Monday 3 June 2013

Complications Of Storytelling

All stories get more complicated the further you get into them.

This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just inevitable. The reader starts off knowing nothing, and over the course of the story they get fed more and more information.

If it’s a properly written story anything the reader is told will be relevant to further developments. That means they have to remember everything that’s happened so far and how it relates to everything else that’s also happened and everything that’s going to happen.

This network of events, consequences and reactions will get ever more intricate. To the point where it can become so overwhelming that when a character says, “Hey, Mary’s back!” all the reader thinks is, Who the hell is Mary?  

In some cases confusion is down to too much information at. Sometimes it’s due to convoluted writing that’s difficult to follow.

These are technical problems that can be easily fixed (once you become aware of them).

But stories are always going to get complicated as you refer back to things or reveal the implications of actions or create conflict. This isn’t something to be avoided, but it is something you have to be aware of and communicate in a way the reader is able to process.

You can’t rely on the reader just being super focused on the story and having a great memory (although that would be very helpful). You have to help them navigate the parts where things get messy.

Firstly, key players should be memorable. Putting in a reminder is okay, but can feel clunky.

“Hey, Mary’s back from Jamaica. I hope she remembered to go see Old Bessie like you asked her to.”

Better to have the name automatically trigger meaning for the reader. One way to do this is to make the name itself memorable. Change Mary to Maxuma and it becomes much harder to forget. However, a story where everyone has ‘interesting’ names not only undermines this, it has the reverse effect of making it much harder to remember who anyone is.

Unusual or surprising details help to make information stick. If Mary is the girl with the tail and cloven feet it won’t take much to jog the reader’s memory.  Although, again, this only works if your story isn’t set in a world full of people with weird appendages. And it can become quite laborious to give every single character some remarkable characteristic.

While these sorts of things will help, there is a much stronger way to keep the reader aware of all the stuff going on in the story, and that’s to interlink it.

If I tell you Mary is tall, went to school in Scotland and hates jellyfish, this may give you an idea of who she is, but it won’t necessarily keep her in mind when she’s absent.

However, if I tell you Mary’s taller than most men, which means she has difficulty getting a boyfriend and that’s why she’s available to be sent on a dangerous mission since she’s the only one in the group who’s single, then the linking of who she is and what she does helps the reader to place her that much quicker.

The same works for other elements of the story. When you reveal information, the level of detail and accuracy isn’t going to be the things that stick in the mind, it’s how those things relate to the development of the story.

If the character robs a bank in Chapter 2, and it’s mentioned when he’s arrested and interviewed in Chapter 32, the reader might not be able to recall many of the details.  But if the bank robbery in Chapter 2 was to raise the money to finance an even bigger crime that led to the character being arrested and interviewed, then the reader will be able to remember that much easier.

If you keep events separate (it wouldn’t be surprising for a criminal to commit unrelated bank robberies, it’s his job after all) then you make it harder for the brain to retain the information. If you link them it creates a cascade that’s continuously flowing.

If you found this post useful, please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Linkage - check!
Most writers do this fairly well, but too many characters and too much detail really cause confusion.

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

I've had a few of those "Who the Hell is Mary?" moments in both my reading and my writing. :) Really good post, Mood.

Sarah Foster said...

I think having too many characters can be a huge factor in causing confusion. If you have more people in your story, then more things will be happening and it could get hard to keep track of who's doing what.

Al Diaz said...

I'm in the process of tying the knots. I'm confident I'll be able to do it right. At least confidence is there, haha.

mooderino said...

@Alex - there's a real art to keeping all those balls in the air.

@Madeline - cheers.

@Sarah - it's certainly gets tougher the more variables you add.

@Al Diaz - confidence is a good place to start.

Elise Fallson said...

This is an issue I'm dealing with right now. As I'm wrapping up my edits, I've realized that I have too much going on. Too many sub-plots. I've decided to take out one of my sub-plots and save it for book two. I think it'll tighten up the plot and keep things in focus. Or, maybe I'm just making a jolly mess out of everything. I think it's a toss up at this point.

mooderino said...

@Elise - i think every story gets to a point where nothing seems to make sense (mine always do)

Anonymous said...

When I read, there's usually always one person that gets mentioned and I have no idea who they are, or something they do is referred too and I flip back to try to refresh my memory.

mooderino said...

@Patricia - that happens to me a lot too. Not a deal breaker (I'll keep reading) but it does pull you out of the story.

Misha Gerrick said...

The situation Patricia described annoys me a lot. Not really good writing if that's necessary.

mooderino said...

@Misha - it's surprisingly common, I find. And then there are very character-heavy books where you never forget who people are.

Lydia Kang said...

Another great post to keep in mind during writing. Thanks Moody!

nutschell said...

great post! I do hate stories with random unrelated events that don't seem to make sense--even until the end.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I have a problem with continuity sometimes. I recently edited a manuscript that I had sitting around for a year and was like whoah...continuity error alert!

Rachna Chhabria said...

Super post, Moody. I am trying to concentrate on linkage in my current WIP. Sometimes its easy to forget about continuity in our hurry to get the story down.

mooderino said...

@lydia - thanks!

@nutschell - me too.

@Mike - it tends to make sense at the time because of all the extra info we hold in our head, but we've forgotten it all by the time you go back to it.

mooderino said...

@Rachna - being so familiar with the characters makes it easy to leave stuff out on the page.

Sarah Allen said...

Great post! Exactly right, complication has to have balance. Good reminder.

Sarah Allen
(From Sarah, With Joy)

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I always worry I'm repeating myself with too many reminders. Good editors help me with that.

Unknown said...

This is such a problem. It's so hard to tread the line between mentioning something too often or not enough in order for the readers to remember it. It's especially hard if you have a CP group that reviews a chapter a week. People can't remember what they read several months ago; then you end up repeating yourself to remind them of what went before.
Great post! :-)

mooderino said...

@sarah - always helps to know what's going on.

@susan - overexplaining is the other side of the coin.

@Lexa - that's when creating a flow to the story helps. If the story itself reminds you who people are you don't need to add it.

Charmaine Clancy said...

I just finished a thriller/mystery and when the culprit was revealed, I couldn't remember who they were. So not too long a list of suspects please! I muddle easy :)

mooderino said...

@Charmaine - ooh, that's not good.

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