The Granularity of Good Stories

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Why can some stories with broad strokes – tropes really – satisfy us while others disappoint?  This subject came up in a writers’ group when we discussed tropes, and someone noticed simple stories of good versus evil could still satisfy as much as complex ones.  I responded that simple stories can still have depth as surely as a more nuanced work, because both had granularity.

However I wasn’t sure why I was saying that.  I could visualize what I meant, so to put it into words, I wrote this.

When we think granularity, we think of the level of detail in a report, a game’s graphics, or just a description’s detail.  Some things are “big and chunky” (8-bit game graphics), and others are “fine-grained” (research data catching differences among subjects).  Good stories, worldbuilding, and characters also have granularity – but the kind varies.

Look at what is often considered a “good” book or movie.  There’s depth to the characters and setting.  There’s subtle detail about motivations, political history presented subtly that still gives you a century’s events and Checkov’s guns that were more of an armory.  There are levels of fine detail there, like a painting of many colors and delicate brush strokes.

In short, “good” works are often ones with granularity, those details and extras that make it real in our minds.

But what of those simpler works we enjoy, one that may be very simple, trope-filled, or both?  Sure some are real simple, but aren’t many books and movies “good” without all the fine detail of other works?  In fact, I’d say yes – because a “good” work that’s simple or trope-filled can have granularity of a different kind.

The “good” broad, trope-filled book or show has granularity as well, just not at the level of more complex works.  Think of the difference between 8-bit graphics and modern cinematic videogames.  The first presents a world realized in big, colored, obvious dots.  The second is a subtle palette of colors and detail.  Both can delight, but they deliver a different experience.

The “good” book of broad strokes?  That’s the 8-bit game.  There are differences, there are details; they’re just big, obvious, and not always subtle.  But there is some level of granularity and detail, it’s just not the same or the same amount as other works.  It’s “chunky.”

A standard “charming rogue” character can be boring; we’ve seen that all before.  Let’s give them one trope of a soft spot – they never abandon their friends.  Next, throw in a flaw like overconfidence, another trope.  But that’s enough to tell an interesting tale about a person who’s dashing but not always responsible, never abandons people but overestimates their ability to do so.  Three tropes together give you enough depth to enjoy and feel something.

You need enough granularity to bring the characters and story to life.  Be it a “good” book of the incredible detail or a “good” show that is filled with tropes with enough big chunks of detail to give it meaning, you can enjoy yourself and the experience.

And you, my dear writer, just need to find what granularity does what you and your audience want.

Steven Savage