Simplicity And Elegance In Storytelling

I went off a bit the other day on Twitter regarding overcomplexity in fiction — I’ve seen it too many times now, especially across SFF and across thrillers or even horror novels, where convoluted characters motivations and plots get in the way of a damn good story.

A chief example of this in film right now is the James Bond franchise. The re-do of Casino Royale is a nearly perfect package — its packaging of the character and the plot are compressed so tightly, it turns an otherwise coal-black franchise into a shining fucking diamond. It’s a lesson they forget in the follow-ups, where the work just gets more bloated and convoluted and everyone seems to act in thrall to a blither-blather knot-tangle plot rather than acting in service to the elegance of the first Daniel Craig installment. Actually, Tarantino’s films have gone this way, too — Reservoir Dogs is about as tightly woven as they come. Then, with each successive release, his films get bigger and more tangled and seem more in service to his style and his lack of narrative control rather than to telling the aforementioned damn good story.

There’s a pretty good test for this, by the way — if you can take a character or a plotline and summarize it cleanly and concisely (bonus points for compellingly), you’re probably okay. If the summary ends up feeling convoluted and over-oxygenated in its unpacking, you might — not necessarily, but might — have a problem. This isn’t to say you can’t do a story that is big and sprawly and complex. But know that doing so takes special finesse — and even then, you’re better off building that sprawling story with simple bricks.

Even the most complex architecture is built with simple materials.

Here then is the Storify of the tweets in question (or click here if it fails to embed).


32 responses to “Simplicity And Elegance In Storytelling”

  1. That’s where the art comes in – finding the path to simple, but not TOO simple; understandable and clear without being too “on the nose,”

    • And I love the point about characters. I’m thinking about some of my favorite stories. The characters are not puppets whose strings are being pulled in service to the plot. They’re interesting people with goals that align and conflict with each other, with consequences.

  2. Oh, er, I need to lie down. I feel a re-write coming on. Could you not have posted this 18 months ago? Sigh. I hate it when you’re right.

  3. I’m reading Natchez Burning by Greg Iles right now and I think it’s another great example of letting the simple (Penn is trying to keep his dad out of jail) offer the complex (Kennedy and King Assassination plots, civil war secrets, insidious corruption, exploring/exposing/fearing the history of our fathers etc.).

    It’s the story of Penn and his father that I keep turning the pages for, and the complexity that grows me in unsolicited ways. I love it!

  4. Yeah but complexity makes things more rewatchable/rereadable, no? A lot of my favourite stories at first were, what did I just watch/read?, then when it holds up, it just gets better after two, three, 300 watchings. Thinking of new Bonds, LOTR, Matrix, even Pacific Rim, though there the complexity is in the visuals.

    • I don’t know that I agree, especially with some of your examples. LOTR is very simple. Matrix is, too — and when it gets complex, it (to me, YMMV) fails with the two followup sequels.

    • I 100% disagree. The movies I rewatch have an amazing elegance to them– simple but deep. My main rewatch films are: Closer, Casablanca, Chasing Amy, Jurassic Park (okay, that one is for the dinos), Sideways.

  5. Methinks I’m reading some sort of Cool Kid code, here: is “storify” slang for a paragraph split into tweets? I guess there’s some part of the fad or joke or whatever I’m not getting. Anyway, I quite literally could not read the endless tweet screens without going into a migraine. Since I had to copy & paste the stuff to be able to read it, and because most of the “tweets” are dependent upon context within the paragraph (Is that the joke — that this stuff isn’t really tweets at all?), I’m pasting the actual text here, with a little bit of added punctuation. I gave up after one page. Why not just issue one tweet with a link to the article? 8 |

    [edited and removed by CW]

    • Storify groups tweets or other social media bites into a single viewable online document.

      I did not write it as big paragraphs because I didn’t write them as big paragraphs. I wrote them as tweets.

      As such, I deleted the part of your comment where you edited them out of Storify and into a paragraph — because that’s not how I wrote it.

      I apologize if Storify is hard to read, though. It should just display the tweets one after the other.

      — c.

      • Serious question (not snark): so each tweet/sentence is supposed to be contemplated in isolation? Or ??? I still don’t understand why the discussion has to be split into fragments.

        • Think of Twitter as a cocktail party. Our Twitter streams are full of ongoing conversations where we all get to take turns in 144 characters or less. Sometimes lots of us are talking at the same time. Conversations appear one turn at a time according to Twitter’s format on our screens, but may not necessarily/in actuality be fragmented.

  6. I’m having this very problem with my current WIP. It was meant to be a simple adventure story and it’s gotten a bit out of hand. I’m rolling along with the complexity as I work to get it finished, but after each day’s writing I think, “I’m going to end up cutting 80% of this on revision.”

    Still, getting to the end is the first goal. Learning to not make it this convoluted in the first place will come in the *next* piece.

    • I’m in the same place. I’ve been having this horrible creeping feeling that this is exactly what’s happening with my current WIP – it’s pretty sprawly, but I’m trying to just get it all down so I can hone and shape it. I had a 3k day yesterday and didn’t feel like I advanced the plot at all.

      It is pretty simple, in summary. The motivations of the main characters are straightforward. Part of the problem is that there’s a lively cast of side characters, and their own stories are intertwined with and inform what’s going on with the main characters so those subplots really do need to be there, but the unruly bastards are taking over. It’s ALL relevant, the question is, what’s NECESSARY?

      The other problem is that it’s a two-timeline story, and I’m having some trouble getting the present-day plot and the flashback plot to line up narratively. That’s where the contortion is coming in. Both stories are flowing in their own timelines just fine, but they’re not syncing up. I’m thinking about telling the flashback plot out of sequence in the rewrite? I have mixed feelings about that.

      • Having the same creepy feeling about my WIP Beth, and some similar issues as well. Think I’ve been ignoring the feeling for a while and this post is serving as hammer to head.

        • I realized last night that the character I started out thinking was the protag of one of the storylines ISN’T. He’s the connection between the two, he’s a very important secondary POV character, but it’s not his story. Rewrote, rearranged, cut a bunch of stuff, including moving the scene introducing the ACTUAL protag from mid-Chapter 1 to the very beginning, and all of a sudden the whole thing is much stronger and makes more sense and I can see the path clear.

      • Your problems sound more complex than mine. 🙂 I had a straight-forward adventure story going, ran into a sexist trope, decided to subvert it, and now all sorts of extra bits have fractaled off. BUT! last night’s work got me through the main complication so I should be able to wrap up in another day or three.

        • Yay!

          What I thought was extra bits fractaling off was in fact me not having a clear enough big picture, and the story trying to find its way back to the main thread. I’ve resolved that, I think.

          I have a lot further to go. I’m maybe 2/3 done. Taking a break today to let some of this continue to process, then hitting it hard again tomorrow.

  7. Oooh, Casino Royale – the structure of this film fascinates me, because it manages to work as an actual emotional drama and as a really effective action film, while still keeping all the Bond tropes (and the essence of the original book intact). Which is something that’s barely been managed for a lot of the franchise (and certainly never since).

    I think part of what makes Casino Royale work so well is that it keeps the separate acts so different? In some ways it makes the same things happen in different ways in different places (physically the airport sequence is actually bigger than the building at the end, and more far-reaching consequences if it goes wrong, but the stakes are emotionally much higher by the end, and Bond has become a very different person by that point).

    It’s almost a set of mini-films in one – starting with the tropical settings – the parkour; facing the consequences with the politics and then starting again by disappearing and being sneaky at the resort, segueing with the Bodyworlds/Airport sequence, and then coming back down with a crash to face the consequences… and starting again in Europe with much higher stakes and a clearer understanding of the situation with Vesper and the big game. Then another set of literal crashes – the poisoning and the car crash and the torture – and ramping up from a quiet interlude to a fatalistic and spooky finale (the Don’t Look Now riffs are so obvious and so perfect; because it’s all so hopeless. Not many action franchises would go there.).

    All of which manage to keep very different tones and use of dialogue and types of action to showcase how the character changes. And it keeps a relatively long film feeling interesting the whole way through (aaand the next three films are horrible and don’t know the meaning of the word ‘character’. Quantum actively undermines the emotional resonance of Casino, and don’t even get me started on Skyfall).

  8. Can’t you just constantly ask: “Does this pertain?” as you think and write? KISS method?
    Just wondering. I have not actually written anything but poetry and a couple of essays yet, so maybe it is not that simple. or are you talking about the temptation just to fill up pages?

  9. This is all well and good except I think Skyfall is a brilliant film, and probably the best of the latest 007 franchise (although I agree Casino Royale was fab).

    Some stories lend themselves to simplicity. Others do not.

    Thus endeth the lesson.

  10. Well, I have to say, your storify of tweets explains it better than the rest of the blog post about this. I know – or am starting to know – character motivations deeply. My issue is some of the world-building stuff. That’s what makes it sprawly. I have a clear vision of most things in my head, but defining others is tough. I think the main problem is that I want it to be set in a sort-of future with allusions to the past – which is our now, except theirs is, well, let’s call it an AU-verse. Negotiating that is a bit of a pain.

  11. I think that’s why I’ve struggled so hard with the last few seasons of Doctor Who. I know it’s not the acting or the characters. It’s the overly convoluted, often nonsensical plots.

  12. I get the point you’re making and why you chose to tell it in tweets.
    Can I just say that not all of us use this shorthand and can I also say that birdsong, which sounds so simple, is actually densely compressed and complex. Tweets aren’t. xx

  13. It’s a tricky one. A story should be simple and the goal of a character (IE – a murder happens, detective tries to solve it.) But crimes in particular are not always a crime of passion or a heat of the moment thing, sometimes there are deeper reasons, that are complicated too, as to why this event has happened.

    I think the trick in any story telling is use the best tools you have as a writer (words basically) to tell that story as cleanly as possible.

    I still don’t fully understand how Harry ends up as a horcrux in his world cos me as an adult thinks a wizard would need to prepare vessel first before the soul is transferred into it. But look aside from that does this stop what is a simple story having depth?

    Its how a story is told that matters not how complicated a story is.

  14. I feel like as writers we get so caught up in trying to make things complex and intricate that our story gets lost in the crossfires. It’s hard to reign in everything that’s going on in your brain and how much you want to put on paper.

  15. I would suggest that simplicity is why everyone loves Inigo Montoya.

    What he wants is very basic and very primal–his father back. He can’t get it so even when he “wins” it feels like a loss and we just want to give him a big hug and some hot cocoa with mini marshmallows.

  16. I worked as a trainer in a call center for 6 years, having spent the previous 5 mastering the art of helping people over the phone. The most important thing I learned from that period was that no matter what the problem, however convoluted the customer claimed the issue was, it could be neatly summarized into 10 words or less. The skill was in finding out which of the two hundred words the customer used to describe their situation were the 10 important ones.

    This is always my acid test: I just wrote a bad ass five page exposition delivered by half a dozen characters under the illusion of navigating a starship into a hostile system. I love these pages, but did I just bloat the whole thing? Is every line of dialogue not just important to the narrative but also give some insight into the person who speaks it? Can I summarize any of these pages into the equivalent of 10-words-or-less and still retain the meaning and impact? That’s how a 60 page backstory became a three page expository exchange between a student and his teacher.

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