Have you ever seen an epic fantasy writer’s blog? Take a look for a moment at Brandon Sanderson’s blog post on his third law of magic systems: Sanderson’s Third Law of Magic. You can read it if you wish– it’s really interesting– but just scroll down to the end of the page. Do you see how many words he’s written for that one post?
I counted them. Over two thousand words went into that blog post alone– two thousand words in a blog post I could have written in 800 words, a post easily condensed into three words: Expand, don’t add. And if you look at the whole thing in terms of the points he makes, he wrote that blog post as a three-point essay, the kind they teach in high school. That’s the kind of essay I wrote last Friday, coming to a grand total of 650 words. How in the world did Brandon Sanderson write a two thousand word three-point essay about a concept that can be explained in three words?
I could ask the same thing about, well, just about anything. How do politicians speak for hours on a topic that could be explained in a sentence? How did Tolkien write three massive books about the destruction of magical jewelry? How did I, this NaNoWriMo, reach my midpoint at sixty thousand words, the number at which I ended my last novel?
And, of course, how do people write enormous novels out of page-long outlines? (I know, I always come back to the same question, but this interests me.)
There are many different factors, especially in novels. You take the time to tell different stories– subplots and sidestories and backstories. You add in more characters with more character arcs and take them to different locations, with more possibilities for the story to go on. You can prolong the events of the story indefinitely, refusing to let your antagonist die until every last person in the audience has battle fatigue, or making sure the giant kangaroo of the apocalypse needs exactly three months to get ready before it destroys all the world by jumping on it. For an essay, you could use your first 500 words to define terms, or waste time with a meaningless analogy you promise will make sense later. You can do any of that, and it will expand whatever you’re writing– but it won’t keep your audience engaged for long. If you try to expand things by wasting time, your audience starts getting bored. So how do you expand without doing these things?
Brandon Sanderson answered this question with his very own Third Law: Expand, don’t add. Instead of adding time, or side characters, or useless information, you can make anything longer by simply expanding. Sanderson has five parts to his post: the introduction (expand, don’t add), the first point (extrapolate), the second point (interconnect), the third point (streamline), and the conclusion (expand, don’t add). He could have said it that concisely, too. But he didn’t.
Instead, Sanderson goes ahead and explains everything he means. He doesn’t do it in agonizing detail, nor does he try to pad his wordcount with filler words. He writes the essay well, but also makes sure he is understood. He gives examples from his own writing, anecdotes about other authors, and the pros and cons of this topic. He doesn’t add to his structure by giving eight points about the topic– he simply takes his three points and expands them skilfully. The resulting essay makes sense and keeps the audience engaged from beginning to end. Expand, don’t add.
Beethoven, as it has been said many a time, was paid by the note in every piece of music he composed. He easily could have simply added the same notes into his music over and over until he had amassed a fortune, but he didn’t– he took a theme and expanded it into something much more magnificent. He wrote a lot of notes in the process, but he was never simply adding notes to raise his paycheck. He expanded his music to an amazing level.
A lot of expanding has to do with trying to show a concept instead of telling it, as the latest Writing Excuses episode said in its Q&A session. In order to make a scene longer, you work on showing more than telling– in order to make a story or any work longer, you work on expanding, which essentially is showing more about a single concept. You look at all facets of the same concept instead of simply explaining that the concept exists and then adding another one.
A good example of this is outlining. In an outline, you tell what happens in the story– you tell it, you don’t show it. The first plot point might be “Bill decides he wants a sandwich”, but the difference between that snippet and the actual scene is the difference between showing and telling. In the outline, you tell the story– in the novel, you show it. This is one thing I’ve often found rather puzzling when it comes to outlines. Why would you tell the story in its entirety before writing the novel? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose, since the story is already out there? Well, yes it does, if your goal is to tell the story. But if you go through each plot point determined to show this scene instead of telling it, you can write a book out of that outline.
On Wikipedia, you can look up the Lord of the Rings and get the entire plot in a concise eleven paragraphs. Of course, we can all agree that the real trilogy is much better, but why? It’s the same story. The answer is simple: the Lord of the Rings was told so much more effectively than that Wikipedia synopsis. The outline is a condensed version of the novel; if you decided to simply tell your way through each scene, your audience would wonder why you didn’t just give them the outline. Writing from an outline isn’t a question of retelling a story. You’re making the story more interesting in the way that you retell it. You could easily make a novel-length outline of an amazingly complicated story, full of subplots and characters. But that’s adding things to make it bigger– not expanding it.
But just as Sanderson did in his original post, I must offer a warning: this is a delicate balance. You can’t show too much, or else you’ll lose the audience’s interest anyway– but you can’t show too little, or else you’ll end up with three-word blog posts and page-long novels. Conciseness has its charm, but knowing how to expand instead of add is a valuable skill.