Complication and Quality

Or, How Density Is Not Indicative Of Good Storytelling

Some time back, I read a novel called Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan. I read it because it was, as I understood it, one of the primary inspirations for the transhuman future envisioned by the tabletop RPG Eclipse Phase.

There were some things I liked about it. I liked the neo-noir tone of the story. I enjoyed the fact that it was basically a locked room mystery with transhuman science fiction window dressing.

I did not enjoy the pacing, and I can tell you exactly why. The story was dragged down by myriad subplots that came up over the course of the novel. Some of them could have been cut entirely, like the assassin trying to kill the protagonist. Never had any real bearing on the outcome of the story. If I had been Mr. Morgan’s editor, I would’ve told him to axe the whole thing, save himself maybe ten thousand words or so. I also would’ve suggested cutting at least one sex scene and removing one pseudoromantic story thread completely (yes, one, because there were several).

Sure, I’m a bit of a prude when it comes to sex scenes, but that’s because it’s very difficult to make a sex scene worthwhile to the plot. There’s very little in the way of character exchange happening in a sex scene that is not of the fluid variety. The scene I’m discussing from Altered Carbon was no different: it was unnecessarily gross and offered zero useful information to the reader. Zero information, that is, aside from the fact that this century-old woman in a genetically-tailored twentysomething blonde body with huge tits and recreational drug-secreting salivary, sweat, and vaginal glands was an incredible lay.

I believe that data could have been inferred.

Anyway, the big picture: Altered Carbon would have probably been a lot better if it had been pruned back. A lot.

There’s this belief, this idea that has swept through the writing world, that the more complicated the story is, the better. Look at the Wheel of Time novels, A Song of Ice and Fire, basically any contemporary fantasy series. This includes The Wars of Light and Shadow by Janny Wurts, of which I read three thick as fuck novels. The latter two novels I read were, in their hardcover printing, a single novel, but the publisher was forced to split that single book into two because softcover bindings failed under the weight of that many pages.

Wikipedia indicates that the three Wars of Light and Shadow novels I read comprise less than a third of the overall series.

This is where we get into “are you shitting me” territory.

I mean, I can’t complain too much about complexity as a concept, or even as a tool in writing. There’s a certain level I inherently enjoy, and my own novels tend to get fairly tangled in and of themselves. But all of this nonsense where everybody has to create, at a minimum, a trilogy to get noticed in the publishing world? The nonsense that leads to book series so long that the author dies before they’re completed?

That’s absurd.

So maybe the next time you sit down to write something, you can ask yourself, “Do I really need to have ten different plot threads running simultaneously?” And if you decide you do, then you need to ask yourself, “Where’s the payoff for the reader? What reward do they get for tracking all ten of these plot threads? And when do they get it?” Because you’re asking your reader to do a LOT of work for something that is typically intended to be recreational. They better get a payoff, and you better be able to write well enough that you can keep the reader interested until that payoff lands.

If your reader gives up trying to follow your bullshit in book two, it’s not going to matter if those ten plot threads come to an epic culmination in book five. They’re never going to see it.