Simplicity and Good Storytelling

By | February 26, 2012

“Once upon a time” is such a simple beginning. Yet so effective.
Is this a contradiction? No . . . not if you understand that true simplicity is not easy.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. said: “I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

(He is paraphrasing Einstein, who said: “the simplicity on this side of complexity was easy; but the simplicity on the other side of complexity took real thought and effort.”)

To add a thought from philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, “The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something – because it is always before one’s eyes.)”

The most enduring story can be simple in many aspects. Consider a great book like To Kill a Mockingbird or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Both use the seeming simplicity of childhood to tell a powerful story about one of the most complex subjects in American culture: racism (the human causes and consequences).

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. . . . When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.
– from To Kill a Mockingbird

I recall writing a short story in high school. When I got it back, my teacher noted he was duly impressed with my use of language, allusion, imagery, etc. But he didn’t understand the ending. I had failed to make it clear enough. I thought it was so obvious, the crowing glory of my tale . . . but a very intelligent reader was baffled. Good story? Not really.

Perfect sincerity and transparency make a great part of beauty, as in dewdrops, lakes, and diamonds.
– Henry David Thoreau

I remember when I drove a car. As a kid, I had grown up with long cross-country trips in the family automobile to visit my grandparents in California. My dad was a smooth, calm, masterful driver. So when I first got behind a wheel as a teen, then, I must have thought driving was exceedingly simple. When I encountered my first curve, I naturally tried to be as smooth as my dad, taking the turn with a slow, imperceptible nudge of the steering wheel.

Next thing I knew I was careering on the shoulder of the road. It took a powerful yank on the wheel to over-correct and swing me wildly back onto the road, where I swerved madly for a few long seconds.

Hmmm. Seems like my old man actually had a lot experience behind his smooth driving ability. He saw each curve in the road ahead and made many little preparatory adjustments unknown to us passengers . . . and so we flew through every curve like our car was predestined to follow the road.

I had just learned that the appearance of simplicity can involve a lot of skill.

Many emerging writers are like I was when first learning to drive. They try to look cool and calm, then they hit that curve in their story’s plot and end up careening back and forth. Or they zoom about from the start, hoping to impress us like a teenager trying to impress a date with a flashy car.

But great stories often have a much more direct route, with a smooth flow that seems as natural as a creek following a stream-bed that seems to have always existed.

Oscar Wilde said, “Life is not complex. We are complex. Life is simple, and the simple thing is the right thing.”

He might as well have said: “A good story is not complex. We are complex.” Therein lies the crux of it. A good storyteller needs to learn when to let a story carry itself forward, when to get out of the way. And by doing so, to let readers fill in some part of the complexity from their own rich experiences.

In short, simplicity is not a beginning stage, something you graduate from. It is may well be the goal.

Simplicity is the most difficult thing to secure in this world; it is the last limit of experience and the last effort of genius.
– George Sand

What if your literary story were more simple, more sincere, more transparent in some way?

Would it be worse . . . or better?

One thought on “Simplicity and Good Storytelling

  1. Peggy Strack

    I love simplicity in life and in the books I read. I want a story to flow and can’t stand having to re-read a paragraph several time in order to interpret the meaning. I vote for simplicity.

    Reply

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