It’s one thing to talk about unburdening stories in theory, but what does it mean in practice? How can authors take this advice to heart and actually reduce the clutter in their stories? Fortunately, professional storytellers have provided us with plenty of over-burdened tales to practice on. Let’s take a look at why these stories are over-burdened in the first place, what effect that has on quality, and how it can be fixed.
Spoiler Notice: Gideon the Ninth and Skyward
As the poster child of series bloat, The Wheel of Time is over-burdened in just about every respect. It has too many characters, too many plotlines, and too many different types of magic. It also has a multiverse thrown in there for unknown reasons. All of this together is why a relatively simple story about defeating this world’s equivalent of Sauron managed to take fourteen entire novels to complete. Dear lord.
Listing every over-burdened aspect of these books would take ages, so today we’re looking at just one: the various political factions. Most of the story takes place in the Westlands, an area blocked off by some suspiciously square-looking mountains. These lands contain dozens of countries, large and small, and our heroes find time to visit most of them at one time or another.
That’s already quite a few political actors on the stage, but of course there are more. We also have the White Tower, which is Robert Jordan’s take on Dune’s organization of Scary Magic Women. Then there are the Seanchan, a vast empire from across the oceans. But wait, there’s even more! Across the mountains are the Aiel, who are desert badasses in the mold of Dune’s Fremen, except somehow even less realistic. Finally, there are the White Cloaks, an independent army of religious extremists who go around causing mischief. I say “finally,” but there are almost certainly factions I’m missing. These are just the ones I remember from my recent reread of the first five books.
With all these additions, the political stage has gone from crowded to jam packed, standing room only. There are so many factions running around that most of them blur together. Despite our heroes traveling all over the Westlands, most of the countries feel indistinct and passive, as if they aren’t allowed to do anything unless a POV character is leading the action. Since most of the factions aren’t doing anything important, they largely fade into names on a page, easily interchanged for one another. This makes the Westlands feel like a cheap set rather than a living world.
How to Fix It
The main order of the day is to get out those scissors and start cutting factions. Namely, the three factions that are most unnecessary: the Seanchan, the Aiel, and the White Cloaks. These bad boys are responsible for a disproportionate amount of the crowding because they’re so far outside the original setting premise. When first reading WoT, you’re presented with a land of diverse countries and peoples, only for most of that to be shoved aside in favor of three factions that have nothing to do with this map the characters spend so long traveling around.
The White Cloaks and the Aiel can be cut pretty easily. The White Cloaks’ entire purpose for most of the story is to provide some disposable minions for the heroes to fight, a job that can be easily done by one of the many countries the story takes us through or from one of the many warlords that seem to pop up all over the place. This would also help the setting’s believability, since it’s really unclear how the White Cloaks attract recruits in the first place. They act like a military arm of the church, but there is no church in the Westlands, nor do there seem to be any religious leaders or any organized religion at all.
Likewise, the Aiel can be easily cut, as they’re little more than a distraction from the actual story. They make even less sense than the White Cloaks, as they live in a barren desert yet can somehow raise armies more powerful than anyone else’s, and they’re so good at fighting that it borders on the supernatural. There’s no reason for them to even be in the story except to give the main character some unneeded extra candy by swearing loyalty to him.
The Seanchan are a little more complicated, as they actually play an important role in the plot. In the later books, they’ve conquered about half of the Westlands, which requires the protagonist to unite the other half against them. That’s fine, but there’s no reason it couldn’t have been done by one of the countries already present at the start of the books. All Jordan had to do was make one of his many kingdoms powerful and expansionist. There was no reason to bring in an entirely new faction from across the sea.
Tamsyn Muir’s Hugo-nominated novel is high on originality, but also high on confusion. You’re thrown into this strange space fantasy world with very little to orient you and then left to sink or swim. To be sure, some of this confusion comes from the wordcraft. Protagonist Gideon can’t stop quipping long enough to explain anything, which makes many plot points and setting elements seem more complicated than they are. But it’s not all confusing prose, since the story is definitely over-burdened as well.
To start, the main plot has around eighteen major characters, depending on how you count them. Each of these characters has at least one nickname, and some have two or three. Then there are a number of background characters who aren’t as present but still get brought up in either exposition or flashbacks. That’s a whole lot to remember.
Perhaps just as bad, the plot doesn’t give us much of a reason to remember who the characters are. The plot is sort of a murder mystery, and normally we would remember the large cast as each member is a suspect or an investigator. But in this novel, there’s never a reason to suspect anyone of being the murderer, since no one has a motive. In fact, it’s made pretty clear that the most likely culprit is some kind of magical monster.*
The other thing happening in the plot is that most of the characters are on a quest to unlock the secrets of powerful necromantic magic. This also could have made the large cast more memorable, as our heroes battle it out to learn the secrets of the undead. Again, however, there’s no real reason for the characters to compete. The rules laid down at the beginning make it clear that all of them can unlock this power, and it’s not just a one-time prize.
The herd does thin out a bit as more characters are murdered, but even then, we’re not out of the woods. Since it’s hard to remember who anyone is, the emotional impact of each death is seriously dampened. Was that one of the characters we liked or one of the assholes? It’s hard to say!
How to Fix It
You might expect the answer to be cutting characters, but if so, prepare for a shock! While there are a few consolidations we could make,* a big cast is actually useful to a story like this, as it means that there are plenty of characters to die as the plot moves forward. Instead, the solution is in changing how the characters are portrayed.
First, there should only be one name for each character. Currently, the characters are sometimes referred to by their first name, their house name, or their nickname. There are even multiple characters who answer to the same house name, so that all has to go. When your cast is nearly large enough to play both sides of a soccer match, you need to be clear with what you call them.
Second, it would be way easier to remember these characters if they were actually murder suspects and if they were actually competing for something only one of them could get. That way, even the friendly characters would have reason to distrust each other, and everyone would be easier to remember since it’s clear why they’re important.
Finally, the book should focus more on the different magics practiced by the spellcaster characters who make up about half the cast. They’re all necromancers, but supposedly they each specialize in a different field of necromancy. This should make them more distinct, but for most of the book, only a couple of characters do anything differently than the protagonist.
The first book in the His Dark Materials series, The Golden Compass,* isn’t overburdened at all. It’s a mystery-adventure story, with protagonist Lyra trying to track down a group of missing children while also finding hints about a mysterious substance called Dust. There’s a fair amount of setting info to absorb, but it’s all directly relevant to the plot, which makes things easier. Our two antagonists also happen to be Lyra’s parents: Ms. Coulter and Lord Asriel. This both adds drama and streamlines the story, since the big bads have an obvious connection to the hero.
But then books two and three come along, which is where things get messy. First, we introduce a new main character from the real world. His name is Will, and he’s the protagonist now. Lyra even has a scene where her all-knowing truth machine says that it’s her job to support Will on his quest. Not only is Will the new main character, but he also comes with his own parental baggage. Will’s father even has his own subplot about a witch who wants to kill him because he said no to sexy times. Oh boy.
As if getting to know a new main character wasn’t enough, the later books also spring a war against heaven on us. I’ve written before about how weird it is to turn the child-murdering Asriel into a big damn hero fighting against an evil God. However, more importantly for our purposes today, it also adds yet another plot thread to a series that already had plenty going on. Meanwhile, the Dust plot is still happening, but it’s only tangentially about Dust now, instead focusing on the damage caused by portals being opened up between worlds in different dimensions.
So how does the God War storyline link up with the Dust plot? Turns out they never really do. Some bad guys who are at least ostensibly allied with God try to eliminate Lyra because they’re afraid she’s going to be another Eve, though it’s never clear exactly what that means. We’re also told that Dust was responsible for the original Adam and Eve eating the fruit of knowledge, but also that Dust caused human evolution, so… I have no idea what to make of that. As if there weren’t enough plots, Will and Lyra also pop down to hell for a bit to take care of things there, and a side character hangs out with cool motorcycle aliens for most of book three.
How to Fix It
The main issue with books two and three is that they don’t work with what the first book set up for them. Instead, they invent a bunch of new material, which then has to compete with the existing content for space, which is why the story is so crowded. This leaves us with two repair options.
Option one: we stick with the first book as is and revise books two and three. In this scenario, the war against heaven should be dropped, since Lyra is our main character and there’s no way she’s in a position to lead that kind of plot. Likewise, if Will stays in the story at all, it should be based on how he relates to Lyra. From there, we can focus on the Dust plot, continuing from where The Golden Compass left off. Lyra’s parents would remain our main antagonists, with Ms. Coulter wanting to control Dust and Lord Asriel wanting to destroy it as he claims at the end of book one. That way, Lyra can discover some third option that both preserves Dust and keeps it out of a villain’s control.
Option two: it’s also possible to go back and revise book one so that it serves as a better setup for the stories that come later. In this scenario, Lyra should probably be older, since she needs to lead a war against heaven. The bad guys should also be more motivated by religion. In the published version, the villains are associated with the church, but their motivations are fairly secular. It should also be clear by the end of book one that God actually exists in this setting. One of the major failings of the current series is that Lyra’s world has exactly as much evidence of divinity as the real world does, so it’s jarring that even anti-church characters take it as a given that heaven is real.
The first novel of Brandon Sanderson’s latest series has two difficult conceits to explain. First, Sanderson really wants his World War II In Space aesthetic to make logical sense, whereas most authors would simply deploy some handwavium. That means a lot of time is spent explaining why space-age warships maneuver like propeller-driven airplanes and only engage the enemy at close range with direct-fire weapons. Most of these explanations are given as answers to questions asked by the characters.
The second difficult conceit is why the big enemy acts like a video game antagonist. The other side always sends just enough ships to be a major challenge, but never enough to completely overwhelm the heroes, even though the bad guys seem to have effectively unlimited resources. For this, Sanderson deploys a host of technical explanations plus information about how weird the planet they live on is, which apparently limits how the enemy can attack them. Finally, he does what we call sanctioning uncertainty: making it clear that to some extent, the enemy’s behavior is a mystery to be solved.
This is all exactly what I’d recommend to an author with a complicated setting to explain, but it has a couple of problems. For one thing, the sheer volume of time spent explaining the setting’s basic premises starts to get tiring after a while. Especially in the early chapters, it seems like we spend at least as much time explaining unintuitive elements of the setting as we do on the actual plot. The other problem is that explaining the villain’s behavior puts a lot of pressure on the final reveal. What new information could we learn that could possibly explain such unusual behavior?
Predictably, the big reveal isn’t able to deliver on the book’s earlier promises. It turns out that the characters are living on a prison planet, and the enemies they’ve been fighting are just drones sent down to make sure humans don’t develop advanced space travel. If that’s the case, then the drones are doing a very bad job. The human situation is desperate, but their space program is clearly still advancing. We’re told that a wave of drones can’t be bigger than 100 ships, but why not send a second wave, or even a third? That could wipe out the human space program entirely.
It’s always possible that this prison planet is having budget issues, but the book actually gives the opposite impression, and the whole operation is apparently run by a galaxy-wide coalition, so another hundred drone ships sounds like pocket change. Plus, if this is a prison, why have the wardens never tried explaining the rules to the humans? Maybe the humans wouldn’t listen, but it seems at least worth a try.
How to Fix It
Even though the WWII aesthetic requires a lot of explanation, I’m going to leave it alone today. It’s pretty vital for the story, and it wouldn’t be so much of a problem if the story wasn’t also trying to explain the enemy’s strange behavior. The story can handle one of those conceits, but both is pushing things.
Instead, the simplest solution is to change the bad guys into a more conventional enemy, one that suffers from the same resource and supply problems as the humans. That way, it doesn’t require a lot of explanation for the reader to understand why both sides generally have comparable numbers of ships.
It’s even possible to keep the prison planet reveal in this scenario. All we need is a few lines about how any spacecraft that flies too high ends up disappearing, presumably shot down by the enemy. Then the main character can discover that the other side has the same problem, and they assume it’s the humans who are responsible. Cue the reveal that both sides have been exiled here because they just wouldn’t stop fighting so the rest of the galaxy could live in peace.
5. Frozen II
This is going to be a tough one. The first Frozen film has a relatively straightforward plot, other than weird troll sidequests, and it also has an obvious emotional throughline of the sisters bonding. By comparison, Frozen II is a complete mess. That’s not a huge surprise considering the previous film was definitely not designed with sequels in mind, but it does provide an interesting challenge.
This film is a perfect example of storytellers struggling to choose what to focus on and then trying to make their story about everything. Right off the bat, we introduce a classical four-elements system, which is awkward because Elsa’s ice powers don’t really fit any of them, but they’re also clearly closest to water. This sabotages the idea of Elsa being the “bridge” between the four, which is brought up later in the movie.
We also have these four elemental spirit powers that put the Northuldra people under a curse for… being betrayed by the king of Arendelle? That’s pretty harsh. And then even though the curse seems to have originated from a fight the Northuldra had with Arendelle, it can only be lifted by destroying a dam, which the spirits could clearly have done themselves but apparently chose not to. Then I’m guessing someone on the team realized that they were doing an imperialism story focused entirely on the privileged party, so they added in a bizarre backstory where Elsa and Anna’s mother was secretly Northuldra, even though she doesn’t look like any of the other Northuldra.
Oh, and there’s also a plot about finding the ship that the sisters’ parents died on, for some reason. And also Kristoff has a handful of painful scenes about being bad at proposing to Anna. And for some reason they leave the trolls in charge of Arendelle? Just about the only consistent plot thread is that Anna struggles to be relevant when traveling with someone of Elsa’s incredible power.
How to Fix It
With this one we must go all the way back to the drawing board. Frozen II is such a mess that we’re going to have to focus on ideas rather than actual plot elements. Specifically, the two most interesting ideas currently presented: Anna stepping out of her sister’s shadow and Elsa finding some kind of counterpart to her powers. The simplest way to do this would be a story where Anna also gets powers, but a big part of Anna’s appeal is specifically that she doesn’t have powers, so we’re going on hard mode.
For a general plot, we can start with the two sisters being called away from their castle to some border region of Arendelle to negotiate with a potentially hostile neighbor. We’ll leave Kristoff to run things at home since that actually makes sense and he has nothing to do in this movie otherwise. We’re cutting the four elements, the curse, and we’re especially cutting the imperialism thread. There’s just no way this film is going to deal with imperialism in a satisfactory manner, so better not to include it.
When the sisters reach their destination, they find that their neighbor is claiming lands that traditionally belong to Arandelle, but that’s not all! The other kingdom’s leader has powers similar to Elsa’s, except with fire. Fire works fairly well as a counterpoint to ice, and this way we aren’t trying to fit in an awkward four-elements system.
From there, the story is about Elsa and her counterpart continually clashing, both in personality and in politics. The conflict keeps building until it looks like open war is inevitable, war that would be devastating because of Elsa and her counterpart’s magic powers. This is where Anna has her time to shine. She serves as peacemaker, probably working with a counterpart of her own on the other side, possibly Fire-Person’s sibling or spouse. The big climax would come when the two unpowered heroes force Elsa and Fire-Person to stop fighting and come to terms. This could even end with Elsa recognizing that Anna would make a better queen.
If it’s important to have an antagonist, then we can have a villain who’s trying to play Arendelle and its neighbor off against each other for their own gain. Maybe they have some magic ritual they want to do that can only be powered by the energy of fire-magic and ice-magic battling each other. I’d like to keep the Northuldra, too, but I’m honestly not sure how. Making them the opposing kingdom feels a little too much like it’s echoing Pocahontas’s problematic tropes, since the Northuldra are heavily coded as an indigenous people. Maybe they could be allies of Arendelle, and it’s their land that the other kingdom wants, but also their land that will be devastated if war breaks out. We’d need at least one major Northuldra character in that scenario, so perhaps that could be Anna’s peacemaking counterpart.
When a story is over-burdened, the solution will almost always involve cutting something. The trick is to know what to cut and when. If you can make certain aspects of the story run more efficiently, then that’s fewer of your precious darlings that will have to go. Even so, no story is so efficient that it can accommodate every single thing you might want to include, so the best practice is to only add what you absolutely need. The revision process will be a lot less painful that way.
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