top of page

Exploring the Complexity in Novels

painting of colors swirled around the canvas
Complexity Can be Beautiful and Mysterious. Readers Love Discovering Meaning in Works of Fiction.

I recently finished editing a novel I’ve been working on for the last eight years. I’ve written other novels in between when I started the novel in 2016 and now, but that’s the way I work—I write a first draft, put it aside, write another first draft of another novel, return to the first novel, revise, etc. My genre is literary fiction, which normally doesn’t sell well, so I decided to write the novel somewhere in between literary fiction and popular fiction (genre fiction/formula fiction). I also wanted to make the novel accessible to as many readers as possible, because I believe the subject matter of the novel is timely and important to our contemporary times. While the novel is an easier read than my previous works, it’s still a novel of ideas and there’s an intentional complexity to it that I needed to be there in order to make my point (although the term “make my point” doesn’t really read well for what I’m trying to communicate). Today we're going to explore the topic of Unraveling the Layers: Exploring the Complexity in Novels.

When I write, I try to shoot for around three hundred pages. My agent really doesn’t like to send out novels over three hundred pages, for a number of reasons, including what readers are comfortable with but also what publishers are comfortable with in terms of price elasticity, printing costs, and other factors that might hinder sales, or even the ability to get the work published. My new novel tops out at around 160,000 words, which translates to 502 pages. It’s the longest novel I’ve ever written, and I’m sure I’ll have to edit some more, but it’s a novel that I believe is solid and worthy of publication. The novel touches on politics and technology and governmental interference via certain agencies (I’m sure you get the gist) when it comes to elections. It was fun to write, and I hope readers will think so too, if/when they get to read it.

woman with books in front of a whiteboard with equations on it
Complexity Adds Depth to Literature. But the Writing Doesn't Have to Use Ten Dollar Words.

But writing it wasn’t necessarily easy. There are a lot of moving parts to the work—plots and subplots, contemporary technology and technological advancements, an understanding of politics and elections, active measures, how certain countries use spies, why, and how they work, and the causal flow of the events and consequences of those events or plot points that are created (and that are necessary) when combining all of these things into one work. There’s a lot to it, and it can get complicated. But I love novels like that, novels where all the puzzle pieces are there, you know they’re there, but you may not see them until the puzzle is near completion or already completed. For me, novels like that are like watching good mystery movies—they build suspense by providing one clue after another after another without giving it all away, right until the very end.

But complexity, for me, also involves education. It involves taking what is misunderstood or not understood at all, learning about it in detail (which I do by reading a great many books, watching documentaries, reading newspaper and magazine articles, doing primary research when possible, watching movies and so on, and then educating the reader on what I’ve learned by fictionalizing it for them). Now, that doesn’t mean I just take what I’ve learned verbatim and fictionalize it. Rather, I take what I’ve learned and mold it like clay into the best, most interesting thing I’m able to create with the information and tools available to me. I blend all of the learnings—the details of how governments work alone and in concert with other governments, how spies are selected, trained, and what the trajectories may be for them depending on where they are and why they’re there, the technologies my characters use and how and why they use them, and a million other things. I also worked in the agency world for fifteen years (advertising, not the CIA, though that would’ve been cool), and so I know enough about marketing and advertising and technology to sound a little bit more knowledgeable than the average Joe.

I enjoy learning and I enjoy writing. Like the old saying goes, if you enjoy what you do, you never work a day in your life. That’s not always been the case for me, but it is right now, and for that I’m thankful. So that gets us to the complexity part. Now that I’ve finished my 502-page novel, I’ve started another one, and I’ve written probably eighty pages or so (I’m writing by pen in a leather notebook, so I don’t exactly know how many pages it’ll come out to). This novel isn’t going to be quite as complex. Yes, there’ll be an interweaving of characters and events that create the semblance of complexity, but it’ll be what is, for me, a simpler complexity, namely the complexity that occurs between members of families and the events that damage and destroy the most important relationships within those families, for one reason or another. I learn more about my emotions and feelings from the literary novels I write, whereas I learn more about the world when I write the novels I write that I consider “idea” novels. The way I view it, there’s complexity in both tracks, they’re just different kinds of complexity.

So, think about what you’re currently working on (assuming you’re working on something at present). Are you writing literary fiction? Fantasy? A thriller? A romance? How do you define complexity when it comes to what you’re working on? Is it the world building aspect of your fantasy novel? Are you creating maps of new worlds? Characters unlike the human beings we see every day? Are there certain types of dragons or robots or animals that you have to remember all of the details for, and so have a spreadsheet where you document everything so you don’t get anything confused? Or is it a thriller you’re writing? Does the complexity in what you’re writing come from figuring out how to provide the feelings of excitement or suspense or anticipation your readers are seeking? Sometimes it helps to jot it all down somewhere or create a matrix that keeps everything you want to put into your work classified by category. If you can’t keep what’s going on straight in your head, neither will your readers.

image of a computer screen with text that reads my crime is that of curiousity
Be Curious When You Write. Unfamiliar Details Make Writing Interesting to the Reader

Complexity comes in many forms. Not every novel needs to be complex—you can write a straight novel (I don’t think that’s a term, but it’s what I call novels with few, if any, subplots) that’s just as interesting as a complex one. It’s just a different beast. I’ve written a few straight novels that I think are pretty darn good. They usually involve the struggles of one protagonist/hero, and the internal mindset of that hero as they go about their journey. They aren’t as hard for me to write, because I don’t have to do much, if any, research. I’m a person and as a writer I’m naturally a little bit off (like the rest of you writers out there!). The way I work is that I usually write one complex novel (meaning one that requires research and educating myself on some topic I’m not very familiar with), followed by one straight novel. I then go back and forth between them, and I seem to learn things from one novel that apply to the other. I’m also reading for pleasure at the same time, so I’m influenced and learn different things from those books as well. It works for me, and I’m glad it does. I don’t worry about letting things influence me as I write—in fact, if I’m reading it, I may get ideas that push my novel in directions that make for better reading. Or at least that’s what I tell myself.

The last thing I want to mention is this: while your novel may be complex, it doesn’t have to be hard to read. You don’t need big words to communicate complexity. As Ernest Hemingway put it, “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.” I’m not saying you can’t use the ten-dollar words, only that it’s always good to remember you’re writing for readers, and sometimes readers prefer the five-dollar words instead.

Cully Perlman is a novelist, short story writer, blogger, and Substantive Editor. Have a novel ready to edit? Cully can be reached at 




Rated 0 out of 5 stars.
No ratings yet

Add a rating
Apr 17
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Great insight, Cully. I've written as many as three novels at a time of different genres. More commonly, if one novel is taking up most of my time, I force myself to write a short story of three to six thousand words for focus. This helps me get back to scenes in the novel and sharpen their perspective with textures I've missed the first time around. 😎

Apr 30
Replying to

However you get to the point where you're achieving what you want to achieve artistically, that's fantastic. Sometimes I just write scenes I know I'll want in the novel and then figure out later where they should go. Not all of them make it in, but there's an immediacy I feel when I work that way that I don't get when I just write straight through. Thanks for the comment!



Apr 16
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

I try to write simple novels. Not because I don't think there's value to complexity, but I want my readers to go for a quick ride without their brains exploding.

Replying to

Absolutely nothing wrong with that. I think there's room for all types of literature, and the truth is complex novels tend to sell less than straight novels (which aren't necessarily always "simple," in my view, just easier reads).

bottom of page