A couple weeks ago, I stopped writing my WIP. I had a fairly good beginning, but I was still unclear about the ending and middle— I wanted to do things intentionally, laying clues and weaving plot lines for the fantasy mystery I was planning. After a couple false starts early on, I thought I finally had a solid beginning, and could begin to plan the rest, based on the promises I had already made. For two weeks, I brainstormed. With a blank piece of paper, a pen, and ambient productivity music from 99U, I worked out everything I wanted to do. All the clues, all the reasoning in between, all the red herrings I needed. I worked out everything. After I finished, I began weaving all the different clues together into a timeline, outlining where characters needed to be and how they would arrive at answers. It was humongous, but that’s what I expected— once written, it would be much tighter.
Then I looked at my beginning. 25k in, I was just getting to the choice, halfway through the first act. That meant I was planning on having 8 times my current wordcount— 200k words. For a fantasy MG mystery. That’s not actually that bad, but considering the giant outline I had, even if I condensed it, that 200k wouldn’t be the maximum figure. This novel was looking way thicker than I wanted it to be. Not only that, but I had only outlined the first half so far, and the scene halfway through felt an awful lot like a denouement. The entire thing felt wrong.
So I had to stop again. While I like the idea of a complex mystery, there are limits to what a single novel can hold. Glorious entanglements are one thing— confusing people and taking too long to tell a story is another.
Everyone is the hero of their own story. Constantly characterize people. All of this is great, but not every character can have their own plot line, mystery, and social security number. Sometimes, even though you’ve figured these characters out front to back, you’re going to have to leave something out. In a short story, that’s easy— I spend no time figuring out anyone’s character, so I don’t have to worry about leaving anything out. Anything I add is more than I expected. But in a novel, when I’m trying to plan ahead… I almost feel like if I figure a character out, I have to include them completely. That works for the main character, but almost no one else.
The same goes for a world. I can avoid worldbuilder’s disease, stage one; I know when to stop worldbuilding and when to start writing. This WIP proves I haven’t yet learned to avoid stage two. I have a world, detailed, functional, interesting— now leave it out. What’s important here? Do we need to know about the architecture? The weather? The religion? In his SF/F lecture series on YouTube, Brandon Sanderson says to take only a few aspects of physical and cultural setting to weave into the story. (Lecture 2, if you need to know.) Climate, religion, and weather for one book— make those fascinating, and people won’t mind about the rest. Geography, food, and pets. Pop culture, flora and fauna, and gender roles. If you attempt religion, race relations, customs, history, occupations, pets, castes, government, and fashion, then add architecture, geography, weather, and night/day differences, it’s TOO MUCH. That list, in fact, is a pretty good approximation of what I had in my WIP.
So, again, what’s important? Say you want rain as a metaphor for sadness, but rain in this place is hugely different from earthly rain— is weather one of your setting elements? If yes, explain! If no, show that it’s raining, but don’t explain how. The metaphor is the important thing. If it can do double duty with setting and metaphor, great. If it’s crowding the setting and ruining the metaphor, leave it. Unless they love travel brochures, the reader wants the metaphor.
So what’s important? Something must be. Pick three things for setting, pick three characters (protagonist, antagonist, dynamic character, as described by the Hollywood Formula— that usually works well), and stick to that. Keeping your setting and characters down will generally keep the plot down as well, but sometimes it’s useful to tell yourself, I’m writing a mystery, not a romance. I’m writing a romance, not a thriller. I’m writing a thriller, not a board book. While genre boundaries are brilliant when pushed, they’re really useful for keeping things crisp.
Now, all of this is macro stuff. Character, setting, plot— those are the skeleton of a story. Do not do this with writing style. “What’s important here? Certainly not punctuation, spaces, or vowels!” Drastic example, but still. Don’t neglect to describe something because it’s not necessary. You can one-line-describe your setting too, if you have to. Mention the elementary school teachers, don’t go into their history, or why they’re still around in a pygmy-ruled dystopian society. If you’re busy describing why the school is lit by candlelight instead, no one will care.
Sorry, that went on a tangent. The point is this: although you can get by with just describing what characters do and say, there’s a whole lot more than that to a good story. What are they thinking? What are their emotions? Don’t gut your writing style in favor of what’s “important”. Keep noticing things, making jokes, and telling a good story.
Everyone likes a complex story, but Shangri-La had it right— everything in moderation. Keep your setting aspects controlled to avoid worldbuilder’s disease stage two. Keep the characters you want to explore controlled to prevent conflicting, tangling plot lines. You are a storyteller, and your goal, today and tomorrow, is to entertain. Alfred Hitchcock said the length of a movie should be directly proportional to the size of the audience’s bladder. While novels have room to play with that, the same is still true: tell your story so that people will enjoy it, not be bored by it.