Simplicity and Intricacy in Fiction
Whether we write extempore or develop an outline, writers discover what happens next in the plot. Along the way, we discover unexpected aspects of our characters. This is why we need not worry about those dreaded “cookie cutter” stereotypes. With some sense of plot and characters, we go on to learn how our story material or idea works as a whole. We can see how portions of the story relate to each other and to the work in its entirety. From the writer’s perspective, during the drafting or outlining process, intricacy has grown out of a relatively simple original conception.
Writers and readers see the intricacy, time duration, and pacing of a work of fiction quite differently. (Image: public domain.)
Things look very different from the perspective of the reader. In the words of legendary fiction editor L. Rust Hills, “A story can be thought of as moving through complexity to unity, through complication to simplicity, through confusion to order.” Readers know little when they start turning the pages. They must become familiar with the setting, get some sense of the characters, and comprehend which way the plot is moving. As they read, the story makes more and more sense, culminating in the dénouement when the author reveals all and makes everything clear. What once seemed puzzlingly intricate now appears more straightforward.
Time in Fiction
For both writer and reader, a key concept in the movement from simple to intricate or from complex to simple is time. However, as with simplicity and intricacy, how an author thinks about time is quite different from the way readers view it. Readers are concerned only with story-time, the total elapsed period between the beginning and the end of the story. Did events unfold over the course of a weekend, a few months, or decades? Writers must also contend with the technical issue of presentation-time; what parts of the story to condense, what parts to linger over. Decisions here will heavily influence the reader’s perception of the story.
Pace in Fiction
The issue of presentation time brings us to the final item I want to deal with, the vitally important question of pace. From the perspective of readers, the best stories have a smooth, purposeful, and appropriate tempo. “Smooth” refers to the overall pace of the work. In the short run, tempo should vary to maintain reader interest. While readers do not necessarily grasp writing technique, they do know boring writing when they encounter it. Break up extended narratives and descriptions with dialogue, or find another way of presenting the narrated or described material. Conversely, we can use narration and description to interrupt lengthy passages of dialogue. We must never let one aspect of storytelling dominate for too long. A change in mood or atmosphere also serves to alter pace.
English novelist Mary Stewart writes, “[Change of pace works] to open a scene, or act as changeover points for emphasis and direction, either of action or emotion …. [Descriptive passages] can break up a long dialogue or action sequence and provide points of rest; they can also allow the writer to slip essential information in among semi-relevant or purely atmospheric detail.”
For readers, variety is the spice of life, and here we may say the same for writers. We please our future readers and liven up our own writing sessions by intermixing narration, description, and dialogue. We do the same when we insert action sequences, change from one strong emotion to another, alter the mood or atmosphere, or shift from a powerful emotion to something tamer (or vice versa).
Think contrast and layering.