All stories get more complicated the further you get into them.
This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just inevitable. The reader starts off knowing nothing, and over the course of the story they get fed more and more information.
If it’s a properly written story anything the reader is told will be relevant to further developments. That means they have to remember everything that’s happened so far and how it relates to everything else that’s also happened and everything that’s going to happen.
This network of events, consequences and reactions will get ever more intricate. To the point where it can become so overwhelming that when a character says, “Hey, Mary’s back!” all the reader thinks is, Who the hell is Mary?
In some cases confusion is down to too much information at. Sometimes it’s due to convoluted writing that’s difficult to follow.
These are technical problems that can be easily fixed (once you become aware of them).
But stories are always going to get complicated as you refer back to things or reveal the implications of actions or create conflict. This isn’t something to be avoided, but it is something you have to be aware of and communicate in a way the reader is able to process.
You can’t rely on the reader just being super focused on the story and having a great memory (although that would be very helpful). You have to help them navigate the parts where things get messy.
Firstly, key players should be memorable. Putting in a reminder is okay, but can feel clunky.
“Hey, Mary’s back from Jamaica. I hope she remembered to go see Old Bessie like you asked her to.”
Better to have the name automatically trigger meaning for the reader. One way to do this is to make the name itself memorable. Change Mary to Maxuma and it becomes much harder to forget. However, a story where everyone has ‘interesting’ names not only undermines this, it has the reverse effect of making it much harder to remember who anyone is.
Unusual or surprising details help to make information stick. If Mary is the girl with the tail and cloven feet it won’t take much to jog the reader’s memory. Although, again, this only works if your story isn’t set in a world full of people with weird appendages. And it can become quite laborious to give every single character some remarkable characteristic.
While these sorts of things will help, there is a much stronger way to keep the reader aware of all the stuff going on in the story, and that’s to interlink it.
If I tell you Mary is tall, went to school in Scotland and hates jellyfish, this may give you an idea of who she is, but it won’t necessarily keep her in mind when she’s absent.
However, if I tell you Mary’s taller than most men, which means she has difficulty getting a boyfriend and that’s why she’s available to be sent on a dangerous mission since she’s the only one in the group who’s single, then the linking of who she is and what she does helps the reader to place her that much quicker.
The same works for other elements of the story. When you reveal information, the level of detail and accuracy isn’t going to be the things that stick in the mind, it’s how those things relate to the development of the story.
If the character robs a bank in Chapter 2, and it’s mentioned when he’s arrested and interviewed in Chapter 32, the reader might not be able to recall many of the details. But if the bank robbery in Chapter 2 was to raise the money to finance an even bigger crime that led to the character being arrested and interviewed, then the reader will be able to remember that much easier.
If you keep events separate (it wouldn’t be surprising for a criminal to commit unrelated bank robberies, it’s his job after all) then you make it harder for the brain to retain the information. If you link them it creates a cascade that’s continuously flowing.
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