Can Your Writing Be Too Complex For It’s Own Good?

I read a story over at Circle Critique, and it was brilliant. The problem was that it went over my head completely so I didn’t even understand it till I read the other critiques. It seemed like half the people got it, and the other half was confused as hell. I think I’m better at writing than I am interpreting literature or any other stories, but that’s a topic for another day. But it started me thinking a bit more on the subject. Can a story be too complex?

When I was in fanfiction there were 5 stories that I loved out of 30,000. I read them several times and may go back and read them even though I left the fandom. Two of these stories were formulaic, but the prose was gorgeous. Overall, they were amazing stories. These two stories revolved around time travel, a very popular type of story in my fandom. The other three had gorgeous prose but the stories were either abstract or exploring new territory. They were thought provoking masterpieces, and they were also unpopular. I was really confused. My story was actually pretty popular, but it was formulaic. These writers were much better than me, so why weren’t they popular? To be honest it boggled my mind at the time. I eventually realized these stories were too complex and/or too different for most people to enjoy.

And I talked to a few friends about it and we realized that if your story is too complex, it’s less popular because you are alienating the people that don’t understand. If you look at published fiction you’ll see that Twilight has more popularity than The Sound and the Fury, once of Faulkner’s masterpieces. I like Faulkner, love his style, but I could not grasp the essence of that story because it was confusing as hell. It shifted between past and present without telling you and employed the stream of consciousness style. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I didn’t understand it. I imagine it’s an amazing experience for those that get it. I might try again sometime in the future.

Have any of you passed on a story or other book because it was too complicated?

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16 thoughts on “Can Your Writing Be Too Complex For It’s Own Good?

  1. Hm, this is an interesting idea here. I would never have thought that confusing books are because they are “too good”–though I can see how that could definitely be the case for some, especially considering different readers.

    • Well sometimes stories are confusing because they aren’t written well, and that’s something that needs to be fixed. I see that as a different problem. But the fanfic stories I was referring to were amazing, and changing them so that more people understood would have ruined them. I messaged the guy on Critique Circle after I saw the other reviews, and I told him how brilliant it was despite the fact that I didn’t get it. In his case it would be a hard call. It’s an interesting concept, stories being too good. I think it’s much more common for stories to be confusing because they are not written well. It’s pretty rare that I come across a story that is confusing because it’s too good, but it happens. Thanks for sharing your thoughts πŸ™‚

  2. hmm…I think you might be confusing “too good” with “wrong audience.” Books that make you think and confuse you just aren’t geared toward you. Of course, there are also those that are confusing because they suck but I’m talking about the classics. I’m sure they’re classics for a reason, but I don’t like many that I’ve read.

    For example, I read Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and hated it. Everyone I talked to said it was a masterpiece blah blah blah. I thought it was boring as hell and full of itself. It’s deep and thought-provoking and I’m not the type of person who likes books like that. It’s not that it’s too good, it’s just that I don’t like most deep books.

    • Thanks for your comment πŸ™‚ Thats another way to think about it. I read Heart of Darkness, and I understood it. I didn’t like it the first time, but enjoyed it the second. I love Faulkner but I couldn’t get through, The Sound and the Fury. It’s not that I don’t like his writing style. I love it. He is one of my favorite authors. But it flew over my head, and I couldn’t understand it even with Cliff Notes XD So I guess I’m referring to something a bit different? Like that story on Critique Circle. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the style. I just had no idea what he was talking about. Stories that are so complex most people can’t really understand them, including myself. I think I get what you are saying. I don’t like Shakespeare because I just don’t like the style. I understood it though. There are several books I dislike, but I understood them, like The Scarlet Letter. That was a painful read, but I think most people in my high school class understood it. I’ll have to think about it some more. You brought up some good points πŸ™‚ There’s no wrong or right answer when it comes to reading. I read things like People and The Enquirer XD I guess you could call it a guilty pleasure. I enjoy erotica from time to time as well. I’ll read anything of the story is good enough.

    • Okay, I changed it to complex instead of good. I think that better reflects what I was trying to say πŸ™‚ The time travel fanfics that were crazy popular were very good, but they weren’t abstract or super complex. I actually haven’t met anyone that loves Conrad XD I wouldn’t say I loved it, but I enjoyed it the second time. Although I guess I didn’t really enjoy it, I just felt like I got something out of it.

  3. The definition of what makes something good is also very subjective. Maybe I mean too complex for it’s own good, which refers to stories that I like but can’t understand. I’m the right audience for Faulkner. I love his poetic prose and abstract thoughts, but like I said, I really couldn’t wrap my head around the Sound and the Fury :/

  4. You present an interesting idea here–that maybe some people don’t read it because they find it hard to relate to/the piece is too complex. Perhaps its also because they don’t want to sit there and analyze an entire work (there are some people who rather read things not as deep–light reads, I think is the proper word). Also, people might be unsure of its greatness because they have never seen it before, and so they assume it isn’t up to par with what they’ve read before. I’m just throwing out ideas to the conversatiom haha πŸ™‚

    • I think you make some excellent points πŸ™‚ Yeah, I think some pieces of writing are like abstract art. So to someone that doesn’t appreciate art the inherent beauty is not as obvious as it is with traditional painters. The abstract fanfics were like modern art whereas the lovely time travel fics were more like Rembrandt or Michelangelo. You don’t have to appreciate art to know that Rembrandt was exceedingly skilled, but unless you appreciate modern art, you probably won’t see its beauty. Anyone that read those time travel fics could tell they were amazing. As far as stories go I appreciate the abstract and traditional. As far as paintings, I don’t really appreciate modern art, and it’s hard for me to see its beauty. I went to the SF MOMA (museum of modern art) and I had a hard time appreciating it. Like when I look at a Rothko I see blocks of color. I looked it up later in my art book and his paintings were describing the fragility of life. I was like, well I missed that. . . XD Someone that appreciates abstract art would have a greater understanding of it than me.

  5. It’s called over writing. Your main purpose as a writer is to get a message across. If your reader misses it, it doesn’t matter how beautiful the writing sounds, the author has failed. I’ve seen many a work that is so flowery that it takes the author right out of the scene. They need to tone it down.

    http://joycelansky.blogspot.com/

  6. I say simplicity and minimalism all the way. For me, when things become too complex, not only are they difficult to read and follow, but they become disingenuous. Which I strongly dislike.

    • Yeah, it’s a fine line between a beautiful piece of abstract fiction and a writer trying too hard. And I think most people don’t really enjoy abstract pieces of fiction, even if it is done well. The fanfiction writers I referenced that wrote abstract pieces of fiction also wrote mainstream fiction, and the mainstream stuff was much more popular. If abstract fiction is done well, I think the effect is amazing. When I wrote my suicide story I was chasing a feeling. I didn’t set out to create an abstract piece of fiction, but that’s kind of what happened. It’s hard to say if it’s successful or not because most people seem fairly polarized about it. I’m still revising it, so I’m too close to be objective about it. Most of my stuff is fairly mainstream though. This is the first abstract piece I’ve written in 5 years. My next two short stories will be pretty normal. I just had an idea and a feeling and ran with it. With short stories it is easier to experiment because if it doesn’t work out you can just write another short story XD Thank you for sharing your thoughts πŸ™‚

      • I agree about the fine line. No matter what you’re writing, it’s always a fine line between one thing and something else. Like YA lit: it’s a fine line between quality lit and over dramatized lit. Or perhaps it just depends on what you’re going for πŸ˜›

    • At the same time, if it’s too complex, no one understands and the feeling the author was going after is lost. I referenced Faulkner’s, The Sound and the Fury, because it’s harder than hell to grasp. I feel like it’s an amazing experience for those that are able to understand it, but I just couldn’t. The only thing I felt while reading it was frustration XD Even with Cliff Notes I couldn’t understand it, so the effect he was going for was completely lost on me :$ I love Faulkner in general though. I might give that book another shot later in life.

      • I love Faulkner, too, but I agree: when I’m reading his work, I sometimes feel like I must be missing something that everyone else is getting haha. I’m a Hemingway girl, myself πŸ˜€

  7. I like to keep my reading simple (I’m usually reading for fun, not to give myself a headache trying to follow it.) I have read many stories I don’t ‘get’ in the writing challenges and it makes me feel dumb. I don’t particularly like feeling dumb πŸ™‚ It’s the same thing with poetry – I know it can be a bit abstract, but I enjoy it more when I have the life experiences to piece the vision into something I can relate to. That’s not the author’s fault – it just has to do with me.

    • Yeah, I’m not fond of poetry for that reason XD I never understand what’s going on. I’d definitely say my analytic skills are not as good as my writing. Although sometimes I wonder if critics attribute meaning when there is none. I had a friend that read my writing, and she would read between the lines looking for hidden meaning, and there wasn’t any XD I wrote that suicide story, and it’s the first time I’ve tried to incorporate symbolism and things alluding to the fact that they are star-crossed lovers. I do enjoy abstract literature pieces when they are done well, and I understand it. In the fandom I was in there was a character possessed by an alien, and he had PTSD, and also had a psychotic break. His psyche was fragmented, and he was barely holdng on. He was also tortured for several years by a mad scientist. So the possibilities for that character were endless. Abstract pieces of writing fit him so well because he was so broken, and when done well, the abstract pieces were a more accurate reflection of his character. But if it’s too complex for me to understand, like Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, the effect is lost. I never got past the first chapter, so I don’t know what he was trying to do. I read a short story by Timothy Findley that was kind of abstract. It was actually really brilliant. I’ve read several of his novels, but you can experiment more in a short story. But I have to be in a mood to read thought provoking book. It’s not always entertaining XD My mom is incredibly smart, but she does not enjoy reading poetic prose or any abstract writing. It seems pointless to her. Everyone has their preferences πŸ™‚

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