simplify your story before you lose readers

Simplify Your Story–Before You Lose Readers

This week’s video talks about the storytelling principle of “double mumbo jumbo,” why you should avoid it in your story, and how to simplify your story.

Video Transcript:

Complexity in fiction is a beautiful thing. But so is simplicity, particularly since not all complexity is good complexity. There’s a principle in storytelling, which the late great Blake Snyder referred to in his must-read book Save the Cat! as “double mumbo jumbo.” The idea of double mumbo jumbo is that one unusual or unexpected story element may be awesome on its own right, but two unusual and unrelated elements are probably going to be poison.

What this all comes down to, of course, is suspension of disbelief. Readers may be willing to believe your story world features reverse gravity, but, if you ask them to then further believe, that all dogs in this story world can repeat phrases like parrots, well, then you’re running the risk of overloading the complexity of your story, for no good reason.

For example, a YA book I read a while back featured angels and demons as its main characters. So far, so good. But when, halfway through the book, the author threw in vampires and werewolves, the story snowballed—in my opinion—into bad complexity. The author had a good thing going, but in her desire to include as many “cool” elements as possible, she overloaded her story and, ironically, made it less cool—particularly since the extraneous elements she added lacked any kind of originality.

The lesson to be learned here is that every unusual element in your story needs to be scrutinized. What does it bring to the story besides the cool factor? Is it original—or just something you’re personally geeking out over? Does it enhance the cohesion of your worldbuilding—or just fragment it? Complexity is good, but, always remember, it has to bring depth, as well as breadth.

Tell me your opinion: Can you think of an example of “double mumbo jumbo” in a book or movie?

simplify your story before you lose readers

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Interesting and very valid point. I’ve been simplifying a lot of the stories that I wanted to write as a young teen. At the same time, I find it interesting the idea that two unique, unrelated elements of premise are a problem. I have no interest in writing a story until I have two.

    That said, the issue of vampires and werewolves was a writing issue vs. a complexity issue. The writer needs to introduce the differences from reality up-front (writing issue) and then follow through on the consequences (complexity issue). You can’t throw something at the premise-level into the second half of the story with no setup and expect the reader to buy it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      As I mentioned in my response to Steve, the bottom line on this isn’t the number of facets (as I say, complexity is good), but rather their origins. If they’re originating from diverse mythologies that have no obvious reason to be connected in this particular story, they’re probably going to end up straining disbelief. China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station is a great example of a wildly diverse and complex novel that works because it grounds all its elements in the common principle of “arcane mythological creatures.”

      • I think it’s more important to TIE everything together in your original premise and upfront as said than to GROUND everything together in an already done premise.

        If it’s done upfront, that works. I didn’t think you were saying not to use two elements, just not to use it thoughtlessly. I found it worth commenting on because I’m in the unique position of not writing until I find two.

        Example:

        1. A city made up of multiple kingdoms AND genetically modified kids who grew up as military operatives before they rebelled.

        The city came later. I tied the superhumans together with the city idea by making it an after-effect of the rebellion.

        In reading, I’ve seen people successfully do angels (supernatural) and were-creatures, etc. (paranormal), but they established both up-front and wove in details throughout of how this was one single world.

        In writing, you have to establish the origins, not count on tradition to it for you, which is sloppy for one and limiting for another. Which is why I said her issue was a writing problem, not a complexity one.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Totally agree with you. The basic problem with this issue always comes down the story’s foundation – which is presented in the setup. Most of my stories don’t come to life for me either until I have two or three ideas. As long as we can make all those ideas pull together as one, we should be headed toward *good* complexity.

  2. Steve Mathisen says:

    Excellent points to keep in mind as I am fleshing out my fantasy story. I need to know when to stop piling stuff on and to make sure the stuff in the pile is original enough to keep people interested and familiar enough so that they can identify with the characters plights.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The key is to make sure the pile all originates from a common source or story mythology. “Superheroes have powers” is an accepted fundamental of the superhero genre, so readers/viewers are willing to accept those powers no matter what they are or where they come from. It’s only when you throw something totally different into the mix (such as, “aliens exist” – which is one my major suspension of disbelief problems with the recent Marvel movies, even though I love them to pieces) that the premise starts to shudder under the weight.

  3. Nice post about something I always have to watch. I’ve yet to write a piece of fiction yet in which I didn’t have to reduce (if not eliminate) a character or a subplot in rewriting. That used to annoy me – I’m not enamoured of that “kill your darlings” expression – but now I realize that’s one of the ways to know I’m making progress.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The “kill your darlings” statement can be misleading, since, at first glance, it seems to indicate that we’re supposed to ax elements just because we like them. But, of course, the real point is that we’re axing elements that are in the story only because we like them.

  4. This may be a shocker for you. It was for me anyway. Dan Brown’s novel Inferno had me mesmerized into approximately two thirds through it. All of a sudden there was too much going on and some of it was going toward tangents that just muddled my thinking as I was reading. His first two books didn’t do that. I wonder if he was just trying to make the book as thick as his first two.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I haven’t read any of Brown’s stuff, but I’ve heard that quite a few of his fans were disappointed by this latest one. Proper set up in the first half can solve many ill in the second.

  5. Love SAVE THE CAT. Hated Spider Man 3 for double mumbo jumbo plus one. 1. The black tar stuff that turns spider man evil. 2. Sand man guy. 3. The Son of the Green Goblin. There may even be a fourth with Parker trying to find his grandfather’s real killer or something. I just remember feeling like there were three or four movies crammed into one. Just terrible.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Spider-Man 3 is a good example. Everything they got so right in the second one just fell apart in the third, almost entirely due to complexity overload.

  6. I hate it when a story starts out good and then gets bogged down by filler/flavor text that the authors/editors just have to throw in for whatever reason. This is somewhat different from what you’re all talking about, but I think it still ties in with over-complicating things. For example, I love the Harry Potter books, but I felt book 4, 5, and possibly 6 (not 7 though) were much longer than they needed to be despite being good overall. The focus in each wavered at times and there were subplots that were either throwaway or could have been cut out to make the story more streamlined.

    I also loved The Name of the Wind a lot until things slowed down, plot threads were forgotten/shafted for convenience, and one anti-climax followed another in the last 200 pages. It felt like on grand series of teases. From what I’ve read the second book is more notorious for these problems among other things. I just don’t get how the author could slack off so much when his main character and plot threads had so much potential.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The Name of the Wind is brilliant in so many ways, but I do see where you’re coming from and, to some extent, can agree with you. Generally speaking, whenever we start getting long-winded, it’s probably a sign we should step back and reevaluate *why* we’re feeling the need to expend so many words.

  7. Generally speaking, whenever we start getting long-winded, it’s probably a sign we should step back and reevaluate *why* we’re feeling the need to expend so many words.

    Yes! Exactly.

  8. Here we have a saying “good, if shoert, is double good”. I think is sort of the same thing. IT is true that, as you said, too much complexity can backfire, so can too much simplicity. Everything in life is about balance :)

    Hugs,

    M.

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