How to Make Anything Enormous

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.

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65 thoughts on “How to Make Anything Enormous

  1. Aaaand it comes back to showing and telling. Writers love that advice. And you’re right, it’s a delicate balance. I read this 3000 word story that was basically describing a scene where this soldier is getting an on-field surgery without any anesthetic. As you can imagine, it’s a very sensory story and the writer’s used this very interesting technique wherein they describe every little thing in the most lyrical of prose. There is a LOT of imagery. One sentence has about four different images and all of them are utterly poetic. Just reading one paragraph was like walking down a hallway in a gallery, there were THAT many images. The writing style worked very well because of the kind of story this was.

    But I read another story of theirs. It’s an eleven-chapter thing and it wasn’t as intense and sensory as the previous story I’d read. The plot didn’t call for it. Yet, the writer had used the same hyper-descriptive “imagery on steroids” technique and well…it was awful. I would skip entire paragraphs to realise that nothing significant had happened with the plot. The writer would be describing how the tears fell from someone’s face like sliver lightning or god knows what and it would go on like that for ages. It was really boring.

    That, I think, is an example of when to show and when to shut up and sit down. If the writer was mindful of keeping it balanced, understanding that some styles work in only some types of stories, they wouldn’t have messed up. It’s really sad because the writing style in itself is rather interesting, but it only works in the rarest of rare cases. Showing and telling is alright but it’s important to know when to do what.

    1. …Sorry for the huge comment…
      I didn’t realise how large it was until I published it! (I’m amused now, thinking about the theme and title of this post.)

    2. Yes, you’re perfectly right. In some places it’s useful, in some places it isn’t– it’s the author’s decision on what actually works, and no one can assume that one ratio works on everything they do.

      And don’t apologize for the long comment. I like those.

      1. Cool, thanks 🙂

        I love experimenting with writing styles. I feel like I’m a mad scientist fooling around with Dexter’s Laboratory. That’s why I love discovering new styles, like the one I just mentioned before. That one requires you to have an incredible vocabulary, though. I didn’t realise just how many synonyms the word “black” had until I read sable, slow, swarthy, atramentous, ebon, and piceous, and that’s just for ONE colour. You can’t even go overboard with words like these because if the reader doesn’t understand them, you’re being too technical and confusing. You’re just showing off your smarts.

      2. Exactly!
        I’ve read Haruki Murakami, someone who is just crazy good at emotions, and I noticed that he makes things poignant by keeping them simple and yet eloquent. It’s much trickier than it looks, though. I’ve tried it and it doesn’t seem to work. I need more practice.

        Have you read Murakami? My favourite book is Norwegian Wood. And then Kafka on the Shore. His surreal style takes some getting used to, though. But it’s worth it!

      3. Oh, then you must check him out. I believe he was nominated for the Nobel in Literature…? For someone who reads a lot of action/fantasy, his writing was a bit difficult for me to enjoy in the beginning but it really helps if you just give up and stop trying to make sense of what he says. Then you REALLY enjoy it. His Kafka on the Shore is especially weird, but in a good way. Norwegian Wood is a coming-of-age romance of sorts, but it’s one of my favourite books. Though I can’t really tell you what exactly his books are about. I don’t think anyone can really reduce Murakami to a synopsis. There’s just too much to say and it’s impossible to word it.

  2. Hmmmm. That’s very interesting. I can get plenty long-winded while talking, but actually, my stories tend to be…shorter. I’m working on it. I found writing a, well, page-long outline helps a lot–because I know where the story is going. That simply leaves it up to me to figure out how to get it there in between major plot points, and then to get it there. But somehow, the story always ends up shorter than I thought it would be/should be. So I’ll have to think about this.

    1. Indeed. It could be that you’re skimming over the things you’ve outlined instead of expanding them to a proportionate length. In that case, the meat of your novel would come from the things you add between the major plot points (which is what I always do with revisions, unfortunately).

      1. I read something very interesting about how to get that in between the plot points stuff the other day…if you go to kingdompen.org and read their “latest issue,” it’s the article about ninjas. (The guy who wrote it reminds me of you for some reason.)

      2. Oh, sorry. Should’ve been a bit more clear. It’s a PDF. The link I gave you was to the main website. In the upper right (ish) corner, there’s a little box that says something about the “Autumn/Winter issue.” That’s what I’m talking about. On the seventh page of that is “Ninjas in Hindsight,” which is the article I referred to.

      3. in·ter·est·ing [in-ter-uh-sting, -truh-sting, -tuh-res-ting] Show IPA
        adjective
        1.
        engaging or exciting and holding the attention or curiosity: an interesting book.
        2.
        arousing a feeling of interest: an interesting face.
        Idioms
        3.
        in an interesting condition, (of a woman) pregnant.
        Origin:
        1705–15; interest + -ing2

        Related forms
        in·ter·est·ing·ly, adverb
        in·ter·est·ing·ness, noun
        un·in·ter·est·ing, adjective
        un·in·ter·est·ing·ly, adverb

        Synonyms
        1. absorbing, entertaining. Interesting, pleasing, gratifying mean satisfying to the mind. Something that is interesting occupies the mind with no connotation of pleasure or displeasure: an interesting account of a battle. Something that is pleasing engages the mind favorably: a pleasing account of the wedding. Something that is gratifying fulfills expectations, requirements, etc.: a gratifying account of his whereabouts; a book gratifying in its detail.

        Antonyms
        1. dull.

      4. Hey, you asked. But yes, he’s right– it’s easier to plan your moves in retrospect than in the future, so if you know where you’re going, you can get the middle correct much more easily.

  3. Thanks, this is a very useful post.

    I have a big problem with making things too long. For some reason it seems to get worse when I’m under time pressure. For example, a few months back I was supposed to write an essay about the Tiananmen Square Massacre (well, the question was more specific than that, but anyway). It was supposed to be 2 – 3 pages but I was pressed for time and accidentally wrote over 7 pages. Needless to say, I only got a “B” because I trotted out too much irrelevant stuff (added) and didn’t relate things to the question very nicely. I may have over-expanded too, if possible, but the main problem is, as you say, adding too much.

    1. There is a time for adding and there is a time for expanding, and there is also a time for dropping things down into a single sentence or some small increment. Knowing how to balance all of these is a skill.

  4. Aaaaaah. Yesyesyes. This is great. Basically, making things more complicated works – but only if that ties in to what you originally had. Throwing in details that aren’t actually relevant just drag down the story.

  5. Lovely post.
    I have never heard that about Beethoven…
    Now, does this mean you’ve figured out how to outline without killing your creativity? Or is this just one more piece to the puzzle?

    By the way, as far as NaNo goes, I’m back in good job with your word count!

    1. I’m sure it’s one more piece to the puzzle of outlining, but I’ll definitely work on this with FE and see where it goes. I’m pretty sure this concept made Phil Phorce episode 4 the success that it was, outlined as it was.

      You’re back? Yay! Thank you.

      1. I’m not sure what else to say here… I’d like to say, don’t let me quit or get discouraged, but I’m not actually sure you can do that.

      2. Thanks. If I can get a lot of writing done tonight, I have a chance at catching up to where I should be.

  6. Hmm. I remember reading this post, but it appears I didn’t comment. Maybe I’ll go back and read it and write a halfway interesting comment some day… some day when I don’t have 600 posts to click on. Twice.

      1. We, sir, must have vastly different definitions of the word “interesting”, then. Either that, or my hallucinations are acting up again. What’s your definition?

        But thank you. I think.

      2. That’s a bad thing, in case you were wondering.

        And I just noticed that you defined the word “interesting” for Amanda in some of the earlier comments… *facepalm*

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