But it's also possible to botch it badly, and I think the difference lies in the way these contradictions exist on the page. There must be some kind of transition between the ideas, some kind of causal connection. Compare:

My life sucks
and
tonight will rock.

My life sucks
but
tonight will rock.

My life sucks
but
I have to make sure tonight will rock.

My life sucks
but
I'm grateful that tonight will rock.

The first example presents two ideas that might be mutually exclusive, or that, at the very least, don't rub along easily together. The second presents a general rule with an exception, and it's straightforward without any added subtlety. The third presents a general rule with a goal for an exception, and it will generate some reader interest in the events and outcomes. The fourth presents a general rule with an emotional disposition toward an exception, and it will create some reader interest in the character's inner state.

The first doesn't work, and instead of creating complexity, it creates confusion. The rest work better, but each with different results. Depending on the rest of the narrative, each of those three might work, and any can be perfectly clear in the ordinary sense of the term clarity. If you choose the wrong one -- if you reach for goal-setting when we need emotional bonding, for example -- you might not end up with the right kind of complexity or depth in the text. And I'm convinced that if this isn't carefully controlled on a micro-level, moment by moment in the text, then there's no hope of adding up to a "Turn of the Screw" type complexity -- an entire story, rather than a single moment, that contains simultaneous different meanings.

So I guess what I'm trying to say (I'm still struggling to find the best way to elucidate this concept) is that complexity is built up in small moments, but each of those moments must be clear in and of themselves. If the contradictions in your narrative aren't presented in a clear way, in a way that allows the reader to easily grasp them, then you're not building complexity into the text.

Theresa

5 comments:

Mayumi said...

Great post.

I struggle with this a lot, personally - how "complex" is too complex for the average reader? I know what hints I'm trying to leave, but I want readers to be able to decide some things for themselves, or come to their own conclusions. Or just gloss over the subtext and take the story at face value, if that's what they prefer.

The simple comparisons are quite helpful for illuminating the variation in narrative. I think it would be worthy to send along to my students. :)

Edittorrent said...

Mayumi, I think all you can do is seed the text with the ideas. A deep reader will watch those seeds sprout and get the extra "something" from the story. A less deep reader will still enjoy the story if it is clear and engaging on its face. Too much complexity is the complexity that loses the average reader of that type of book. (That doesn't help at all, I'm sure! It's so vague! But it's hard to discuss this concept in the abstract.)

Theresa

CourtneyC said...

I like the idea, Theresa, of a "deep reader." I think about movies (esp. the modern kid's movies like Finding Nemo) where the first time I saw it, I was following the story. I wanted just the "today sucks but tonight will rock" idea because a lot is going on. Upon second viewing (because if you have a kid, you will be watching a movie more than once!), I noticed the intricacies and nuances I missed the first time around. For example, in one of the Shrek films, there is a scene of them running from a building out into an intersection. The first time I saw it, I was just seeing them run away. The second time, I noticed that all four buildings on all four corners of the intersection were Starbucks. Hilarious!

Edittorrent said...

Great post, T! I'm reading a steampunk book I didn't realize was steampunk, and that complexity was kind of unrolled. At first, this was Dickens's London, fog, pocket-pickers, Queen Victoria. But then there was this little oddity -- the prime minister was supposed to be old but had gotten injections to kee him young... and it started being odd. Alternate. Then there were the dogs who served as messengers, and...

And it was all presented as normal, because it was in the POV of the main character, and this was his world. (Mark Hodder, btw, is the author.) It was elegantly rolled out, and "Transparent" wouldn't do it, because the author wanted to lull the reader into thinking this was Oliver Twist's world, so familiar, and then slowly suspect something else. Beautifully done.

I think authors have to challenge themselves, but more important recognize that the plain plot is seldom all there is to the story, that presentation is what divides a good plot from a good story.
And subtext-- that's in there, right?
Alicia

Amber Cuadra said...

Good post. I'm still trying to find the best way to clearly state complex themes in my stories, so this is very helpful to me.