Monday, October 27, 2014

Narrative Simplification

There's an adage in storytelling that the simplest things are the best.  While I don't necessarily subscribe to such an overarching statement, I cannot deny that it's often true.  More often than not, actually.

As a fan of both science fiction and the convoluted crime thriller, I can't help but have a knee-jerk reaction to that adage.  Simple?  Surely not... look at the complexities of, say, The Usual Suspects and MementoThe Matrix or Inception.  How brilliant are those stories?  And they're complex!!!

Except, they're not.  They're all extremely simple narratives, albeit their "worlds" may wear the facade of complexity.  In the case of The Usual Suspects, we're treated to a bluntly straightforward story made to seem complicated because of the manner in which Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) supposedly pieces together his cover story.  Remove the scene in which Customs Agent Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) realizes what just happened - all 10 seconds of it - and what's left?  Yep.  Simplicity.

Memento?  Find a cut of the film that's edited in chronological order, rather than the "A" timeline moving forward to a point and the "B" timeline reversing to that same point.  That's about as simple as a narrative can get.  Memento's complexity (and brilliance) comes from the editing.  Nothing else.

In both The Matrix and Inception, any illusion of complexity comes from the world each story takes place in, which - because of those worlds' twisted realities - takes a lot of time to explain to the audience, confusing some and downright discombobulating others.  At its core, however, The Matrix is merely a superhero/Greek myth come to the silver screen.  Inception, a heist movie.

I've been aware of this for years.  Probably since I've seen each of these movies.  But, I remain defiant, resistant, to the veritable essence of "simplicity."  Why?  I don't know.  Just stubborn, I guess.

As if to prove my stubbornness was correct, sometime around 2001, I set out to write an epic science fiction story.  It's gone through many incarnations... a partial script, then a short story, then a different short story, then a novel based on the second story, then a brand new script based on the second story (but not the novel).  Needless to say, there were a lot of characters, a lot of subplots, and it was... complicated.

I'd argue that it's necessarily complicated, because of the world the story inhabits (a la The Matrix).  The geopolitical atmosphere of the story's future Earth needs told!  The very structures of the militaries of the future need explaining!  The mission planning processes of future Earth's space agencies need to be shown!

Except, none of them are necessary to answer the question: what's the story about?  So I had to accept that I was full of shit, even while publicly defending these elaborate and complicated setups.  But, I secretly started to concentrate on the three main characters, whose plots are what the story is about.  Each with their own motivations, their own aspirations, and their own destinies.  I had to remove unnecessary subplots (they all had "fish out of water" intros, for instance, which are pretty much wastes of time).  What difference would it make that the three main characters aren't inherent to the mission at hand?  After thinking on that question for a very, very long time, I came to the answer: other than the amount of description and a few extra scenes involving "how they got there," almost no difference at all.

So, as much as it pains me to start cutting away the fat (the glorious, awesome fat), for the benefit of the story/script, I have to do it.  A rather large Hollywood production company had already asked to read the old script, but I knew it wasn't ready.  I knew the story was overrun by extraneous scenes designed to do little but show how cool my writing and ideas were.  But cool doesn't necessarily mean efficient.  Or even effective.  Unless, of course, cool is what you're going for... and you shouldn't be.  You should be going for good.  Cool only works if it's a by-product of good.  Cool won't help an over-long, under-developed, poorly structured script get sold.  Good does that.

And good things tend to be simple.  Problem is, simple is hard to write.

Ah, well... nobody becomes a writer to be cool, anyway.


  1. Oh, I think a lot of people set out to be writers to be cool. Predictably, they never become either.

    I like this.

  2. in many of the books I read, and movies I see, I see nothing but a 20 page short story blown up like a big unwieldy balloon into something enjoyable. If you've got your basic idea and killer ending, just fill in the middle bits and color up the edges... You have tons of those

  3. Yep, I know what you mean. I thought the story was fabulous, then it became more fabulous, then more simple but still need to know what it's all about. The KISS principle works for me. Plug at it.

  4. Did any of these incarnations show up at the 10DoM site? Do not know what you mean by complex with all of this... A written story, to me, is simpler because of what the writer is controlling. In a film much can become complex in the visual vocabulary, or not. It has the capacity to control more of your sences. Blah, blah. Is this what you are referring, or am I way of?
    In any event, you are already cool. I do not think writing, or no, would be able to take that away.