I am a writer that likes to establish well-fleshed plot notes before writing my books. I like complex details, easter-eggs, subplots, large and small elements of world-building, and character foreshadowing. As I create a book’s plot, I think about little elements I can add to that book that although might seem trivial in that particular novel, will return as a plot feature later. But there’s a trick to doing that—you have to control the amount of detail and what facts you share, otherwise you end up sounding like you’re extrapolating or even worse, creating a Deus-Ex Machina situation. Ultimately, it can be tough to do this right.
Bad example: Remember those pair of running shoes our hero found in book one? Well they can secretly teleport you to the bad guy’s throne room at any point! And even though we collected these shoes in book one, we are just now finding out this detail many books later.
These little details should also not change large events or alternate our plot’s direction. They can add to the story and even to the plot and character development, but not altogether change where we are going. Otherwise your reader ends up feeling annoyed, thinks the author purposefully withheld information, or that the author forgot.
Bad example: How was I to understand that the amulet our hero destroyed in book one caused a vulnerability in the demon lord’s armor in book seven? How was I even supposed to remember that?
But if you do it right, if you put little elements in the background perfectly, it adds a sub-layer of detail and world-building to your book that will bring enjoyment to your readers—especially the ones who re-read your series and are then able to pick up on these little details. For example, (spoilers ahead about my book series) in my novel SunRider, book one in a saga of seven books, our hero Finn walks through an underground cave toward an ancient guide that has been manipulating events so to speak to him. As he travels through this cave, he sees an ancient, detailed impression on the wall:
“He stepped around the corner, stopping to examine a carving of a scaly giant plucking scores of men with one hand and dumping them into his open, crooked mouth. The image was foreboding and eerie in the stillness of the cave. The giant’s left foot crushed the stone wall of a citadel and with his free hand, he reached for more victims. Around him, small humans ran, were brutally crushed by the collapsing structures, or lay prostrate, worshiping the monster. The violence was detailed, and highlighted a darker more primitive time in Lenova, an era of brutality, pain, and terror. It made Finn wonder if the depiction was fiction or a historical event. He moved on.”
This is a side-detail that is never mentioned again and never will be. But in book two, one of our main baddies Mal’Bal crushes through the wall of the well-fortified city Pania and kills many of the inhabitants. His followers are blindly obedient to his every whim and are always worshipful/fearful of him. This carving is an artistic representation of this future event, created by some unknown prophetic person of the past. Finn never connects that this will be a future event. As a reader, after finishing both books, if you were to go back and re-read that scene, most likely you would connect the two. And if you didn’t, that’s okay! The plot still advances with or without you knowing or needing to know that information! Then why put it there in the first place??? 1. There are readers that will catch things like that. Holy cow I've met people who will analyze books sentence-by-sentence. 2. The detail in it of itself is an interesting element that adds description to the surrounding or event, regardless of if it means something more. If it does mean something more: bonus points! 3. You should be passionate about your writing. If adding intricacies that interweave with the rest of the plot is not something that you find necessary or that excites you, perhaps you should re-evaluate your motives for writing the book or at least evaluate your laziness levels. Do you really want to write fantasy—or any genre—that does not have small details? Non-the-less, the hidden layers of world-building are what can set a story apart from a plain--let’s do this...let's get to that...the end--kind of story. I would say that doing so is a matter of personal choice as a writer, but I for one enjoy it and I know my readers and fans do as well. For me, it makes my worlds feel more real.
Another complexity to add to your plot is creating layered mysteries. Our hero gets one step closer to resolving his quest, ex. learning about the secret weapon of ultimate power...yet now we find out that the weapon has a death curse on it. Great, how do we wield the weapon without dying?
Or better yet, create underlying mysteries that deal with history. That one is a particular favorite of mine. Thousands of years ago, a prior civilization lived in these lands but died out. Where did they go? Our hero finds out and learns a new fact: the civilization retreated to an underground capital-city that was buried because of an earthquake. Now our hero wonders where this buried city is and wonders what caused the earthquake. We have an answer, but now have other question. Hook your reader! This is a basic example, and can easily be made more complex, but that’s the purpose: to add complex depth to your plot. If you start to layer these details one over another, adding them to subplots and character arcs, you create a dynamic world full of intricacies. Our world is complex and jam-packed with complications. Make your fantasy world the same. But don’t directly copy what we have going on here if your purpose is to have your readers escape into your story, otherwise it will feel like they are reading a news article from a parallel dimension similar to ours.
Now understand that a complex plot does not necessarily mean that it will be a good plot. A good plot is one that has a solid foundation of basic elements. Tension. Escalated pressure. Real characters. Etc. Once basics are there, details and nuances can be scattered into the story at your whim and fancy.
Now also understand that adding too many intricate details can clutter up your story and leave your readers lost and confused. So clarify your details or keep them simple enough that readers can accept them at face value. You can also organize these details by having your characters reexamine them at a later time to remind our readers. Or you can go a more textbook/biblical route and have footnotes and explanation footers at the end of your chapters. That can work for some people, but not for others. Use your imagination. You’re a writer after all.
If you liked this post, read the next one here: Success by Attrition: Hopefully Some Motivation for You Writers out There
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