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Biting Off Too Much

I wrote this original online essay for all of my creative readers a couple of years ago.  The two books I talk about, The Chosen and Daughter Cell, are now done.  My experience is as a novelist, but I think my comments can translate to songwriters and fine artists as well.  I hope you find this helpful.  I wish someone had told me this 30 years ago when I was starting out.

Biting Off Too Much

Finding the balance between challenging and digestible

By Jay Hartlove

I spent a number of years grousing about how commercial success meant selling out to small mindedness.  The idea of an elevator pitch made my skin crawl.  (An elevator pitch is a 30-second synopsis of your story that you give to an editor or other buyer when you catch up with them in an elevator.)  The counter argument given by the publishing industry is if you can’t say what your book is about in less than four sentences, then you don’t know what your book is really about, or worse, your book isn’t really about anything.

I ran head long into this argument when I wrote an admittedly ambitious book that had two complete but intersecting storylines.  It was called, “The Passover Tarot.”  One storyline was a religious horror story, and the other was a medical thriller.  My two central characters were a magician and a geneticist.  I wanted a complex story.  I got booed out of New York.  Three different editors, two with publishers and one free lance, all said the same thing: too complicated to keep a reader hooked.

I still liked my characters and my story, so I split it into two novels.  The religious thriller (now called “Chosen”) still has many scientific elements, and the medical thriller (now called “Daughter Cell”) still has a big supernatural component.  Both stories work.  Both are quite marketable.  Once I get done with rewrites, you may well see them on bookshelves someday.  But I was left with the nagging question, what line had I crossed with the first combined book?  How complex is too complex for a reader to digest and enjoy?

Digestibility has a lot to do with the rate of information feed.  One trap I fell into was trying to be too mysterious.  You don’t want to give away too much too fast, lest you spoil the mystery of what is going on.  But if you hide too much until too late, the reader will not know enough about what is happening to get interested.  You who are writing the story know what’s going on, so it’s tempting for you to play keep-away with the reader.  But you and your enthusiasm won’t be there when the reader opens the book.  If you don’t give them enough soon enough, they will close the book.

I am a very visual writer.  My movie fandom has led me to see my stories on the big screen as they play out in my head.  But movies have an advantage over books when it comes to information feed.  A motion picture throws an enormous amount of information at the viewer.  Even if the story is boring and the characters are flat and nothing makes sense, the viewer is still “in the room” experiencing what the characters are doing.  Not so with a book.  It is also much less likely for a viewer to get up and leave from a bad movie than for a reader to put down a bad book.  The moviegoer is more invested in the movie-going experience.  You put down a book and you’re right back in your own life where you left it.  The result is, movies can get away with playing keep-away a lot longer than books.

Having big, scary, unexpected things happen to your protagonist right off the bat is a good hook, but you had better be forthcoming with why those things happened, or your reader is going to see through your stunt, yawn and move on.

Withholding critical information from a protagonist, and therefore the reader, is a staple of suspenseful writing.  It is not the same as keeping the reader in the dark as to what is going on in the story.  And it is even moreso not playing dishonestly with facts in the story.  Purposely cheating the reader by revealing the falsity of established facts is a cheap trick and should be avoided except in that rare instance when it makes perfect sense for the story in your carefully crafted twist ending.

Why is adding complexity to a story a good thing?  The world is not simple.  Nothing ever happens in a vacuum.  Cause and effect cling to everything all the time.  If you don’t explore at least the obvious consequences of the actions in a story, it will not feel real.  If you are telling a police drama, you don’t have to follow every victim through counseling, but you should require the cops to deal with the effects of their actions.

High school composition writing classes teach there are three things you have to describe to tell a story, characters, plot and setting.  They also teach each story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end.  You can have all these things and still fail to make your story feel like it is happening in real life.  The key missing ingredient is the word “describe.”  To make it feel real, you have to describe your characters, plot and settings in sufficient and interrelated detail that the reader feels like he/she has visited a piece of reality, with the same subtleties and vagaries readers are used to experiencing in the real world.

My two-story book was based on the notion that if life is complicated enough that only magicians and scientists can figure it out, then it should be complex enough that a successful magician and a successful scientist would have to cross paths.  Here’s a hint.  If it takes 43 words just to describe the central theme, even before you get to the plot, then you might have bitten off a lot.  I can admit it now.  I allowed this theme to become a chip on my shoulder.  I was determined to make this work, to prove it could be done.  And I did it.  Patient friends have read it and said it was ultimately satisfying.  But now I see doing it was an exercise for me, not a book for the reading public.

I sat on a panel at a science fiction writing conference about the lack of big ideas in modern writing.  I argued there are plenty of big ideas being put forth, especially in science fiction, but what is lacking is a thorough exploration of how such big ideas would impact the world in which they happen.  Even if those worlds are not our world, consequences have to be explored or it won’t feel real to the reader.

I know from my “Passover Tarot” experiment, you can have too many big ideas in one story.  Exploring them all buries the reader in a net of details.  Even the most committed reader has to put the book down once in a while.  If the story has too much going on, it will be a struggle for the reader to get back into it after a break.  That’s a fatal flaw.

There are storyline models that lend themselves to complex tellings.  Having a story impact different characters in different ways.  Giving a character a secret past.  Telling your story out of sequence.  A favorite that shows up in a lot of my writing is having a character discover the world is not as it appears.  But the key is to make it feel real by exploring enough of what you have set in motion that the reader will never say, “Hey, what about this consequence?”  With a lot going on, you have to be willing to explore a lot of consequences.

A good parallel is in painting.  You want to explore your subject enough that the viewer wants to linger and see what you have done.  You don’t want them to take it all in, in just one glance.  On the other hand, you don’t want them to be overwhelmed and confused by what they are seeing.  They may linger a moment trying to figure it out, but if they walk away shaking their heads, then you haven’t communicated what you were trying to say.

There are also mechanisms for getting information to your reader that can add complexity and therefore a sense of realism.  Switching your Point of View (POV) between two groups of characters creates a sense of time passing and simultaneity.  This is a storytelling staple, but it doesn’t add much complexity.  In fact it is so easy to digest, we see it in children’s literature from Narnia to Winnie the Pooh.

Switching between three or more different POV characters runs the risk of needing a Dostoevsky scorecard.  If you do it quickly with very short chapters, you can create a sense of urgency, but you run the risk of spinning heads like a George Lucas space opera.  Use these “camera” tricks in moderation.

If you have a story that proceeds linearly and follows one character through one plotline with no surprise impacts from a secret past or unseen influences, you can still make it seem real by just describing everything that happens in realistic detail.  Back to the painting parallel, photorealistic painting can be very engaging, no matter how simple the subject.  The amount of information draws the viewer in.

If you have made your reader work to get through your story, then you have to give them a very satisfying ending.  This sounds like the kind of commercial pabulum I rejected for so many years, and here I am espousing it myself.  But think about it.  Even if you managed to tease them along with just the right information feed and lots of interesting details, if you challenged them to keep track of multiple storylines, or multiple POVs, or non-linear timelines, then you want them to be glad they did it.  Getting a reader to finish your book is not the victory circle.  Getting them to recommend your book to their friends, that’s victory.  It doesn’t have to be wildly popular.  Challenging books are not generally embraced by casual readers.  But challenging satisfying books gain very loyal followers.

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