I’m not sure whether to be heartened or dismayed by the number of my students and editorial clients who exhibit the same problem I routinely have as a writer.
If asked what the story is about—what the protagonist wants, why he wants it, what stands in his way—I often encounter the same creased brow and thoughtful nod I provided my own teachers, with the inevitable, “It’s complicated.”
And the response is equally inevitable: “That’s exactly the wrong answer.”
To mangle a phrase: I can overthink a goddamn potato.
“If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” –Albert Einstein
My mind sees endless variation and nuance in the simplest things, and what elaborations it doesn’t see it creates.
I used to consider this a sign of intelligence. I thought that those constantly harping on the KISS Principle—Keep It Simple, Stupid—were mediocrities lashing out at those who had an IQ over room temperature.
- The kind of people who think all modern art could have been churned out by their four-year-old.
- The kind of people who mock the blues and country music as crude and opera as, well, operatic.
- The kind of people who think money alone measures excellence.
But that was snotty arrogance on my part. I wasn’t just mistaken. I was lying to myself.
It wasn’t as though I didn’t know what was what. Before I started writing fiction, I’d already learned that simplicity equated with truth. I learned this, ironically, studying mathematics, a subject most people find hopelessly complicated.
It’s not. It’s just difficult.
From Sir Isaac Newton (“Truth is ever to be found in the simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.”) to Albert Einstein (“If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.”), I’d been almost browbeaten into realizing that the need to overelaborate was the surest sign of foggy thinking if not outright flummery—“hand-waving,” my professors called it.
And yet, as I began to write fiction, I found it far easier to spin off in new directions than to settle in, focus, and ask myself: What’s really going on here?
Acting and theater helped a great deal. I discovered the mysterious power of scenes. Putting two or more people at odds, vying for the same thing—or irreconcilable things—created the opportunity for incredible variation as they forced each other to devise and employ new, different, stronger, more extreme methods to keep after it.
The trick was knowing what “it” might be.
This “it,” I learned, was called the Objective. Simply put, I was forced to ask in every scene and every story I wrote: What does the character want?
I found it far easier to spin off in new directions than to settle in, focus, and ask myself: What’s really going on here?
And I, like so many of my students and clients since, feeling the sprawling expanse and ornate intricacies of my tale, felt obliged to respond, “It’s complicated.”
And I was always wrong. What I perceived as a complexity was really just a confusion—worse, an evasion—in drag.
In strong drama, what a character wants can almost always be stated in simple terms. To become king. To get vengeance. To marry the beloved. To catch the killer (or win the trial, etc.). To discover the way out/a cure/America/the Grail.
Honest desires are almost always simple to state. It’s dishonest, equivocal or misunderstood desires that seem complicated.
What creates complication isn’t the desire but the conflict created by what stands between the character and what she wants. That obstacle (or obstacles) forces the character to devise some method—an action or actions—to continue her pursuit of her ambition.
The formula for complexity, then, is simplicity itself:
Objective + Obstacle + Action(s) = Dramatic Complexity
And yet how many times do I hear it: What the character wants is, well, um, complicated.
What I perceived as a complexity was really just a confusion—worse, an evasion—in drag.
Now, in their defense, writers who use this excuse often do indeed have a dramatic situation. But they’ve given their main characters nothing to do except lament their fate. (It’s not just fledgling or unknown writers who are guilty of this, by the way.)
The best way to show a character in stasis isn’t to have him just sit there. Make him try with all his might to get somewhere else only to hit one wall after another.
Having a character wallowing in his plight usually results from one of two poor choices (sometimes both):
- Conceiving the character as passive, introverted, lacking the will to pursue a great desire. (In other words, choosing a character far too similar to the writer.)
- Beginning the story too early. Don’t start when the character is directionless. Start when he’s finally fed up enough that he’s ready to do something, anything about his circumstances. He may end up right back where he started. Fine. But the reader engages with movement—ask the peg-legged man chasing his whale.
Another frequent dodge: My character doesn’t know what he wants. First, again, I find this almost always indicative of the writer as much as the character. Particularly when the writer doesn’t know what he wants to write. And this is often because he’s afraid if he admits it someone will notice how clichéd or threadbare his idea is.
Important lesson: Throwing words at a bad idea does not improve the quality of the idea, no matter how lovely the words.
I was forced to ask in every scene and every story I wrote: What does the character want?
Now there are indeed characters confused or unaware of what they want. But the writer is not allowed to share that confusion or ignorance.
If the character’s confused, have him pick one thing to pursue and then learn, through the struggle to obtain it, whether he was wise or foolish to go after it.
If the character is ignorant, put the thing he wants in front of him, rub his nose in it, then take it away. If he’s still just sitting there, shoot him (or the literary equivalent).
Many of my students and clients get stuck when their characters are mistaken about what they want. And yet this is one of the oldest, greatest and most interesting dramatic set-ups in literature. One might even define irony, the most prevalent narrative mode of the past century and a half, as a situation where the character wants one thing but gets another.
The way to dramatize this is the same as when a character is confused about what he wants—just send him single-mindedly after something. He will either learn through failure what it is he really wants or die trying.
Throwing words at a bad idea does not improve the quality of the idea, no matter how lovely the words.
Another common error is misunderstanding the interplay between the outer objective in the story—marry the beloved, save the miners, discover the cure, find the killer—with the inner yearning it speaks to.
By inner yearning I mean the way of life or sense of self the character secretly craves—his idea of heaven on earth and who he has to be to abide there.
Often the character doesn’t know his true yearning at the beginning of the story—or, again, is afraid to admit it. A character’s yearning speaks to what he believes his life is truly about. And due to the overwhelming significance of the question—what am I living for?—not just characters but the writers who create them often shrink from asking it, out of fear they’ll have to admit how inadequate they feel before the answer.
But the yearning defines the stakes. As the pursuit of the outer goal leads to greater and greater conflict, as the prospect of defeat or loss or failure looms closer and closer, the character has to ask himself: Why continue? Why not compromise or surrender or go back?
The answer to that question lies in how intrinsic the outer goal is to the character’s emerging understanding of himself, the way of life he wants to lead and the world he wants to live in. In short, his yearning.
The yearning defines the stakes.
Ahab pursues the white whale with the obsession of a man whose deepest desire is to strike back at God. Gatsby pursues Daisy because she symbolizes what he really wants but can’t have—a legitimate place among the upper crust. Yossarian will do anything to serve the one god he still believes in: survival.
One might even define story as the awakening of the character to his deeper yearning through the conflict created by pursuing some outer object of desire.
When it comes to complication, more is less.
I’m a firm believer that writing problems are personal problems. And often it isn’t until we’ve suffered some great loss or setback that we stop fooling around and admit what it is we want. Death is a great educator on the need to figure out your life before the chance slips away. Many of my best students are exactly those who’ve had a good strong “whiff of death,” and have responded to the experience mindfully.
Look no further than Waylon Jennings’s iconic “Dreaming My Dreams” for confirmation.
Someday I’ll get over you
I’ll live to see it all through
But I’ll always miss
Dreaming my dreams with you
As the old saying goes: The first rule of holes is when you’re in one, stop digging. When it comes to complication, more is less. The tendency toward baroque elaboration is almost always motivated by an inability or unwillingness to deal directly, honestly and meaningfully with the emotional truth of what we’re trying to say.
Or, as my favorite math professor use to put it: The difference between great men and men who are not so great is that great men think deeply about simple things.
- Do you find yourself avoiding the simple emotional truth of your story by adding complications?
- Does understanding desire and yearning in your own life help with your characterizations?
- Which of your writing problems turn out also to be personal problems?