How to build a complex plot based on a simple message (Part 1)

How to build a complex plot based on a simple message (Part 1)

One of the questions my writer friends always ask me is how I can come up with intricate, complex plots for all the novels I write. Well, I never really thought about it. So I decided that maybe I should think about it. So that is what this series is about: how to build a complex plot based on a simple message.

A few disclaimers:

  • I’m not a professional novelist, but I have written many complicated novels that a lot of people enjoy thoroughly. I hope to one day join the ranks of professional novelists, but I’m not there yet.
  • I probably break every rule there is. So be aware that what follows in this nine-part series is the results of a scrambled brain spitting out the bare essentials of what it has learned over the last 20 or so years of amateur writing.
  • And I am also extremely random. You have been warned.

Part 1: Choose your message

First off, what is plot? Plot was first described to be as the chain of events in a story. It’s what happens next, a sequence of events that leads to a decisive (or not so decisive) end.

The goal of this series is to demonstrate how to plot a novel using a simple concept or message as a foundation. So we’ll walk through the whole process, and maybe I’ll run with the concept I develop afterward. Who knows? If you want to take it and do something with it, go ahead.

Where do you start? How do you start? What’s the right way to do it? Is there a right way to do it? There are so many options, so many paths to choose, so many methods to try, you just have to find what works for you. And then, you can try something different to see if it works better.

But the best thing to do is to start.

Just do it. Don’t wait for inspiration to hit you or lightning to strike. Just take the initiative and do it. You can always edit later.

There are a few different ways to build a plot.

You can start with a CHARACTER and build a story around a character. That works. Maybe that will be the next guide to plotting I do. Because that works too. But my preferred method of plotting is based on MESSAGE.

Everything starts with message. Your story has to have a point or there’s no reason to write it. That’s my philosophy. Others may disagree, but I’m old fashioned like that. I like my story to have a point, whether I agree with that point or not. Stories need to make a statement. So you need to design a story based on what statement you want to make.

Messages can be as simple as telling people not to steal or as complex as some political ideology you want to proliferate. Just remember that your message doesn’t have to be complex. It can be extremely simple. Oftentimes the best novels have the simplest messages.


  • Twilight – sacrificial love
  • Harry Potter – doing the right thing
  • Hunger Games – standing up for what you believe in
  • One for the Money – tenacity is a valuable asset
  • Count of Monte Cristo – sometimes life happens
  • Pride and Prejudice – don’t judge a book by its cover
  • Lord of the Rings – power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely

Take Lord of the Rings. The main message is a relatively simple concept: power is dangerous. But what makes LOTR epic is the characters and the subplots and Tolkien’s ridiculous gift at linquistics and world building. But even in all of the subplots, the main message remains constant – power corrupts.

So to start out, identify your main message.

We’re going to keep it simple. I mean super simple. So let’s aim for a morality tale.

The message for this example plot will be: Stealing is wrong.

In Part 2, we’ll discuss how to choose a direction.

A.C. Williams

Amy Williams left a lucrative career in marketing to write novels about space cowboys, clumsy church secretaries, American samurai, and alternate dimensions. Along the way, she also discovered a passion for teaching other creative professionals how to use technology to make life easier. Through video instruction or one-on-one coaching, she teaches software, blogging, basic graphic design, and many other useful skills that help creative entrepreneurs get stuff done minus the frustration.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Thanks this was a great series. Really interesting and much more helpful information presented here than on any other site about plotting. Seriously.

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