Keep It Simple

Once upon a time, about a century ago (okay, more like a decade) when I was a junior in high school, I got traumatized by a book. That book was Heart of Darkness. My best friend and I used to have these little contests to see who could hate that book better. We began to use it as a litmus test for every other book.

“I hated reading That Other Book.”

“Oh? Was it as bad as Heart of Darkness? Did you want to strangle yourself afterward?”

“No, not quite that bad.”


To be fair to Joseph Conrad, I haven’t had the courage to pick up the book again in a decade, so it might not be as bad as I remember. I do recall that the brunt of my reading pain came from the interminable dissection we were forced to perform day after day after day.

For genre fiction writers (and I would argue most fiction writers or just writers in general), subtlety and complexity aren’t necessarily your friend. Here’s what The 25 have to say about simplicity:

16. Simplicity
The great film director Billy Wilder was once asked if he liked subtlety in a story. He answered along the lines of, “Yes. Subtlety is good—as long as it’s obvious.” The same can be said about complexity and simplicity. Some stories are so complex that it’s frustratingly impossible to understand them. But others (like Wuthering Heights or Bleak House) are complex in a way that we don’t find difficult to understand, and actually find enjoyable because of the complexity. Conversely, Hemingway’s famous simple style is in fact very complex.

What really matters is whether or not something is clear. Each day, as you revise the pages from your prior writing session, take a few minutes to ask yourself, “Is this clear? Will the reader understand it?” If you’re not sure, revise until the answer is yes. Don’t be afraid to deal with a complex topic in a complex way, but always keep in mind that clarity will make you the reader’s friend.

I’ve read books with plots that were so complex it infuriated me. I’ve also read some with the simplicity of “See Spot Run” that bored me to “Ooh, look! Something shiny!” The issue isn’t whether or not something is complex, as Morrell says, but if the reader gets it. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is very complex. There are multiple plotlines, easily a score of POV characters both major and minor, a veritable tapestry of political and social webs, and a story arch that spans fourteen monsters books. In the middle of the series, they get off track. Clarity gives way to useless detail and superfluous story threads that grab onto your ankles till you can’t go any farther. I stopped reading for about seven years until the newer books started to come out, and after I forced my way through Crossroads of Twilight, they got a lot better again.

The point is, it’s possible to write intense and complex books full of subtlety, but it takes a master to do that with a sense of clarity and vision. When I read Jordan’s books, a world springs up around me. That world is consistent and almost flawless. That’s no easy task. If you write any form of fantasy, you are asking your reader to suspend their disbelief. To buy your story without looking for a price tag. You owe it to them to be meticulous in your creation of your world. Even if you’re not a planner or a plotter (and I am not at all), notes are your friend. They can help you keep track of the subtleties and convoluted mysteries your world holds so that you don’t miss a gaping unraveling of your plot that would make a reader stop to scratch her head.

Other pairs of eyes are great for this — even if you think it’s clear, readers might not. If you want something to be deduced from a scene, and a reader tells you he doesn’t get it, that’s a cue to rewrite. Too much complexity or subtlety can bog your readers down when you want them to move forward unencumbered.

There should always be some sort of surprise or twist — no book should be as predictable as a fairy tale, but you also don’t want to blindside your readers with something that doesn’t fit the story. Build your world and make it creditable, and you’ll build a world of devoted readers who can’t wait to see through your eyes again and again.

That’s all for now, gentle viewers. Happy Friday!


About Emmie Mears

Saving the world from brooding, one self-actualized vampire at a time.

Posted on October 28, 2011, in writing process and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Amen ! Simplicity !
    after all no one like to read something that aches his head after a long day !!
    i loved the way this was told ..u have a very enchanting, captivating way of writing ..thank u 😉

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