Does anyone else get annoyed when they think they have come up with a decent insight about writing, only to discover that that knowledge was already out there, you just never stumbled across the right resource to hear/see/read it?
The insight I gained recently was the realization that great stories typically have a simple soul, by which I mean that no matter how long or complicated the story is there the overarching arc of the story is straightforward.
With the word simple I don’t mean low-brow or childish, but rather accessible and pure, for want of a better word. Lord of the Rings for example is a multi-layer story but at its core its the story of a young(ish) hobbit who has to throw an evil ring into an evil volcano. A Song of Fire and Ice for all its many characters, kingdoms and pages to its name has a very simple premise, multiple figures vie for political power while snowy zombies threaten everyone. For a non fantasy examples, The Time Travelers Wife is a lengthy exploration of the emotional toll the premise takes on its characters but ultimately the title says it all – its the biography of a time travelers wife!
This is not to say there are no complex novels or stories out there, Justin Cronin’s The Passage and its corresponding sequels doesn’t seem to have a simple crux but is considered pretty successful.
But I do think there are several advantages to the simple story which I will extol presently:
It gives something for the reader to hold onto, provides a foundation for more complexity and creates a stronger message.
Again this isn’t advocating for low intellect material. I’m not saying readers are dummies who need easy plots to grasp. What I am saying that as a reader a simple premise is the glue that holds the story together, and often fixes a story in a reader’s mind long after reading it. In many respects its a simple soul, that allows a story to build more and more complexity, as a reader can link everything back to the basic plot, without getting lost along the way.
If the basics of a story aren’t simple, then any additional layer comes at a price. Watchmen is a great story but I would argue it doesn’t have a basic overarching premise, and the story is very challenging to follow as each character and arc gets a very developed backstory, motivation, stakes and so forth.
A simple core allows an audience to take what they will from the story, depending on how deeply they examine it, a convoluted core risks audiences getting lost if they lose track.
Finally a simple core gives a strong message. I don’t feel confident guessing at the message of Game of Thrones till the story ends, however Lord of the Rings tells us that the most unlikely of heroes can make a massive difference. To use Watchmen again, the message is not quite as powerful; a small evil for a massive good is justified? The best people (Night-owl and Spectre) are somewhere between good and evil? The world is f***ed unless giant octopus aliens attack? (my point is not Watchmen is bad just that a clear message will really enhance a story)
One of the things I see myself and other rookies do is build up elaborate lore, or setup their story with a convoluted plot. Often its not obvious as one reads through a draft but you just get a sense of purposelessness to the words, like several events are strung together without a strong link.
To round off a final advantage to a simple premise is the ease of composing a tagline or hook for your story. People often get to query letter time and struggle to squish their story into 1-2 lines. Harsh as it may sound I often suspect the problem isn’t how hard it is to do that (I mean it still is) but actually a story-level problem that there is no overarching premise to the story.
What are your thoughts on the soul of a story? as always would love to hear other’s thoughts…