Often, stories lack a proper plot, but sometimes it’s the opposite: a story can drown in too much plot. And that can be a big problem.
What is it?
There are no strict rules about what constitutes too much plot. And, like many other things in writing, some people can follow more plot lines more easily than others. My dad, for example, had a hard time figuring out what was going in the first Lord of the Rings movie. He liked it, but we had to assist in the who’s who and what’s what. Memento would not be his thing.
Making a plot complex isn’t a problem per se. However, at some point, you’re going to lose most of your readers or viewers. Unless of course you’re creating the new Mulholland Drive or Inception.
Assuming you’re not David Lynch, then, if you make a plot too complicated this will be a problem. In the end, your plot should be pushing your character arc forward. Some nice subplots can deepen the story, but too many distractions from the central character arc will weaken the story as a whole.
I recently reviewed Solo: a Star Wars movie. A lot of things happen in this movie. Solo is looking for his girlfriend. Chewbacca is looking for his family. Becket wants to settle down with his girlfriend. There’s Lando, and Dryden Vos, and that other bad guy, Enfys Nest. Oh, and Darth Maul shows up. There’s so much going on that you can’t really see Solo’s character arc anymore.
X-Men: Apocalypse suffers from a similar ailment. There are so many characters to follow and all are ‘important’. When I was somewhere halfway through the climactic battle, I noticed I’d forgotten that some of the characters were even there, until they suddenly showed up again.
The difference between complicated and overcomplicated can be hard. It has much to do with the skill of the storyteller and the way the plot is presented. If you take a novel series like A Song of Ice and Fire, the plot is really complicated, but the novels are big tomes, and different parts of the story focus on different characters, which helps keep focus.
Inception has a deliberate wheel-within-a-wheel story. Memento deliberately made the story hard to follow because that’s what the main character is experiencing. David Cage tried the same with Beyond: Two Souls, and that turned out a complete mess. So its not the absolute complicatedness of the plot, but the skill of the writer that matters. And the effect you’re trying to achieve.
If you get feedback from your readers that they couldn’t follow your story, or stopped reading, then you’re possibly in trouble. That, or you have the wrong beta readers, of course, but even then I advise you to take a good look at your story.
How to fix it
Simplifying the plot is the easiest to do, although hardest in terms of having to cut parts out of your story. The more complicated the plot, the harder it will be to disentangle the tapestry of threads without creating holes. Taking things out can be like taking apart a Jenga tower. Although, sometimes, it can feel like the pieces are actually falling into place, and your story becomes all the stronger for it.
A different approach is to make the plot easier to follow. I always try to work ‘handholds’ into my stories. Whenever a character re-appears after a longer absence, or something complicated happens, I try to work in little recaps. This can be as simple as reaffirming a characters profession (‘it’s the barber again,’ John thought) or what they were up to before (‘After three days John despaired he would never find a sign of his wife’). Or you can have characters ask each other questions, because they too might have forgotten details. Or, certain characters may not have been present earlier. Of course, use these tricks wisely: they can also slow your story down, or come across as patronizing.
Good luck, and I’m interested to read your version of Inception some day.