Occam’s Phaser: Simplicity in Fantasy

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Photo from wikipedia. Text from the sick depths of my soul.

Occam’s Phaser

Ding-ding-ding-ding-ding!

All right, people, I want you to take a moment and appreciate the fact that, after long practice, I may have just typed the nerdiest letters of my career. Occam’s phaser. Sheesh. Shove me in a locker, somebody, cause I ain’t makin’ it to senior prom.

With that out of the way…

(Occam’s phaser! Hurr!)

I want to have a serious talk.

You guys have all heard of William of Occam, right? Born in…well, probably Occam. A mendicant friar and a logician of the 14th century, who posited, among many logical principals, the idea that the simplest solution is probably the correct one. There’s more to it, but that’s how we non-logicians usually express it.

And a bunch of people took offense to that. Wouldn’t you? I mean, you’ve got this fancy theorem that took you like five years to embroider into factfulness, what business does this punk monk have coming around and going naw, simpler is better, dawg, and then you’re all like my name is Immanuel Kantstopdis, and I think nature is diverse as hell. And then, they see you whip, and possibly nay-nay, and by God–

Okay. Overcompensating. I’m going somewhere with this, I swear. Or I’m trying to.

Occam’s razor is the idea that the simplest solution is probably the correct one. Occam’s phaser, which is my idea, is the same general principal applied to your fantasy novel: the simpler you keep it, the more your story is likely to work.
We’ve all read those epic fantasy novels. You know, those ones. Where there’s a thousand pages of scenebuilding before you get to the plot, where you need the Cliff’s notes to keep up with the list of characters, and where everybody, everybody, gets paired off with either a romantic partner or a small country by the end of the novel.

When you write your Amazon review for this novel, it probably features the phrase ‘excellent worldbuilding’, mostly because, well, somebody did spend a lot of time, and that much literary real estate has to be worth something. Trick is, you can sell an acre of swamp and call it ‘real estate’. You can sell a shotgun shack (doors and windows not included) and it’s still fricking real estate.

But that’s not what you want real estate to be, is it? You want your novel to be in Beverly Hills, to have a midcentry modern dream house on it. You want lights to turn on when you clap. You want Jennifer Lawrence next door, and you want her to bring you casseroles when you move in. (Or organic cruelty-free parsnip chips. Or whatever hip people eat now).

My point is, you only need to:

1) Have a character in your story if that character is necessary to the plot,
2) Describe the setting in detail if the setting is plot-crucial or particularly unique,
3) Add in a plot twist when that plot twist is natural, and doesn’t take a lot of work to fit in.

That’s it, baby. That’s Occam’s phaser.

It’s easy to get carried away with your own descriptive powers whilst in the throes of composition. Problem is, it isn’t readable to do so. We don’t need to know the name of Lord Aston’s squire if this is the only scene she’s in. And a few descriptive terms–surly, for instance, or sunny–will probably suffice, if you need them at all. When you spend a paragraph or two describing this squire, you’ve indicated to the reader that she’s going to be important later on in the story. That’s what description does. And when you make that promise too often, and don’t stand by it, your reader doesn’t know what to pay attention to anymore.

Same goes for settings. As an adult human being, I know what a field of grass looks like. I know what an oven looks like. Now, unless there’s something important about this oven–the main character’s mother has cooked every dinner he’s ever eaten on it, and it represents his sadness over leaving home–or something unique–it’s a magical oven that only cooks children–I don’t need more than a little bit to know what I’m looking at. Woodstove might tell me enough, or gas oven, or big white oveny bastard brooding in the corner.

And plot twists? Oh, Jesus, plot twists. There is nothing, nothing more annoying than an unneeded plot twist. Ask yourself, always: is there some question here that hasn’t been answered by the course of the story so far? If there is, twist the night away. If there isn’t, hold off. It’s just going to throw your reader off balance, and leave him expecting a major shift in the plot…which, since your plot twist doesn’t go anywhere, you’re not going to give him.

So. Only have Bertie the Bertblandished carried off by the dragon if it’s going to change your plot. Does it make him see the importance of fire-proof wizard’s robes? Does he become friends with the dragon, take him back to the castle to help them win the war? Does he realize, uncomfortably, that the dragon is actually his mother, and maybe that’s why everyone he has a burping contest with seems to spontaneously combust.

If it does one of those things, that’s great. But even then, it better do one of those things because that question has been raised in the natural course of your plot. Maybe this annoying wizard-chickie has been harping on him about fire proof robes for the entire story, and now he gets the reasoning, and starts to talk to her more–and it turns out she’s just awesome, an incredible person, and she has a lot of really good ideas for defending the castle, and he winds up marrying her or something. You get the idea: a plot twist has to answer a question and move the plot forward. Otherwise, you’re just wasting everyone’s time going retrograde. Remember Ptolemy? Time waster. Yeah, you heard me.

(If you got that joke, please join me on this schooner full of people who aren’t getting dates for prom. It’s warm here, and we have twelve-sided dice.)

So, when you write, consider the beauty of simplicity and pare accordingly. But remember: even William of Occam didn’t mean something had to be bare bones to be correct. Embellishment can be beautiful and effective, too–as long as you keep it in moderation.

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2 thoughts on “Occam’s Phaser: Simplicity in Fantasy

  1. Unnecessary plot twists: contrivance. I struggle with these, dragged several out of the first draft of what I’m writing at the moment. It’s the big question I ask every time I write: is this scenario there because there’s too much dialogue and I don’t want people sitting in a cafe talking, again. If so, the scene has to come out because it’s exposition/telling and sticking them in a car chase won’t make it any better.

    And having heard that song by The Talking Heads for nearly thirty years I now know my ears weren’t playing tricks on me: ‘You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack.’ I knew that’s what he was saying.

  2. Unnecessary plot twists drive me wild. I don’t remember what any of them actually were, but I have vivid memories of reading The Da Vinci Code, and at the end of every chapter Brown did some kind of GOOD GRIEF WHAT IS HAPPENING HERE IS THIS A TWIST????? kind of ending. The next chapter would then open with LOLNO EVERYTHING’S FINE HAHA. Cheapest possible tactic to get a reader to continue. Yes, I finished the book. Did I enjoy it? No. And I still rant about it on the internet.

    The perfect plot twist, should be astonishing but not surprising, advance the plot, and be 100% backed up by evidence provided beforehand.

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