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

A Writer’s View: Complexity And Convolution

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

Working on “A Bridge To The Quiet Planet” is interesting as in some ways it’s very complex, a tale of a world of science and sorcery that survived a world-shaking war, and the lives of those centuries after the trauma.  In other way’s its simple – it’s a heist/chase story that goes Cohen Brothers, just with a sarcastic sorceress and a disreputable used bookseller.

Complexity in stories is a challenging area of discussion, because it often seems what people say is complex is anything but to me..  As my friend Serdar notes in his blog:

Now, Steve did specifically say complex stories. That could mean one of a number of things, not all of them what you might think. Complexity in a story is too often assumed to be convolution, as in a plot that is very knotty and full of double-reverses and whatnot. I tend to stay away from such things if only because I am not nearly smart enough to pull them off, but also because I have a different idea of what kind of complexity is relevant in a story. For me a story is complex if the pieces in it have a lot of thematic richness, or if the characters are multidimensional and humane. It’s not if I need a map in the endpaper and a list of dramatis personae.

This pretty much hits the division on the head for me.  A story can be convoluted but not complex – a Wile E. Coyote mess of tricks and craziness can exist atop a simple set of characters and tales.  A story can be complex with deep richness and many facets, while being straightforward.

What I realized in my writing is that complexity and convolution are not the same thing, and separating them in your mind is valuable for a writer for several reasons.

First, to separate them is to ask what you’re wanting to write.  Do you want to challenge the audience with double-backs and twists or do you want them to experience richness?  Or both?  To separate complexity and convolution is to help you set goals.

Secondly, to separate them is to ask when is one or the other appropriate within a story.  One part may need complexity, one part may need convolution.  It is possible what seems to be appropriate may, at later examination, not be – a complicated murder plot may be more interesting from the viewpoint of a character who has it figured out, so you can explore their character.

So I’m writing a story that’s complex (in characters) but the overall plot isn’t overly convoluted (it’s straightforward) once you know what’s going on.  This is actually important because if I added convolution to the story, the book might be longer but also more confusing due to the setting’s many unusual elements.

Complexity isn’t convolution.  They may exist together, but can be happily apart – and keeping that in mind will enrich your writing either way.  Plus, it’s OK to write one, both, or none – just know what you want.

(Oh and if you need some other creative boosts, check out my book on Creative Paths!)

– Steve