Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The K.I.S.S. Method (Keep It Simple, Stupid)

Books can be complicated. Take a long-running fantasy series like Lord of The Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire. The former has a massive history, a complicated world, and a cascade of actions from the dawn of the world leading to the present adventure. The latter is a political thriller with magic, where dozens of major noble houses, and hundreds of minor ones, all jockey for position in a story line filled with betrayal, murder, and more secondary characters than you could shake a stick at.

But while those books are complicated in the details, the thrust of their stories are fairly simple. In the first story, a magical Weapon of Mass Destruction has to be thrown into a volcano in order to destroy it. In the second, the fight for who sits on the throne of a kingdom is steadily eclipsed by a fight for the entire world, with a massing army of monsters just over the horizon as petty factions fight for scraps rather than uniting against the looming threat.

One sentence. Easy to follow. K.I.S.S.
The problem is that many of us will miss the forest for the trees when we look at the masters, and try to emulate their complexity in our own work without understanding the bedrock simplicity that supports it. So instead of a clock, which runs crisp and clean, we end up with a Rube Goldberg device that technically does the job, but by the time we reach the end we've totally forgotten what we set out to do in the first place.

The K.I.S.S. Method

K.I.S.S., in case you didn't intuit it from the title, stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid. In short, if you're writing a story, make sure you can draw clear lines from where you are, to where you're going. Even if you're putting together a convoluted spy thriller, or a sleight of hand mystery, you need to be sure that everything makes sense once the reader reaches the end.

The easiest way to do that is by keeping things as simple as you can.

Don't make us find the lady for your plot.
As an example, let's take The Maltese Falcon. Private detective Sam Spade takes a case from a woman he's pretty sure is lying to him, and he quickly finds people trying to bribe him, follow him, and shake him down for information. His partner is gunned down in the streets, he finds gunsels and thugs around every corner, and it just keeps getting worse. He has little to no clue what's going on, and every time a new figure steps on the scene things get even murkier. It's not until the end when the deus ex machina is revealed that we finally get all the answers to all our questions.

However, the plot is simple in terms of structure and story. Sam gets embroiled in a conspiracy between four thieves, each of whom are trying to get their hands on a valuable artifact they stole as a group. Despite all the back-and-forth, the changes of allegiance, and even the gun play, the story is simply a gang of criminals where each individual is trying to get their hands on the loot before the others do.

The Importance of Simplicity

Simplicity should be thought of as the foundation of your story. It is the tale you're trying to tell, free from any bells, whistles, or plot twists. Everything, from your hero's needs to your villain's motivations, is something you should be able to explain simply, even if the story attempts to make those things more convoluted.

As an example, take the film Die Hard. It's a classic movie full of twists, turns, fakes, and convoluted decisions, but it can be summed up by Holly's reaction to Hans Gruber's plan. "After all your posturing, all your little speeches, you're nothing but a common thief."

With uncommonly good dialogue
For all the other complications of the plot, from Gruber's fake-out at being a terrorist, to the manipulation of getting the feds to cut the building's power, to John picking off the invaders one by one, that's the plot in a nutshell; a heist movie with a cover story.

Simplicity gives you firm footing to stand on when you start building your story, and hanging window dressing. It is the bedrock that keeps your story anchored, no matter how strange or colorful it gets. As long as there is a clear through-line, and your readers can see it, then you'll never lose anyone. Even better, you won't get lost in a plot morass because you ended up making a swamp when you were trying to grow a forest.

Just remember, if you start running into a problem, what is the simple solution?

That's all for this installment of the Craft of Writing. If you liked it, and you want more, feel free to follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And if you'd like to help support me and my work, why not head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page? All I ask is $1 a month, and for that you buy both my everlasting gratitude, as well as some sweet swag of your own.

1 comment:

  1. Great advice, sometimes we do over-complicate. Gonna try this