Some plots are simple. Plots based on a Joseph Campbell structure are simple. Each step follows directly from the last. “Once upon a time, there was a dude who was wrong about something. He went on an epic journey to teach him humility, which made him right—and being right made him strong.” There is one bad assumption (the one that made the main character wrong in the first place and that started the story off). Most romances are based on this structure. “Once upon a time, there was a chick who was wrong above love, who loved a guy who was also wrong about love. After they ate their pride about each other, they were also able to resolve the other problems in their lives, and they lived happily ever after, the end.”
Other plots are complex. The ones that are too complex die a lonely, unread death; there are too many bad assumptions on the characters’ part for the readers’ minds to sort through. The ones that survive have something to tie them together—theme, a single family across generations, a single war, a single setting. In the case of Ulysses, a single day (which is structured as if it were Homer’s Odyssey, both of which serve to ground us).
Others have twists that reverse the characters’ fortunes with one or even multiple bad assumptions, usually one right after the other,30 so we’re on the edges of our seats. (Dean Koontz’s Intensity.)
A few plots are elegant. They produce the illusion of complexity while using one, and only one, bad assumption, which is carried out in multiple ways, on multiple levels. Not only are the characters misled—but we are caught in the same types of traps as the characters, often because of our assumptions about stories themselves. (Les Diaboliques—The Sixth Sense—Fight Club—Murder on the Orient Express.)
I’m going to be at Denver ComicCon today, talking about The Best Plot Twists Ever! WHEEEEEE!!!!