Streamlining My Story By Controlling Character Knowledge

If you’ve been following my blog for some time now, no doubt you’ve come across one of my many Writing Woes posts. Most of the time, these posts deal with my angst about having to refactor my story, because as I write the outlines for the drafts, or the drafts themselves, I keep finding that my story is too complex. When I say complexity, I don’t necessarily mean the substance or message of the story, or even the style and vocabulary I use. Instead, what I mean is the layers and elements interwoven in the story.

It’s not easy to remove an element or a thread from a story, especially if, like me, you love big, epic things and you tend to plan or outline before writing. Removing an element could unravel other foundational threads, and then you find yourself with all kinds of plot holes that cannot be plugged no matter how much you try. After finishing another streamlining last night after weeks of reviewing my story again, I realized that I’ve been using the same revamping technique to tame the wild mess I’ve planned:

When I want to discard a thread from my story, I make the outcome of that thread already well-known to the characters.

See, the threads in my story add some layer of mystery that the protagonists have to grapple with. It’s another stumbling block that stops them from reaching their goals, but once that thread is resolved, the characters would have gained something. At least, if the thread is at all useful, that’s what is supposed to happen. Of course, you could have a thread that doesn’t really add any value to your characters’ arc, but if that’s the case, then there should be no trouble removing it at all. (Or even having it there in the first place.)

I’ll give an example from my story. I suppose it’s a bit of a spoiler, but well… not really anymore. In one of my more recent refactoring, I axed a character named Xiehun who was supposed to be investigating the death of his father. Now, he was relevant to one of the protagonists, Anina, because the person who betrayed his father also betrayed her. And that’s important because once Anina finds out who betrayed her, then the investigation would be resolved.

Anyway, since there’s already so many things going on in my story, I didn’t have time to elaborate on the investigation of his father’s death. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even have much time to allot to Xiehun at all, except for moments in the story where he reminds everyone about the mystery of his father’s death. Which… is not a compelling use of character, to be honest. So I needed to remove him.

But then that leaves the mystery of Anina’s betrayal dangling. So when I removed Xiehun, I removed the mystery of his father’s death too. Instead of murder, I made it an accident, and I made it common knowledge in the story. And thus, I’ve disentangled Anina and Xiehun’s threads.

I find that when something becomes common knowledge among the characters, then you save the time you would spend writing how they acquire this knowledge. I used this tactic many times. When everyone was trying to figure out how to neutralize a really dangerous magical McGuffin, it added another layer to the story. But when I made that solution well-known (or at least known to 1 character), the only thing I have to worry about is how to get the characters to that point. When some mysterious thing that happened in the past came cropping up, it blindsided the characters. The characters would have to deal with processing this, so I have to write them connecting the dots. But if it’s already in their repertoire of knowledge, their reaction would be completely different, perhaps tamer and better prepared to confront the situation.

In hindsight, I think the reverse was how I ended up with such a convoluted story in the first place. I wanted a lot of plot twists and big surprises, so I made my characters really clueless. Everything was stacked up against them; every time they turned a corner, there’s something waiting to surprise them. So I suppose if you want to make your story more complex and layered, just make your characters not know about a particular thing.

I don’t know if this is something most writers already know. I definitely didn’t until I started doing so many refactors and streamlining sessions, and I realized I was performing the same technique to slim my story down. So there you go. Did you already know about this? What other things do you do when your try to simplify your story?

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