Keeping things simple is one of the most important things a person can do in life, at work, with friends, when making plans, and (shocker, I bet you didn’t think I was going to go here) in writing. You’re probably thinking that I’m stating the obvious, that keeping things simple is intuitive, that your nine-year-old child could have told me that. You might be right.
But I bet you still fail miserably at keeping it simple.
Today’s world is complicated: your iPhone links to your Apple account which links to your MacBook which has your calendar on it which sends notifications to your iPad to let you know that it’s time to go for a run and track your heartrate on your Apple watch. You have a crush on Cindy, but Cindy used to date Tom and Tom is your best friend ever since he punched Rick because Rick was trying to make out with your ex-girlfriend Jessica while the two of you were still dating. You’re gluten intolerant but also a vegan and are allergic to honey and broccoli so you have to live exclusively on carrots.
You get it.
Pop culture is amazingly complex, too. I dare you to explain to me everything that is happening on Game of Thrones right now (show or books) in less than five sentences. I dare you. And don’t leave out any of the major families or locations – trust me, I’ll know if you do. Or what about The Blacklist? (Beware of spoilers!) Red knew Liz’s parents, but why was he at the fire? Who started the fire? Liz’s parents are both dead, and her mother was a spy, except now her mother isn’t dead? Maybe isn’t dead? Who is in the Cabal? Red took down the Cabal so he could… get a seat at the table in the Cabal? Is this a dream within a dream? Holy shit, are we in Limbo?
All of this craziness in life tends to bleed into our work. The other day I found myself plotting out a story that involved a triple cross, two double agents, and a protagonist who had planned all of the plot twists from the very beginning. A friend asked me what the story was about and honestly I had no idea what to tell him.
So here we are, at the main point, brought to you after a long and unnecessarily complicated blog post: You have to be able to describe the main conflict of your story in one sentence, in a simple way.
If you can’t do this, your story is probably too complicated.
And here’s the reason why (other than the fact that you’re going to need that sentence to effectively pitch your story): those two insanely complicated stories above actually can be described in one sentence (I tricked you there – sorry).
Game of Thrones: As an ancient darkness gathers, several powerful families vie for power over the Seven Kingdoms sixteen years after a rebellion that unseated the ruling dynasty.
The Blacklist: The FBI’s most wanted fugitive turns himself in to the authorities and agrees to help them on one condition – he will only speak with Special Agent Elizabeth Keen, whom he may know from his past.
If you need more than one sentence to describe your book, you’ve probably bitten off more than you can chew. If you need to say something along the lines of, “When Neil Jacobs’ family is murdered by his best friend he sets out to avenge them, all while keeping up the guise he adopted as his twin brother who committed suicide last year, except his ex-wife comes back to haunt him and discovers the truth at the same time, all while the race to stop a deadly disease from wiping out humanity threatens the very fabric of the world and society as we know it in the aftermath of a World War that decimated half of humanity”, then take a step back, cut something out or turn your two ideas into two different books, and try again. You have a-thousand-and-one amazingly cool ideas, but you absolutely cannot fit them all into a single story.
And, as evidenced by Game of Thrones, a story can and will increase in complexity with every word you write – that’s just its nature.
Just because you start simple doesn’t mean you won’t end with a deep and complex novel, it just means that you’re more likely to actually get there.
P.S. This applies to other areas of writing as well. Keep your writing routine simple: sit down in a space you like and write. Don’t overdo it with rituals, or think that if it isn’t 4pm on a Thursday with only three clouds in the sky you can’t possible put any words on the page. Keep your motivations simple: you write because you love it and you have a story you want to tell. Etc. etc. blah-blah-blah you get it.
What do you think? Do you boil down your story ideas into one sentence to make sure you fully grasp your premise? How do you keep it simple?