Part four of my analysis of “Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling” (that aren’t really Pixar’s) is simply about simplicity.
(5) Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
Or, more simply:
This is the piece of advice that is hardest for most storytellers to hear, because simplifying always means cutting good stuff as well as bad.
That last sentence is a rephrasing of writers’ “kill your darlings” wisdom that dates back to before Faulkner said it, at least to Arthur Quiller-Couch. But the idea that you have to lose scenes, characters, and ideas that are actually good in order to cut away clutter so the audience can clearly see the core ideas in your story goes back long before that.
And sometimes you do indeed have to cut material you know is awesome in order to do what’s right for the story. Great scenes that don’t add new information, blow the pacing, or otherwise just add dead weight have to go. Characters that are redundant need to be combined — if two characters interact with and reflect the personality of your protagonist in similar ways, they ought to be the same character.
Screen stories in particular need to be concise. Each new scene and every character should give the audience new information and different perspectives. Redundancies rarely work in screenwriting, and filler may fix pacing issues but the audience will notice that not much is really going on in those scenes. So unless the scene is moving the story forward, it is a candidate for removal. (Note that I said the story, not just the plot. Emotional scenes that “stall” the plot can be crucial for certain kinds of stories with a certain kind of pacing.)
This can, of course, be taken too far. Few stories need to be one character delivering a monologue in an empty room. That’s too simple.
So you need to be careful about simplification. An excessive focus on economical storytelling can cause you to remove conflict, abridge arcs, and remove subplots until you’ve got a story that lacks depth. Pacing and tone can also suffer greatly from excessive cutting.
A story that is an endless barrage of action and new information without ever slowing down to consider what just happened can leave your audience overwhelmed and confused. Trimming too much meat along with the fat leads to stories that are just as boring as meandering ones. And a story that’s not clever at all is just as grating as one that’s too clever.
Where the balance lies is tricky. Audience expectation modulates based on what kind of story is being told, and a writer’s (or filmmaker’s) style.
What simplification comes down to is separating the story essentials from the unnecessary flourishes. And since every story is different, it is up to the writer to determine what the essentials are.
But even accounting for style and genre, there are still some more objective ways for a writer to self-assess in this area. It requires knowing your theme, character arc, and ending so you can mark as candidates for removal any scene that isn’t adding new information about one or more of those elements, and any character that isn’t giving you a different perspective on them.
You also need to be clear about tone and pacing. Some stories call for more contemplative moments, or a larger cast of characters, than others. Setting tone through scenery, and establishing conflict in long, low impact sequences may be exactly what your Merchant-Ivory inspired historical romance needs, though it is definitely not what your adrenaline-pumped shoot-em-up is calling for.
What leads to trouble here is your own confusion about some essential element of your own story, such as the theme or the tone. You can’t hop over detours until you actually know where you’re going, and trying to do so can lead you to cut necessary elements when you think you’re being efficient.
It is self-defeating and time-wasting to attempt simplification until you are very clear on what your theme, arc, conclusion, tone and pacing are. And bloated first draft is nothing to be ashamed of if that’s what you need in order to find those elements and be in the position to sensibly simplify your story.
And even baroque styles benefit from simplification, because all that florid writing is still wasted if what its saying is irrelevant to the purpose of the story. Your challenge as a writer is to make everything in the story somehow relevant to those story elements, even if subtly so. The best scenes and characters fit the established tone and are relevant to theme, plot and arc simultaneously.
Thus, to make rule #5 more useful I’ll add a criteria for what scenes and characters to cut:
If a scene or character is not providing new information about or an interesting perspective on something relevant to the theme, plot, or character arc of your story, cut it.