The most obvious solution to excess complexity is to cut unnecessary characters, plot threads, and world elements. But cutting is only part of the solution. The other big part is consolidation.
How Consolidation Strengthens Stories
Consolidation is the process of reusing story elements and keeping all of your story elements closely linked. This converts new things your audience would have to learn into things they’re already familiar with, thereby simplifying it.
Let’s use my example of ten important characters. You could reduce complexity by simply cutting five of those characters, removing any role those characters play in the story. Or you could merge each character with another character. Everything they do in the story is preserved, but now your reader has to learn five fewer names and personalities.
Since you won’t have to describe each of those extra characters and what their basic role or job is, you can use that time to give each character more depth. They might get a rewarding character arc that you wouldn’t otherwise have time for.
Fragmented story elements can also be consolidated by making them more interrelated. Let’s say you don’t want to merge your ten characters into five. Another way to bring them together would be to make them all part of the same family or crew. Now it’s easier to put them in scenes together. This makes it much easier to cover all ten characters than if they were each off on their own.
Not only is consolidation less painful for storytellers than cutting, but it also raises audience engagement, and not just because the story has less exposition. Every story element offers a chance to get the audience invested in the story. The more time you spend with each element, the more likely your audience will care about it. Then the more of those elements you put together in a scene, the more reasons you’re giving your audience to care about what happens in that scene.
As an example, let’s look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The highest grossing films of the MCU are the big team-up movies like Avengers: Endgame. When there’s a movie about a single hero like the Hulk, viewers have to like the Hulk to go see it, whereas for a team-up movie, they might be motivated to see it if they like just one of the many heroes in there.
But this wouldn’t work if these team-up movies were introducing new characters. Each character would get too little time to get the audience invested in them. In fact, Joss Whedon introduced three new characters in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and no one cares about them. They didn’t get their own movies, and by Endgame, two of them had already been killed off.* Marvel had to work up to those team-up movies by giving each hero development with several movies dedicated to them.*
Altogether, consolidation is simply about making your story efficient. Just like cutting excess elements and focusing on what’s important, consolidation is something that every storyteller should aim for in every story.
Avoiding Character Fragmentation
Creating a cast of characters is where most storytellers end up fragmenting their stories. Because characters determine the plot, a wayward cast of characters also does significant plot damage. Consider these steps to fix it.
One of the easiest steps any storyteller can take is to check for characters that are easy to merge. First, do you have any named characters that appear at just the story’s beginning or the story’s end? With the exception of characters you kill off, that’s something you want to avoid. Not only is it inefficient, but it violates audience expectations for who will be important to the story. In many of these cases, you can fix this issue by combining a character that appears in the beginning with one that appears at the end.
The next biggest thing to look out for is characters that are too similar. It’s difficult to remember characters who play similar roles and don’t have personalities that are clearly different. While you may want a heroine who has to choose between two love interests, if you can’t make those love interests contrast with each other and find significant roles in the story for each of them, do yourself a favor and just make them the same person. The same goes for wise mentors or plucky sidekicks.
Putting Characters in the Same Place
It’s very difficult to consolidate a story when the important characters are far apart from one another. When we find stories where one character is following a completely different plot arc than everyone else, their location is almost always a factor.
That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to link characters in different locations. Intrigue stories like Game of Thrones usually have some instances of characters in different locations scheming against one another. The slaughter at the Red Wedding, for instance, not only destroyed the Starks but greatly benefited the Lannisters even though they were somewhere else. Even so, Game of Thrones still has lots of isolated characters, and George R. R. Martin finally gave the character that was off on a separate continent her own book. The fact remains that by putting characters in the same area, you’ll have many more options for making them relevant to each other.
If you want to show off different parts of your world, the easiest way to do that without fragmenting your story is to have your characters travel together.
Examining Your Viewpoint Choices
In theory, the choice of viewpoint character is a technical one that doesn’t mean much about the story itself. For instance, if your story centers around a relationship arc between two estranged sisters, you might choose one or both of them as viewpoint characters. The story probably wouldn’t be any more or less consolidated based on your choice.
However, in practice, most writers add viewpoint characters for the explicit purpose of including content that is unrelated to anything else they’re doing. With one viewpoint character, everything that happens must be in their presence. When a writer wants to leave that character behind to show things they aren’t involved in, they do so using another viewpoint. For this reason, Mythcreants is critical of using multiple viewpoint characters. They are usually a sign of a fragmented book that forces readers to alternate between independent stories from chapter to chapter.
So before you add another viewpoint, consider the reason you’re using it and if there are better options. For instance, if you want to show important action happening away from the protagonist, maybe you actually need to reposition the protagonist so that they can be part of the action. Sticking to a single viewpoint forces writers to consolidate more than they would otherwise.
Getting Everyone Involved in the Plot
You’ve merged what characters you could, and all of your characters are within striking distance of each other. Now it’s time to make sure that your characters are participating in the same story. Naturally, that begins with knowing what your story is about, just like everything else having to do with plot begins with that. Since we’ve covered that so much elsewhere, we’re going to skip forward a bit and say you’ve figured out your throughline – the big problem that will be resolved at the end of your story.
Your next step is to make sure all of your characters have a stake in how that problem resolves. That can manifest in a variety of ways.
- If they care about your main character, they’ll probably provide assistance to the main character in solving the problem whenever they can.
- They might be as invested in solving the same problem as the main character, but for different reasons. The oppressive tyrant of the story could have murdered a few people to cover up their crimes, and this other protagonist might only want revenge.
- If they’re an antagonist, that means they want the main character to fail. They could sabotage the main character’s efforts or make the problem worse.
- Maybe they’re a minion working for the antagonist. They want to further the antagonist’s goals, but their loyalty doesn’t extend further than getting paid.
- You might also have characters that are benefiting from the struggle and want to play both sides off each other. They could attack whoever seems to be winning.
Significant characters also need to act on their motivation and make some kind of impact on the story. For ideas, I recommend my post listing ways for characters to contribute.
If your characters are already focused on some kind of side plot, look for ways to make that part of the throughline. For instance, characters that are looking for an artifact to cure their mother’s deadly disease might also need it to solve the big problem. Maybe their mother got sick after visiting a forbidden shrine in hopes of weakening the big bad’s power. With the artifact in hand, the protagonists can also visit the shrine themselves, giving them an advantage.
Where incorporating a subplot into the main plot isn’t viable, you’ll want to multitask on plotting as much as possible. It’s easiest to multitask when arcs happen on different levels. In many stories, an external arc like a struggle against the big bad takes place alongside a relationship arc and a character arc. As long as the characters in your relationship arc are involved in the external struggle, it shouldn’t be too hard for them to interact and develop their relationship at the same time. To fit in a character arc, just ensure that tackling external or relationship problems forces your character to face their personal problem as well. If they are closed-minded, for instance, they should have to become more open-minded to defeat the big bad or repair a relationship.
On the other hand, two arcs of the same type involving the same character are more likely to compete for space. This is where it’s useful to link the outcome of these competing arcs together. Your two big bads could team up, or conversely, they could be engaged in a struggle against each other. Two relationships could be synergistic, or two people could be trying to pull your protagonist in different directions.
Regardless of how you link things together, your audience should understand the relationships between your story elements as soon as possible. Anything you introduce that seems unrelated to the rest of the story suffers from the same engagement and comprehension penalties as things that are actually unrelated. If you only show how things come together at the end, your audience will experience most of your story as being overly complex and fragmented.
Building a Focused World
Consolidated worlds are not only easier to learn about and keep track of, but they also make a stronger impression. The first step in uniting the disparate elements of any world is deciding what you want that strong impression to be.
- What mood do you want the world to have? Is this a gritty place where dreams never come true, a fanciful wonderland, or a terror-filled landscape?
- What aesthetic should it have? Does it have underwater ruins, bright colors everywhere, or is everything dirty, broken, and bleeding?
- What type of speculative fiction elements most embody this world? Unknowable aliens? Clockwork machines? Tolkien fantasy races?
These choices create what we call your world’s theme. Your theme makes your world more memorable. In the case of consolidation, the theme you pick gives you a starting point for what things in your world should stay as they are and what should be modified to make the world simpler and more memorable.
One of the most common worldbuilding mistakes is adding whatever seems cool without considering how it adds to the world as a whole. This creates a setting where all the components feel miscellaneous and unrelated to each other. It’s especially likely in modern real-world settings, since people don’t inherently think of the setting they live in as themed. But you can bring out a specific mood in a real-world setting just like you can in an invented one.
The good news is that speculative fiction elements are surprisingly interchangeable. Let’s say you have an urban fantasy story with fairies that steal human babies and replace them with changelings. After you explain what these fairies are, you surprise your audience with aliens that show up in the sky and declare war. While the chances are very high that your fairies and aliens don’t belong in a story together, you should be able to make your fairies into aliens or your aliens into fairies without much trouble.
The speculative elements in your world don’t have to be a monolith to receive the benefits of consolidation. Maybe you convert your fairies to a different species of aliens that live in our solar system, while the newcomers are from another galaxy. However, the more you reuse the concepts you’ve already introduced, the better. Let’s say your baby-stealing fairies remain fairies, and you want your aliens to fit in with that. Maybe instead of aliens, they are all the humans that were stolen and turned against their own people, working in collaboration with all the changeling spies that are living among humans.
Building off what you’ve already established creates a setting that feels not only more unified but also deeper. Just like for characters, focusing on fewer things allows you to develop those things further. It creates the sense that your worldbuilding choices have rippled outward to influence the entire setting. This is satisfying for both worldbuilders and audiences.
Storytellers often avoid focusing and simplifying their stories because it means giving something up. But while you might have to say goodbye to some ideas you liked, you’ll gain the opportunity to spend more of your time on the things you really care about.
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