If you’re an unreconstructed smartypants like I myself am, then this is the closest thing I can give you to a secret handshake for writing success.
Did you get a perfect score on your verbal SAT’s? Were you the very best English student in your entire high school? Did your high school English teacher rave over your essays and invent new levels of high grades especially for you. (“I’ve never given an A++++ before, but, my son, you’ve earned it with this insightful analysis of Marxism in the Hundred Acre Woods.”) Is your IQ so high that the other smart kids seemed a little bit slow?
And yet, with all of that, are you collecting rejection slip after rejection slip because apparently none of the editors are not “getting” your work?
Well, sit down, my friend, and let’s talk about simpleminded writing, and why you need to quit trying to be smart and start trying to be clear.
Here’s the problem with smartypants writers. When we are trying to impress our readers with how smart we are, we leave out steps, and ask our readers to make impossible logical leaps from one scene or idea to another. We work too hard reinventing every possible trope and the new worlds we invent are incomprehensible to anyone that doesn’t live inside our heads.
The key is to give up on showing your reader how smart you are. Think about it. If you have an outrageously high IQ*, most of your audience will be, well, less smart than you are. That means if you’re in the top 1 percent in intelligence, and you are stretching to impress the top 0.1 percent, then you’ve totally lost the other 99 percent. (See what I did there being all current and topical and stuff? )
Instead, you need to write with the intention of making your reader feel smart. Not only that, but once you’ve gotten down to about the eighth grade level in complexity, you probably need to get even a bit more simpleminded to overcome the universal communication disconnect between reader and writer. That means that even with clear writing, many readers will miss your intent because they do not live inside your head. In a piece of fiction, you’re imagining what it’s like to be a character in your story, and your reader is also imagining the same thing, which means you have to work harder for clarity than you did on your essay, “Marxism in the Hundred Acre Wood,” in the tenth grade.
This doesn’t mean that you’re writing stupid stories for stupid people. You can write a very smart story, but it has to be laid out in a clear, easy-to-understand, step-by-step manner.
Even very complex, very smart stories are really very simpleminded, deep down. Look at George R. R. Martin’s wildly successful Song of Ice and Fire series. You can hand that series to anyone who enjoys epic fantasy, and they’re not going to struggle to understand what’s actually going on in the books. It’s not going to be ambiguous whether character A killed character B, nor why character A killed character B. (“I chopped his head off because he had stuff I wanted.”) The plot is mind bogglingly complex, but moving through the story, everyone is on the same page, so to speak. In fact, that’s why Martin is awesome. It’s not that he thought up such an amazing and compelling world so much as he’s been able to clearly and systematically walk us through it.
Take TV and movies. We’ve been having a bit of a Law and Order: SVU marathon at my house, due to new episodes appearing on Netflix. Doesn’t it make you feel smart to watch SVU? Don’t you always feel kind of one step ahead of the police, or at least right in step with them as they work a case? And yet, the reason we feel so smart as viewers is because the plots are simple-minded like whoa. Not only that, but at every single step along the way, a character will take the role of Captain Obvious and explain a plot point to the audience. Ice T is great for that. Seems like every time there’s a plot twist, reversal, or important clue, he’ll step up and summarize it for the audience. (“So the old man skipped town to avoid paying his gambling debt,” says Ice T. Mariska Hargitay finishes for him, “…but he failed to cover his tracks when he left a forwarding address for his old name with the post office.” Elliot says, “Let’s go!” and quickly puts on his jacket.)
Never assume your readers are too smart to have the plot explained to them.
I once knew a pro writer who said that if about half of your readers get what’s going on in a story, then that’s about right. If 9 out of 10 get it, that was too much. If 1 out of 10 get it, that’s too little. At the time, I was a new writer myself, and I took this advice without question. Since then, I’ve decided it’s insane.
Do you really think that a story is a success if half of your readers leave unsatisfied because they don’t know what’s going on? Is it really good to purposely alienate half of your audience? For most stories, one hundred percent of readers should understand everything that happened in the story. If there’s subtext, or another level on which the story works, and only fifty percent of readers get that, then fine. That’s a bonus. But never leave a committed reader going “What the hell was that?”
That particular writer, by the way, never had a breakout success until he wrote a book with a mainstream sensibility that was not in any way ambiguous. Probably not a coincidence.
Look at Dan Brown. He’s made a very successful career out of making his readers feel smart. All of the puzzles in The Da Vinci Code are easy. Some of them are also kind of dumb, having more than one solution. The genius of The Da Vinci Code is in making the reader believe that the puzzles are difficult, when they are not really difficult.
Even seemingly complex stories, such as the film Inception, are simple-minded at heart. Inception has one very complex conceit in it–that you can have a dream within a dream within a dream, ad infinitum. An important thing about the movie is that you’re not supposed to know, when it’s over, if you ended up in the real world or not.
In order to make that work, the screenwriters had to write the movie even more simple-minded than the average movie. Every scene, every word, had to be absolutely clear. The film begins with a tutorial about dreaming and dreams-within-dreams, and screen time is lavishly spent educating the audience throughout the film. Even with all of that, the movie loses a lot of viewers. In that case, I don’t think that’s a failing on the part of the writers. That’s just the nature of the kind of movie it is. But it shows that with a complicated storyline, you have to try even harder, with lots of showing and explaining and with Ice T popping up to explain plot points, to bring your audience along with you.
Simpleminded writing is not the same as predictable writing. There’s a scene in Martin’s latest book, A Dance With Dragons, where it is revealed that a character in one storyline is the same as a character we were wondering about in another storyline. I hadn’t expected that, and it came as a pleasant surprise. All of the necessary clues to guess were provided. If you figured it out, you got to feel smart. If you didn’t figure it out, you got to be surprised. It’s win-win all around.
You see this more often in movies than books, but sometimes a film is so simpleminded that it is completely predictable. Tron is a recent example. It’s an entertaining movie, but every single bit of the movie is boringly predictable. This is not because they used simpleminded writing technique, but rather a failure of imagination. The writers for some reason seemed to choose the first idea that came to them every single time they needed one.
Now let’s suppose you don’t want to be a commercially successful genre or mainstream writer. Perhaps your dream is to write literary fiction, and that you love ambiguous, lyrical, multilayered stories. Is all of this advice useless to you? I don’t think so.
I submit to you that your sophisticated, college-educated, literature-loving readers are going to enjoy simpleminded storycrafting just as much as fantasy or mystery fans. The key is giving them what they want in such a way that they still feel smart in figuring it out. Sure, they don’t want to a puzzle-filled thriller like The Da Vinci Code. But they will be looking for literary references and hidden themes. Instead of being coy and obscure, make sure all of your clues and references are very clear. Your reader will feel very smart and satisfied for picking up on it. And when it comes time to publish a novel, you’ll get a chance to sell a hundred percent of those readers your book, rather than only fifty percent (because you deliberately confused the other fifty percent).
Simpleminded writing is not easy to do, either. It requires quite a bit of intellect, actually, to figure out what scenes and exposition are necessary to have your reader understand what you want him or her to understand. In addition, as we discussed above, it’s easy to go overboard with the simplemindedness principle and writer a boringly predictable story. You have to balance simplicity and clarity of narrative with surprise and originality of idea. It’s really very tricky, but not unlike achieving mastery of any other art form. Musicians must master scales, and continue to practice them every day, even after they have become world famous virtuosos. So, too, must writers grasp the essentials of guiding a reader’s attention and expectations and practice them constantly.
* I’ve always felt that IQ was a poor way of measuring intellect, but am using it here for the sake of convenience. Please feel free to think of this in terms of multiple intelligences, creativity, or whatever metric makes the most sense to you.