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From the
Other Side
by Jeffrey M. Mahr
©2002 Jeffrey M. Mahr -- all rights reserved

Being the second in a continuing series of essays on the art of writing

Gordian Knot — an overly complex knot, a situation of unsolvable complexity.

"Writers write. Good writers write succinctly." Before anyone asks, this is not the way this is commonly quoted, but no one has ever accused writers (or me) of being unwilling to modify things to meet the needs of the moment. The point is, as was noted in passing in the last article, that everything that goes into a story should have a point. It should somehow move the story along to its inevitable conclusion. Thus, while background, scene setting and character development are necessary to plot, one often runs the risk of providing too much or too little detail. Unfortunately, surprisingly few writers actually think about what this means. There are a lucky and talented few who seem able to know just what the right amount of complexity should be, but in many cases, we may be talking more about slipknots than Gordian knots when we speak of complexity in writing. Many more stories, especially by novice writers, seem to fly from beginning to end without benefit of anything more than the barest nod to issues such as background, scene setting or character development. A few, especially those writing novella-length and longer stories, are prone to the opposite mistake and end up padding their stories with so much extra verbiage that it's hard to tell where the plot is hiding.

So how much complexity should there be?

That's the sixty-four dollar question and, of course, there is no simple answer. Let's start by expanding on what we mean by complexity and defining it in three ways.

Plot Complexity:

When we talk about plot complexity, we are talking about how convoluted and devious your characters are and how many false leads, red herrings, misdirected thoughts, misunderstandings, etc., you will include.

As a general rule, the longer the story, the greater the detail; but that doesn't tell us anything that helps decide how much is enough. Part of the answer comes from thinking about your characters. Since each character must be true to his, her or its personality or goals, it is essential that there be sufficient background information to let the reader learn enough about the character to be able to predict behavior. If your character is going to have a change of heart (e.g., move from "I hate my life" to "I love my life"), you need to sow the seeds of that change. Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and Sidney Carton in Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities are classic examples of this. In both novels, these characters change and become better people as a result of their experiences and the authors show us that growth, make us feel their pain and understand why these changes come about.

The other part of the answer is to make certain that have you included sufficient clues in the body of the story to allow the reader to understand and believe the ending. Mystery stories are the most obvious example here, most well written mysteries have a point where the reader should be able to take all the facts and put them together to figure out "who done it." The Ellery Queen mysteries are a classic example of this, with Ellery actually stopping the story and stepping out of the scene to talk to the reader, telling him or her that it is time to stop and guess who it was. However, if you believed that this sort of thing is only relevant to a mystery story, I can assure you that you are mistaken. Regardless of the type of story you are writing, events must flow from one logical situation to the next.

If you are in an ice cave, there is a good chance that if the heroine is wearing a bikini, she will be cold. We make this assumption, because the temperature of air in a refrigerated area like an ice cave is lower than what most human beings consider comfortable. If the heroine now complains about the heat, it doesn't make sense. Why would a normal human female with minimal protective covering in a setting normally considered to be cold, complain of the heat?

Of course, our confusion is based upon some assumptions. For example, we are assuming [1] that this is a normal human female, [2] that this is not some strange world where ice is hotter than normal human body temperature and/or [3] that she is merely being true to her personality and sarcastically complaining about heat when she means cold.

An author can wait until we ask the question and then explain, but that makes for a story lacking in believability and is not usually considered good form. It's much better to lead the reader to understand the situation before it occurs, to find the situation, no matter how strange and bizarre, the logical result of what has come before. It's even better to do it so that it comes out as action rather than exposition. What follows is a scene which provides the background that would explain the heroine's actions. You decide which way you would prefer to see the bikini-clad woman's complaints explained away.

After the Fact:

  Herzuba stood in the center of the ice cave glaring at Kocival.
  "This place is too hot. I want to leave. Now!"
  "You're an ice demon, Herzuba. The warm breezes wafting off that ice-filled stream you're standing next to have got to be making you uncomfortable."

I was going to guess she was an ice demon, really I was. And if you believe that, I have this bridge in my back pocket I'd love to sell you. Written this way, the scene actually jars me out of my suspension of belief, something you never want to let happen.

Presaged by Exposition:

  "Look, Kocival, my skin is blue because I'm an ice demon. I live in the cold wastes of the world. The sun is my enemy and liquid water can kill me."
  "So that ice-filled stream running through this ice cave is probably making you feel uncomfortable, huh?"

Better, but still boring. No one is doing anything but standing around and talking.

Presaged by Action:

  Shards of light gleamed and scattered off the frozen stalactites hanging from the ceiling of the ice cave giving Herzuba sufficient light to see the fur-laden human interloper. She stretched her blue-tinged hand menacingly toward the human on the other side of the slush-filled liquid flowing sluggishly through the ice cave. She would destroy the interloper that called himself Kocival and, once he was properly cooled to a temperature more suitable to the epicurean predilections of her kind, the ice demon would devour him, soul and all.
  Her extended hand passed over the ice-filled stream but the air above it was painfully hot and Herzuba quickly pulled her hand back before it melted.
  "Curse the fire! It is too hot," she complained.

My money is on the last one being the more interesting read.


Second, there is color, or how much background, scene setting and general detail is needed. Most people seem to feel that more is always better, but there are some very real reasons why this is not true. Using the examples above, it is clear that the last version (entitled, "Presaged by Action") provides the most color. Does it provide too much, too little, or just the right amount of color? Since there is no hard and fast rule, it's hard to say, but let's try that same scene with more and less color to see.

To Little:

  Herzuba saw the interloper standing in the ice cave with her. She stretched her hand toward him. She would destroy him, but then the heat from the stream burned her hand and she quickly pulled it back.
  "Curse the fire, it's too hot," she complained.

We're back to the initial problem. Why would the heat from a stream in an ice cave be "too hot"?

Too Much:

  Shards of light gleamed and scattered off the frozen stalactites hanging from the ceiling of the ice cave, dispersing wild sprays of multiply hued color on the curved, irregularly shaped and mirror-like walls. The floor too was irregular, but sloped down toward the center of the cave, where a pool of some dark liquid with white bobbing chunks of ice circling slowly about in it, had formed. The projected light provided Herzuba sufficient light to see the fur-laden human interloper, a man she guessed from the breadth of his shoulders and the many weapons he carried. He had fur boots, fur pants, a fur coat and even a fur hat, all a patchwork of different pelts, but the deciding factor for Herzuba was the curly red beard peeking out from under the hat.
  She formed her blue-tinged hand into the traditional claw-like attack position and stretched it menacingly toward the human on the other side of the slush-filled liquid flowing sluggishly through the ice cave. With her nearly transparent skin and body, she could only be seen by the dancing reflections off the stalactites. She would mercilessly eradicate the interloper that called himself Kocival and, once his mortal shell was properly cooled to a temperature more suitable to the epicurean predilections of her kind, the ice demon would devour him, flesh and soul, leaving only the fouled furs of the animals her kind were sworn to protect.
  She approached the ice-strewn stream as she stalked her human prey, but hesitated. The heat radiating off the ice-filled stream was painful to the exposed substance of her frozen body. The human momentarily forgotten, Herzuba quickly pulled her hand back from the waves of heat wafting up from the water before the searing temperature melted the appendage.
  "A thousand curses 'pon that fiery fluid! Truly be the water too damnably hot," she expostulated.

I probably ought to have extended this another page or two before it was really too long, but I think the point is made. Does anyone remember what the basic action was, or is it lost in the description of the background, etc.? If anyone wants a better example, try reading anything from James Joyce.

Linguistic Complexity

Finally, there is linguistic complexity. Will you use simple or complex sentences? Will you use long or short words?

As any writer knows, words have power; and the right words, presented in the right manner, can move mountains. The words and grammatical structures used can significantly alter how the reader responds. To put it into context, ask yourself the following question: Which would you rather eat?

1. A burnt slab of bovine flesh with rotting vegetable matter on top of it.

2. A choice cut of filet mignon with lightly caramelized, sautéed onions.

Winston Churchill, considered by many to be one of the world's great orators, suggested that shorter words have more meaning and more emotion for the reader. This is probably why we use "four letter words" to describe strong emotions or frenetic action. Of course there are appropriate times and places to use bigger words (e.g., when portraying a highly educated man, a snob, or a technical answer as part of a pseudoscientific explanation; also, when the bigger word happens to have exactly the right meaning).

Similarly, the complexity of the grammatical structures used can make a tremendous difference. An extreme example would be e e cummings who never used capitalization or punctuation in his poems (or his name). A more down to earth example, using the same scene we've been playing with throughout this article would be:

Complex Sentence Structure:

  The floor too was irregular, but sloped down toward the center of the cave, where a pool of some dark liquid with white bobbing chunks of ice circling slowly about in it, had formed.

Simpler Sentence Structure:

  The irregular floor sloped down toward the center of the cave where there was a pool of dark liquid in which white chunks of ice slowly circled.

I won't say that either sentence is wrong; certainly I am one of the many who could be accused of using more complex sentence structure than is needed. Regardless, both sentences say the same thing, but the second sentence is clearly easier to read. An old writing exercise, I believe still used today, is to tell a cub reporter to go back and cut his story in half. It's surprising how often it is actually possible to do that. I recommend it to anyone really trying to improve his or her writing style. It's a great way to learn the value of selecting the proper word for the proper situation and it also teaches exactly how important simple sentence structures can be.

Some General Rules

It's one thing to go on about what should be, but now it's time to show how to make it happen -- a much more difficult proposition. What follows are a series of hints for how to make complexity just another writer's tool to help make your writing the best it can be.

  1. Take a few moments to think about your characters. Ask yourself what is good and bad about them, what is normal and what is strange, how they distinguish themselves. If your memory is anything like mine, I recommend writing this down someplace for later reference. This procedure has several purposes and will be mentioned in future articles, but the primary reason to do it here is because the more complex the character(s), the more complex the scenes needed to describe their motivations.
  2. Plan out a couple of scenes that will make your points; that show rather than tell the information that will help the reader understand why the story ends up the way it does. A smaller number of good scenes can make your points markedly better than a larger number of less efficient scenes and thus help reduce complexity.
  3. If there's someone you trust to give you honest criticism, have them read the story, then think seriously about anything they questioned. Three points here: First, notice I did not say "and change anything they questioned". Second, if you find someone whose criticism you trust, cherish him or her. Such people are remarkably valuable to a writer who wants to get better. Finally, don't be surprised if you find yourself cutting more than you add.
  4. After you finish a scene (or a chapter), go back and re-read it, but this time don't read for plot. Instead, pretend you are a stranger who's never been in the situation or imagined the scene you're describing. Then, read the scene or chapter to see if the images you are trying to describe are accurate and sufficiently detailed. For most people that means adding some color, but don't be afraid to delete something that is unnecessary (either because you've already made your point or because the fact will not be needed to develop the story).
  5. Don't be afraid to put some asterisks, or some other marker of your choice, in a spot where you want to add something or change something. Writing is usually a continuing process and most writers admit to multiple re-writes. The saying is "a picture is worth a thousand words", but for writers that saying should be "we're looking for one good word". One good word, the right word, will go along way to making your story better. Just don't go fishing in your thesaurus or synonym finder, unless you make certain to check it in a dictionary to make certain it is really the word you want.
  6. Consider shorter sentences with shorter words when portraying action, and longer words and sentences when describing background.

Happy writing!

Jeffrey M. Mahr
Senior Editor, Infinite Imagination eBooks
August 12, 2002

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