This problem is a common one, and it can turn a promising story into a mess. Even as this burden sabotages stories, it’s often invisible to the storyteller.
Is You Story Over-Burdened?
Unfortunately there are no hard limits on what can fit in a given word count. Every story is different, and some stories can naturally sustain more complexity than others. Strong storytelling skills will also make the burden lighter. However, if you aren’t actively reviewing what elements your stories need, they’re probably bearing extra weight.
To judge what your story needs, you must understand what your story is about. What is motivating you to write it? What is the story’s throughline? Once you understand your story’s purpose, add the elements you need to fulfill that purpose and leave other ideas for the next story.
Of course, sometimes the ideas we love are just complex to start with. This is especially true for new storytellers, who are almost universally ambitious with their story ideas.
Judging the Complexity of Ideas
It’s easy to underestimate how many things are floating in our minds when we envision a story. So to judge an idea’s complexity, the best thing you can do is get it on paper – not in story form, but as a reference for yourself or someone else that wants to know about your story or the world it’s in. Put down absolutely everything you think your audience needs to know. Then look and see how much you’ve written. It’ll probably be more than you thought.
Another important exercise is to count names. Make a list with every label or term you’ve invented for something in your story. This could be the name for a piece of tech, an alien race, a character, or an invented activity. Go beyond invented words; real words used in new ways count. If you have a title for a specific character, such as Mother of Dragons, that should also be listed.
Look at your list. Every word or phrase in there is something your audience will have to learn and remember. Do you have two names for the same character or item? Your audience has to learn and remember each of them. That includes first and last names that are used separately.
In addition to reference documents and your list of names, you can also look for these common complexity culprits:
- Multiple identities for the same character
- Mysterious events that must be explained later
- Time travel
- Regular travel
- Tragic backstories
- Numerous races or other important groups
As storytellers get more experience, we get better at judging what is too much. Even so, moving to a new story length may take some practice and adjustment.
Streamlining Your Story
It’s much easier to prevent a story from becoming too complex than it is to fix one that’s being crushed. However, reducing the load is often possible and necessary.
The first and easiest task is to check all the exposition in your story and ask yourself if the audience needs to know that information. Exposition should create attachment to the characters, clarify why characters make the choices they’re making, describe what’s happening in the story, or justify why the problems in the story matter. If your exposition is not doing any of those things, you can just cut it. That doesn’t mean anything you’ve invented has changed; you are just showing less of it to the audience. If you get the chance, you can include the same explanation in a different story.
Next, look for elements that appear in the story but don’t alter it in any way. Characters in particular should drive the plot. If you can take a character out without affecting your plot, say goodbye. Your world may have a cool supercomputer comprised of thousands of hamsters running on wheels, but unless that supercomputer changes the story’s outcome, hasta la vista. If your characters travel all the way to City B to do something they could do in City A, get out your wrecking ball and demolish a city.
After removing all the unnecessary pieces, simplify what you have left. That’s easier said than done; I’ll offer tips for different aspects of the story.
Backstory is always a burden; you want as little of it as you can get way with. The backstory you have should be essential for understanding current events or character motivation.
If you have lots of essential backstory, ask yourself why those backstory events are happening before your story starts instead of during it. Often, backstory contains emotionally juicy moments that would benefit your story. Do your buddy cops bicker because one of them was assigned to spy on the other? Give that cop their contentious assignment at the start of your story; your audience will enjoy watching the ensuing conflict unfold. If your backstory is too boring to bring into your narrative, then it’s probably too boring to mention at all.
Characters should drive the plot based on their personal goals. Large groups of heroes are difficult to handle because they compete with each other to accomplish the same goals. If you like having lots of characters, give your characters conflicting goals whenever possible. Most viewpoint characters should have a sidekick to talk to, but the more viewpoint characters you have, the more you should cut back on extra family, friends, and employees.
That’s because even minor characters will add to your story’s burden. Prioritize your characters, and make the least important characters fade into the background. Don’t name anyone unless you have to. It’s better to refer to a character as “so-and-so’s secretary” than to make your audience remember that “Bob” is the secretary. Take out references to a secretary altogether unless they are needed. Don’t introduce characters just to create atmosphere or make your world feel real; that’s what extras are for.
Characters can often be combined with good results. In particular, look for minor characters that appear in just the beginning or just the end of the story. Combining them could give them a more even presence. Check if characters in similar roles, such as love interests or mentors, can be combined.
Many storytellers strive to create unique worlds. These worlds can offer a lot of novelty, but they also add a lot of overhead. On the other hand, less-original worlds add little to no weight. For instance, putting elves in your story won’t create much overhead because you don’t need to teach anyone what an elf is.
Unfortunately, it’s possible to get the worst of both worlds.* If your story includes a race that is similar to elves but is called something different, you are adding overhead without reaping any rewards. Your audience won’t care about your new name, they’ll only care about genuine differences between your race and the familiar one. Plus, if you call your race elves and then introduce some differences, your audience will still be pleased that your elves are an interesting twist on the familiar fantasy staple. You only need a new name if calling them “elves” would create confusion.
The same goes for anything else in your world. Does your spaceship have a jump drive? Call it a “jump drive.”
If your plot is too elaborate, you can end up with a tangled mess no one understands – even when you spell it out. Unfortunately, untangling a messy plot is challenging. The key is usually character motivation. Pick out the most important choices each character makes, and double check that you have a strong and simple character motivation behind it. Often, it’s easier to change character motivation than it is to redo the most important plot points.
Once you have a motivation in mind, remember that characters should take the most direct path to accomplishing their goals. Don’t let your villain lead the hero through a year-long school contest just to transport that hero to a graveyard where the big bad can attack him. That will take an elaborate explanation at the end, and it probably still won’t be believable. The more characters that are taking the scenic route to their goals, the more trouble you’ll be in. Keep big plans and hidden schemes to a minimum.
Communicating Complex Ideas
The better you are at working information into your story, the more complexity you can get away with. If you have lots of information to convey, think critically about how you can inform your audience without halting the story. Creating tangential scenes just to learn about something that has no immediate relevance to the story’s plot will feel boring. Inserting a page-long lecture will motivate your audience to skip past it to the good parts.
That’s why one of the most important skills in storytelling is multitasking. Look for ways your scenes can do double-duty: filling the audience in and moving the plot forward. Let’s say you have a later reveal that will only work if your audiences knows how your fictional culture disposes of their dead. Your throughline, or central plot thread, is about foreign invaders. To bring them together, a scout with vital information might perish on their way back to the heroes. The scout is already being prepared for disposal when a hero realizes the information is missing and decides to search the body for it. That would provide ample opportunity to describe what is done with the dead. If you can make a conflict in this scene depend on these details, even better. Let’s say your hero risks themself to get to the body while its being lowered into hot lava. Now your audience not only knows about burial customs, but they also have a reason to care.
If you have a character that’s ignorant about what the audience needs to learn, that will also make conveying information much easier. In the most extreme cases this is a character that is transported from the real world into the invented one, but it can be more subtle. The character could be solving a mystery, leading them to uncover the backstory or the villain’s plan. Perhaps the character is a scientist trying to discover how the world works or someone raised far away learning about their new surroundings. Just keep it realistic; your character shouldn’t be surprised by their local wildlife.
Ignorant viewpoint characters are best because they allow you to use internal thoughts and problem-solving to convey information. However, even ignorant side characters allow you to convey information in dialogue. If you are storytelling in a written medium, this is the only time you should use dialogue to convey information. Making characters discuss something they both know feels strikingly unnatural. Visual mediums have fewer options for conveying information, but even in a visual mediums “as you and I both know” dialogue is is something to avoid.
Don’t try to introduce too much information at one time; dole it out carefully. If you must give multiple names to something, introduce one name to start, and then mention the second name later. Avoid introducing more than two or three characters in a scene. If you narrate a banquet with lots of visiting nobles, choose a couple to focus on at the start. Then introduce the rest as they influence the plot.
After you introduce something, use it or lose it. People remember what they have a reason to remember. If you introduce something that feels irrelevant or is not referenced much afterward, your audience will forget. If you neglect mentioning something new for several chapters, you’ll need to introduce it a second time.
The most simple method of liberating your story is letting it be the length it wants to be. An over-burdened 5,000 word story may be a perfectly paced 10,000 word story. While telling a longer story isn’t always practical, it can give the story room to breathe. That is, if you don’t make the whole thing more elaborate as you go.
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