Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Use Occam's Razor to Trim Your Story's Fat

"All other things being equal, the simplest explanation is usually the right one."

If you've ever taken a course in philosophy, you've probably heard this quote (or one similar to it) before. Attributed to the Franciscan friar William of Ockham, the quote is typically referred to as Occam's (or sometimes Ockham's) Razor.

Friars, man. They're all about simplicity.
The quote was originally intended as a way to focus one's scientific mind. Because while it might be technically possible that unseen alien beings from the rings of Jupiter secretly broke into your car and turned the volume all the way up when you weren't looking, it's much more likely that your perception of the noise level is different now that you've been away from the vehicle and your ears have readjusted so it just seems louder when you get back in your car. In short, the simplest explanation for the facts you have before you is probably the correct answer regarding what happened.

My recommendation for the writers out there is to keep this premise in mind, both in its literal sense, as well as in a more thematic one.

The Literal Sense

One of the most irritating things a lot of authors do is what I refer to as the Scooby-Doo method of keeping the audience in suspense. In case you've never seen the show, it's about a gang of kids and their talking dog who solve mysteries, and at the end of every episode it turns out the bizarre phantom, ghostly clown, or looming specter was actually just some old white dude trying to run a real estate scam the whole time.

And I would have gotten away with it, too...
If you watch the classic show, though, you'll notice something. The investigators can always identify the culprit once they're unmasked, but nine times out of ten it's a character who didn't appear in the episode, who was never mentioned, and about whom we have been given no information as a member of the audience. As such, there was literally no way for use to figure out the mystery along with our main characters as they set up traps and tried to tie down the supernatural fraud of the week.

In order for your audience to draw the proper conclusions, you need to give them all the evidence so they can start putting the puzzle pieces together. Not only that, but you need to provide those clues in the proper light in order to be sure the audience draws the right conclusions.

As an example, if a character has been arrested, and you want the audience to be unsure of their guilt (or even sure that the character wasn't guilty), then you need to provide something that allows Occam's Razor to lead your readers in the right direction. If someone was killed under a bridge at midnight, and we know for a fact Stefanie was on the other side of town fighting a werewolf when that happened, we also know that she could not, then, have been the killer.

You don't have to be that obvious, but you need to give your readers something to work with to lead them down the correct path of reasoning. Otherwise they're going to feel like you kept all the important information to yourself until the last minute, revealing it only once they'd gone through the rigmarole of reading everything else.

Remember, all of the evidence to solve one of Sherlock Holmes's mysteries is often there in the story, if you can put the pieces together. That's what makes them so compelling, and why readers slap their foreheads when the obvious confronts them.

The Thematic Sense

The core of the friar's philosophy was that simplicity leads to clarity. This is true both when it comes to style, as well as when it comes to subject matter. "Easy reading is damned hard writing," as the saying goes, but clarity of language is your friend when it comes to the stories you're telling. Ugly and serviceable will beat beautiful but confusing every, single time.

However, the other thing to keep in mind is simplicity of story. Now I don't meant that you shouldn't have twists, turns, character arcs, subplots, etc., but as I said back in The K.I.S.S. Method (Keep It Simple, Stupid), you need to draw as many straight lines as you can, even if those straight lines are behind the scenes.

Got an example?
My go-to example for complicated simplicity is The Maltese Falcon. In its broadest possible strokes, Sam Spade is a private detective who gets caught up in a group of thieves all fighting over the loot from their last heist; a valuable bird made of gold and embossed with jewels. While Sam has to pick apart the webs of deceit, and get the facts out of everyone, the story is easy to follow. Each time a new character is revealed, and they provide us another piece of the puzzle, we can slot it into place and get a look at the broader picture as it reveals itself.

While the story as a whole seems convoluted, the actions taken by each individual character make sense. It avoids turning into an overly complicated Rube Goldberg device that strains credulity, and which can make your audience go, "Wait, how did he know doing that would work?"

A perfect example of what I'm talking about there is the Joker's escape in The Dark Knight. It's visually interesting, and a blast to watch, but it falls apart when you try to imagine the sheer amount of planning and foreknowledge it would have taken to actually work. He had no way of knowing his henchman would survive, much less than he'd be brought to the same location he was in so the bomb could act as an escape device, etc. On the other hand, the setup in the film Law Abiding Citizen provides us logical, straightforward explanations for how our supposedly imprisoned mastermind could pull off these impossible acts of revenge. That doesn't make it a better film, but the nuts and bolts hold together much more strongly.

It's one thing to seem confusing. It's another thing entirely to be confusing, once you've pulled back the curtain and revealed your design.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing! For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!

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