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Fiction is a canvas upon which you can do anything, and that’s why its limiting. When you can do anything, you have so many options you become paralyzed.
My friend Serdar talks about this, by comparing it to how many brands of Toothpaste we have:
“Choice paralysis is, as you can guess, a major issue in creative work. Because you have complete control over what you put into a story, that can manifest as being stranded between too many choices, and you end up in a Toothpaste Meltdown, goggling at the screen and drooling into your keys.”
He goes on to analyze how the choices you make are best shaped by what fits the story you want to write, and asking the right questions. This is something I see (to no one’s surprise) in my work using Agile methods.
Agile methods are obsessed with asking “what is valuable for the customer/end user/etc.” The basic idea is find what’s important, rank things in order of the importance, and start from the top. If you’re not sure, then you have to ask more questions about who your audience is, what they want, etc.
That one word, Value, helps say so much.
In my recent work on my novel, A School of Many Futures, I started a massive edit after getting editoral, prereader, and my own feedback. What helped me was asking what chapters, scenes, etc. did anything for the audience. The result shocked me.
- Two chapters merged into one, moving the plot along.
- Several scenes were thus combined, making them richer and snappier.
- An entire sub-subplot and mini-character arc emerged from the above deeply enriching the overall story.
- A cat who appears perhaps twice, became a useful way to exposit (hey, people talk to cats).
All because I asked what matters to the audience. What had value, to them.
This doesn’t mean I shirked on worldbuilding – this is me. It just meant that I found a way to tell the story, in the world, that worked better for the reader. I violated none of my obsessively detailed continuity, I merely found which option told the story best.
So next time you’re stuck with the “toothpaste conundrum” in your writing, ask what your audience wants and write it down. Then sort these ideas in order of what is important to them. Start from the top and go through your list.
Even if the audience is just you, you might be surprised at what you really want . . .