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.[pullquote]“If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” –Albert Einstein[/pullquote]
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?[pullquote]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?[/pullquote]
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. [Read more…]