One of the most important skills for a fiction writer – especially a speculative fiction writer – is communicating what readers need to know, when they need to know it. I call this overlooked practice “information management.” When it’s done poorly, the story may be confusing, overwhelming, boring, or simply lacking its emotional power. Bad information management can ruin a good story.
To readers, the most obvious sign of an information problem is when the exposition isn’t right: Either the story contains long and tedious dumps full of unnecessary details, or explanations that are needed don’t appear. That’s because the primary purpose of exposition is to deliver information. But exposition is only a small piece of a much bigger picture.
This bigger picture is why getting exposition right is so difficult. You can’t simply look at the individual passages of a book; you have to think about your information management as a whole. That means:
- Proactively simplifying the story whenever possible
- Judging what information the readers should have and when
- Creating scenes that make information easier to convey
- Doling out information, using exposition to fill in the cracks
This series covers each step, with case studies to give you a better idea of what it means in practice. Because a story’s opening is the most challenging place to manage information, much of my attention is focused there, but the same concepts can be used in other places.
Without further ado, let’s go over the first step: simplifying.
One of the most important things a new writer has to learn is that story ideas are not free. Reader comprehension is a limited resource, and when you add ideas to your story, you are spending that resource. Your total idea budget depends on your story’s length and how good you are at information management. It’s real tough to fit a complex world into a short story, but if you’re a deft hand at showing and telling, you’ll have more wiggle room.
If your story is much too complex for its word count, no amount of skill can save it from being boring and confusing at once. That’s because you’ll have to use exposition dump after exposition dump to explain what’s happening, and yet it will still be too much for readers to keep track of.
An overly complex story will also lower engagement by dividing the story’s time between competing elements. The plot may slow to a crawl because it’s juggling too many storylines. The many characters may feel shallow because none of them have enough time for proper development.
On the other hand, if your story is simpler than it needs to be, that just makes your job easier. The lower cognitive burden will make it more accessible to a wider audience, and you’ll get engagement benefits because the story can focus on what matters.
Because simpler is always better, the first rule of information management is to simplify all of your story ideas, all of the time.
Some stories require more complexity than others. A political intrigue has to introduce multiple factions of people and a political context that could depend on detailed worldbuilding. A romance may just need two people plus some obstacles. The goal of simplifying isn’t to transform one type of story into another; it’s to condense the story down to what it needs and can actually use.
Taking a Tally of Your Story Elements
When you simplify, review all story elements, including:
- Factions or cultures
- Animals and creatures
- Problems and conflicts
- Magic or technology
- History and backstory
- Metaphysical rules
- Special items
Names are especially important to pay attention to, because the audience has to learn them. Proper names obviously count here, but descriptive labels can too. Does your audience have to learn that a “whisperer” is a spellcasting tool? That will add to the information load.
On the other hand, your main character’s “mother” doesn’t have a label that has to be learned. Whether she counts as a story element depends on whether the audience needs to remember her. Does she take any important actions? Does she have any storylines associated with her? Or is she someone in the background who is mentioned in passing? If readers are allowed to forget she was there without any negative impact on their experience, you don’t have to count her.
I strongly recommend writing all of your story elements down somewhere. When something is in our heads, it always seems simpler than it is. Only once you record it in one place will you know just how much complexity you have.
Finding Excess Complexity
Once you review all of your story elements, it’s time to find places to streamline.
Do Any Elements Have No Impact?
Ask whether each element affects the outcome of the story. If they could be axed without changing the way the rest of the story unfolds, they’re superfluous. Superfluous elements may sound cool, but the truth is that even the most fascinating elements make little impact if they don’t matter to the story.
Then look for elements that affect the story but only a little. Is there anything that makes a single appearance in the story but doesn’t matter otherwise? In many cases, these elements add more complexity than benefit. Characters often appear on this list. If you are struggling to find something for all of your characters to do, you have too many characters.
Are Any Storylines or Characters Isolated?
Besides elements that have no impact on anything else, you may also have separate clusters of elements. Within a cluster, the elements all matter to each other, but clusters have little impact on other clusters. This is very common in stories with multiple viewpoints. In many of these cases, each viewpoint has its own set of characters and its own storyline.
Having these clusters means that your story elements are in competition with each other. Instead of working together, they will pull the story in multiple directions. Streamlining is advisable in these circumstances.
Are Any Elements Overly Complex?
Look at the cost-benefit ratio of the complexity you have. Is it really paying off, or is it just more complex than it needs to be?
- Does your main character need three arcs?
- Is your magic system split into four different types when you only need one?
- Does your backstory involve a series of five events when really only the first and last matter?
Often, writers will insert a complex explanation just to fix a small plot hole. It’s natural to get nervous about plot holes, but only simple explanations are actually effective. That’s because to be believable, an explanation has to be fairly intuitive and easy to remember. The villain’s six-stage plan that justifies all of their strange behavior during the story is not going to cut it. If you can’t fix a plot hole with a simple explanation or an adjustment to the events of the story, you’re better off simply not calling attention to it.
Streamlining the Story
Once you find excess elements, you have several options for dealing with them.
Cutting is like ripping off a Band-Aid. It can be painful, but it’s also fast and easy. How would you like to shave several years off the time it takes to complete your story? When all is said and done, finishing the story will matter more than a few cool things.
If you don’t feel your story is worth writing without elements that are superfluous, you’re already headed for disaster. To make your story work, you’ll be pushed to write more about the things you don’t care about, while the stuff you actually like will only annoy your readers. Revamp your plot to center your darling before you waste any more time.
Combine Multiple Elements
Two places, species, factions, or characters can become one. This has the magical effect of reducing complexity while keeping your story much the same. It’s especially useful when many elements only have a minor impact on the story. Two characters without enough to do can become one character that’s handy for the hero to have around.
I recommend my article on consolidating stories for more on tightening things up without actually cutting anything.
Separate Elements Into Multiple Stories
If your story is much too complex, consider making it multiple stories instead. This is especially handy when you have those clusters of elements that compete with each other. If each viewpoint is already unfolding like a separate story, just make it official.
Many writers are reluctant to do this, because they imagined their story as big and grand. While it’s natural for us to get attached to our story’s original shape, getting extra stories out of the same material is a huge bonus. Stories often take years to write. You’ll have an extra story to shop around, and now you’ll be able to make whatever story choices work best for each storyline. What title will you give each one? What might each cover look like?
This is also a fine thing to do with any superfluous idea you love. Devoting a story to it will allow you to do so much more.
Reduce the page space and detail devoted to the element. Don’t give it any special names, refer to it only vaguely, and only briefly describe it. Where possible, your goal is to convert something readers have to keep track of into something they’re allowed to forget. A named character could be become a “brother” hanging around in the background.
Often, this won’t be as effective as the other options. However, it’s a good solution for something that feels necessary for believability but isn’t doing anything. If you have a element that isn’t important until book two, but you need to establish its existence in book one, aim for this kind of minimal treatment in the first book.
What If You Just Have Too Much?
Unfortunately, it’s still possible to have too many ideas that are all being heavily used by the story. This takes more practice to identify, and it often requires heavy revisions to resolve. Ideally, you’d fix this problem in the outline stage, before writing a full draft.
Occasionally it can be fixed by expanding the story’s word count. If you have a unique and complex world that you’re struggling to convey in a short story, it might need to be a novella instead.
However, please remember two things:
- If your story is fractured into multiple viewpoints with separate storylines or other competing clusters of elements, increasing the length will probably only make it worse. You need to separate or consolidate the story for improved engagement. Adding words will only slow everything down.
- Book one doesn’t have a bigger idea budget just because it’s part of a longer series. You can’t introduce everything at once; you’ll need to slowly add new elements as the series continues. In many cases, this means pushing the introduction of elements back from book one to book two or later.
Writers are always trying to do too much, and they hate cutting. For this reason, it’s really tempting to expand when you actually need to simplify. Before you make the story longer, stop and think about whether this is really the best choice, or if it’s just the easiest choice.
Case Study: Madoka Magica vs. Magia Record
The classic anime Madoka Magica and its spinoff Magia Record offer a great comparison between a nicely streamlined story and one that is much too crowded.
Spoiler Notice: Magia Record
Madoka Magica is a deconstruction of the magical girl genre. Even though it’s subverting classics such as Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura, the show’s information load is easily manageable in a single 12-episode season. It would also be easy to manage in a novel.
Let’s look at what information viewers need during this show, starting with all the characters that viewers meet.
- They need to get attached to the single main character, Madoka.
- They need to remember five secondary characters, but only two of those secondary characters are there for the entire season. Just one character has a magical power that needs to be remembered, and it’s shown in a big reveal at the end of the season.
- There are also seven minor characters such as Madoka’s family. However, most of these characters don’t need to be remembered by viewers. That means they don’t add much complexity.
- The looming threat of the show is a powerful witch called Walpurgisnacht, who is heading in their direction like a giant storm.
That’s about 14 characters in total, and viewers only really have to keep track of half of them.
Next, let’s look at the worldbuilding information. The story takes place in a modern-day Japanese city, so nothing there has to be explained. However, it does have to explain exactly how magical girls work. Below are all the essential details.
- Early on, viewers need to learn that to become a magical girl, a girl asks the secondary character Kyubey for a wish. He grants the wish and transforms them into a magical girl.
- After transforming them, Kyubey gives the new magical girl a soul gem. She gets magical powers from her gem, but as she uses those powers, the gem darkens with despair.
- Magical girls are tasked with fighting monsters called witches, which cause murders and suicides in their vicinity. Once a witch is killed, she drops a grief seed that can be used a single time to clear the darkness from a soul gem.
- There are also smaller antagonists called familiars, which don’t drop grief seeds.
- During the show, the girls discover that their soul gems actually contain their souls. A magical girl’s body is basically a puppet.
- Later, they discover that if a soul gem darkens too much, a magical girl will turn into a witch. This is where all the witches come from.
- When they confront Kyubey about this, he explains that the purpose of creating magical girls who turn into witches is to harvest energy that his people use to fight entropy in the universe.
That’s basically it. This list is not very long for 12 episodes, and it’s easy to understand.
There are only a few things that could be streamlined. The first is the familiars. The show uses them to demonstrate the difference between a selfless and a ruthless magical girl. A ruthless girl won’t hunt familiars even though they are harming people, because that will cause soul gem corruption without offering grief seeds to clear it up. Since familiars don’t make much sense in this cosmology, I might still remove them, but the show has plenty of room to include them.
The second item is Kyubey’s entropy explanation. He does need a motive for creating this strange, circular system, and I believe the goal was to make him amoral rather than evil. However, space entropy is off theme and opens up more questions. Instead, a more generic explanation such as harvesting magic to protect or preserve life might work better.
This Madoka Magia spinoff takes place in the same world. The show writers clearly expected that viewers will have already seen Madoka Magica. For the sake of this exercise, let’s be generous and pretend viewers don’t need to be reminded of anything. This means the spinoff can include elements from the original without having to explain them. However, as long as they’re featured in the story, the plot still has to juggle them along with everything else. So they still add complexity to the story.
How much is Magia Record juggling? To start, it has every story element of the original, minus the familiars and minor characters. That includes Madoka, her four friends, and naturally Kyubey. But Madoka and the others aren’t the main characters of Magia Record; they just visit for a season.
The new characters of Magia Record include:
- The main character, Iroha, whom viewers should get attached to.
- Ui, Iroha’s little sister who is missing. Also, Ui’s two best friends.
- A team of three magical girls who seem like important characters for several episodes before they largely disappear. They appear later though, so you can’t forget them.
- Iroha’s fellow team members, who grow to four during the story.
- Four antagonistic magical girls who are cultists. Just to confuse things, one of these girls is referred to as a “demon.” But it turns out she is not a demon.
- Other miscellaneous characters: a magical girl coordinator, a “baby” Kyubey, two tragic backstory girls, and a random magical girl Iroha meets on the train in the first episode who becomes really important later.
That’s a total of 26 characters that the viewer has to keep track of to follow what’s happening throughout the story. I didn’t bother trying to find and tally forgettable characters.
How about the world? In addition to what’s in the original (minus the familiars), Magia Record has:
- A new location, Kamihama City. While this is mostly a regular city, the show specifies that it has more witches and the magical girls are stronger; it even refers to some districts. There’s also no regular Kyubey in the city. All of this adds up to a location that viewers need to get familiar with.
- Uwasas, which are monsters the protagonists fight. Unlike witches, which are mostly the same, each Uwasa is based on an urban legend that changes exactly how it works and what it does. This makes them more interesting than witches, but also significantly more complex.
- An antagonistic magical-girl cult called the Wings of the Magius. It’s led by the three Magius, and followers are divided between the upper-tier White Feathers and lower-tier Black Feathers.
- Instead of turning into witches, magical girls in Kamihama all seem to turn into something called a “doppel” before going back to normal with a clean gem. However, they discover that if they become a doppel too often, it takes them over permanently.
- It turns out the Wings of the Magius is creating Uwasas to collect emotional energy that it feeds to the huge warehouse of witches it controls (it’s really unclear exactly where all these witches come from). This is so that those witches can in turn be food for their gigantic “artificial” witch named Embryo Eve. Also, the Magius can mind-control girls by possessing them with Uwasas.
- The final plan of the Magius is to lure 200 witches to the city just so that they also lure in Walpurgisnacht from the original show. It’s unclear how they lure in all these witches and whether the 200 witches are a side effect or intentional bait for Walpurgisnacht. Regardless, this is to feed Walpurgisnacht to Embryo Eve. That will make Embryo Eve strong enough to somehow alter all magical girls so they turn into doppels instead of witches.
- There’s also a villainous plan by the not-demon magical girl and the backstory of how Ui and her two friends stole Kyubey’s powers and created Embryo Eve in the first place. I could explain, but I think you’ve heard enough.
Magia Record has a total of 24 episodes, and it isn’t nearly enough for all this. The show is a confusing mess that couldn’t be sorted out even if explanations were done more carefully. The confusion also undermines the tension. Is it actually bad if all magical girls turn into doppels instead of witches? It seems like an objectively better system. And with so many magical girls, we don’t have time to get attached to most of them.
It’s also easy to see that much of this complexity isn’t paying off. The show doesn’t need an extra magical-girl team to show up at the beginning only to disappear and become a minor feature later. Using Uwasas to feed witches to feed a giant witch is just silly.
Some possible targets for simplifying:
- You could easily combine or remove many of the characters, including the beginning magical-girl team and the girl Iroha meets on the train. While “demon” girl becomes a last-minute boss at the end, it wouldn’t be hard to rework the ending so she isn’t needed.
- Walpurgisnacht and the other Madoka Magica characters were clearly only added in to attract fans of the original. They are basically superfluous and should go. If it’s important, just one or two of them could show up for a small arc about a single Uwasa.
- The Wings of the Magius has plenty of minions, so they don’t need their strange warehouse of witches. It would be more prudent to let witches fade into the background except for the occasional reminder that a magical girl is fated to become one. This way, the story can focus better on the Uwasas. Embryo Eve could be a super powerful Uwasa instead of an “artificial witch.”
After simplifying, the writers of Magia Record may not be able to do everything they want in every episode, but the whole show would be stronger for it.
When reviewing story elements, ask yourself if your story looks more like Magia Record than Madoka Magica. There are no hard limits, but everything adds up. When it’s finally time to write your exposition, you’ll be glad you simplified the story where you could.
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