A Writer’s View: The Best Is Both

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr – and hey, think this should go on the Sanctum too?)

In our semi-dialogue on writing, Serdar notes this over at Genjipress:

I’ve long felt that the best stories stood out not because they had the cleverest plots, but because they made the most compelling and thoughtful use of their material . . .

This brought me back to my concerns about complexity and simplicity in stories.  This is something I’ve wrestled with in my own fiction, and my return to straight-up writing as opposed to editing, consulting, and experimentation.  My storyline for “A Bridge To The Quiet Planet” would at times seem deep – and then shallow.  It’s a complex setting, but the plotline is more of a rolling Cohen Brothers/Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World clusterf*ck that I can sum up in a sentence, or even “Smart people do smart things for dumb reasons.”

It didn’t always seem as “clever” as I’d like, as complex.  Yet it felt right.

But when you get to the why and how, the character interactions, everything from pet cats to PTSD, it’s also insanely complex.  In fact one pre-reader noted that I needed to size chapters carefully as there’s almost too much to take in.  This is a world of internet-accessing gods, sorcerous space travel, and antigravity transports.

It’s all about the level you work on and how you make use of the material.  In fact a good story is both simple and deep/complex at the same time.

Any story must be relatable, and this requires part of it to be simple, straightforward, visceral, something to connect to.  If I can “get” a character in an expression, or see a vast sprawling epic in a single sentence (“Lord of the Rings: A mismatched group try to destroy a magical artifact to save the world”) then I can connect to something.  There’s an in, as simple as a doorway.

Yet, a story must be complex to be relatable.  We need to connect with the deeper meaning of a work, to see what it all means in context.  The hook or hooks that draws us in should be connected to a web that makes us wake up to the deepness and richness of the work.  A story must also engage us and take us over.

How can something be both simple and complex?

There’s two metaphors that I think help explain it:

  • One is a geodesic dome.  Geodesic domes are made from triangles.  A simple shape.  But these shapes link together to make strong structures.  In a good story any one piece is simple, but the fit of them makes the power and complexity.
  • The second is (forgive me) a fractal, that oft over-used metaphor.  A story is something where there’s many levels to it.  Any level could be summed up in general (like an outline of a fractal), yet if you look closer you can see complexity – that on its own could be summed up.  In addition, like a fractal, parts of a story reflect each other.

To be a good writer, you have to be able to see the parts of a story on many levels and how they relate.  Sometimes simple, sometimes complex, sometimes on their own, sometimes related.  A good writer can “zoom” in on the levels to understand them and how they connect, and bring richness to their work.  A good writer can also look at any part of a story and “get” it simply.

I think this is where two failures in writing become apparent:

  • Meaningless yet complex stories are ones where there’s no simplicity, everything is about and is presented as some giant mess that becomes unrelatable, often as there’s no hook or way to get into it.  If you can’t sum up a part of a tale simply it may really be just a pile of stuff, only complex as you’re playing conceptual Jenga.
  • Simple and shallow stories where there are hooks, but little depth.  There’s little connection or meaning, so there’s not a lot of “there” there.  In extreme cases its just a pile of tropes.

A good writer is complex and simple at the same time – no matter how complex or simple the subject actually is.

(Want to get complex and dive into worldbuilding? :et me suggest my worldbuilding books.)

– Steve