Why is it important for writers to keep their story elements connected?
Short answer: it makes everything easier to remember.
Long answer: brains are wired to link memories together. Our minds string lamps across people, places, and events. These associations help us trace our steps back through vast chasms of information.
One of the best ways for writers to get good word of mouth is to make their story easy to pitch. This doesn’t mean dumbing down the developments. It means giving readers clear links to reference.
Readers should be able to trace plot threads all the way back to the beginning. If the hero detoured from his quest with no clear explanation, readers will have trouble filing away this information. If the theme was too ambiguous, readers will have a hard time expressing what it meant to them.
The stories that stay with us aren’t just powerful. They’re tailored to fit our memories.
If an audience has a hard time following a plot it’s because they lost a link in the chain. You’ll need to clue them in if they’re ever going to get that bookmark moving again. Here are some ways to remind them without being redundant.
Horror movies have a habit of hiding their setups too deep. When twists happened they don’t feel earned. Flashbacks give the audience a clear look at items that were buried in the background. These movies feel like they’re cheating. Memorable twists should be made up of elements that become obvious in the aftermath. Things viewers may have considered before a red herring had them looking in the wrong direction.
Writers should take a cue from magicians and invite readers to watch for their slight of hand.
When you foreshadow an event that pays off early on, you train your audience to pay extra attention throughout the story. They’ll know you’ll do it again. They’ll realize every fable told within the story is forecasting future developments. They’ll see every object on the wall as a hint. They’ll sift through your dialogue for subtext, because they’ll know that nothing is extraneous.
Let your readers know you plan on using every part of the plot. Give them a series of small payoffs before the big twist.
Six degrees of separation:
There’s a reason Stephen King writes stories about small town like ‘Salem’s Lot. It’s because everyone in town is connected. King wastes no time introducing his readers to the mayor, the sheriff, the town preacher, and the charming outsider (the point of view character he uses to introduce the cast).
If you’re writing a story with an ensemble cast, make sure there’s six degrees of separation (at most) between everyone.
It shouldn’t take long for the audience to remember who works with who, who’s related to who, and who’s sleeping with whom. Sometimes King’s casts get so bloated they’re hard to follow despite their connections. He said this happened when he was working on The Stand. What was his solution? He killed most of them.
MacGuffins are plot devices that all the characters are going after. In Raiders of the Lost Ark the MacGuffin is the ark of the covenant. The Nazis want it as a weapon, the allies want it contained, and Indiana Jones wants to put it in a museum. In Star Wars R2D2 is the MacGuffin. The empire pursues him. The rebels need the information he contains. That little droid is the driving force for everything that happens.
MacGuffins pull every character into their orbit. They go supernova in the last act. Whether it’s the Ark of the Covenant revealing the Nazis secret plans to build a death star, or R2D2 bursting open to melt the Emperor’s face off (I may have mixed a few of those details up).
The theme is the spine that runs through the story. The characters, setting, and plot are its limbs. While the subject of the story might be the MacGuffin, the theme is what the story means. The theme can be an intangible concept like unrequited love, artistic delusions, or political correctness run rampant. What matters is that each character is connected to it.
In Love Actually the theme is romance developing from awkward circumstances. The theme of Traffic is the failing war on drugs, and the theme of Crash is racial tensions that often go unspoken.
It’s possible to tell a story where the subject matter and the theme are vastly different.
The subject of Aliens is in the title, but the theme is a little more subtle. Ripley learns her daughter died while she was in cryosleep. Heartbroken, she follows a group of marines to a colony ravaged by alien creatures. The marines find a little girl. This lone survivor becomes Ripley’s responsibility. The theme of motherhood is subtle until the supporting cast gets killed. Ripley becomes a hardened warrior to rescue her surrogate daughter. The final battle pits our hero against the alien queen. One mother fights another.
Give Reminders without using “As You Know” Statements
Avoid “As you know” statements. Serialized TV Shows like Twin Peaks used these all the time. Characters chatted about previous episodes to clue viewers in on what was going on, even when they already knew all the information they were exchanging.
One character would say, “As you know, the Miss Twin Peaks contest is this weekend.”
The problem with ‘As you know’ statements is they give information to the audience, but make no sense within the context of the conversation. Why would one character tell another something they both already know? It breaks the suspension of disbelief.
The best way to justify these reminders is to add something new to the conversation.
I like meaty complicated movies, but I don’t want to lose the plot because I stepped out to use the bathroom. I like thick paperbacks, but I don’t want to lose the story if I took a month off from it.
There are things writers can do to help audiences understand what’s going on, without dumbing things down. Foreshadow things that payoff early, give the audience more than one hint at the twist, and tie your dangling plot threads together.
Give characters names that don’t sound too similar. Make their personalities unique, give them distinct voices, and remind the audience how they’re connected.
Most people can store about seven pieces of information in their short term memory. Audiences lose those details as new ones arrive. If you’re piling on the plot devices its important to keep them connected. When the path from short term to long term memory is clear, the story is much easier to remember.
4 thoughts on “Everything is Connected”
Good thoughts. There are certainly some successful writers (e.g., George R. R. Martin, “Game of Thrones”) who break your rules with sagas that contain many more than seven characters, not all of whom are connected, and with multiple plots intertwining into one grand plot somewhere. But you’re right — that is rare.
I think it’s hard for writers to know about the Martins of the world and not try to emulate what they love about them. I mean, don’t we ALL want to be the “rare writer” and not the “one who has to follow the best-practice rules”? But there is more to writing than being able to juggle (and sell) complex casts and plots (e.g., Shel Silverstein and “The Giving Tree”).
I think the most important thing is a clear voice. Second is a new take on what is often an old story (e.g., “Brokeback Mountain” cf. “Romeo and Juliet”). After that, be simple, be complex, be whatever you want — you’ll grab an audience.
That is NOT to contradict your advice, which is solid. I merely point that out to free people up to FOLLOW it. When we get more focused on being clever and complex than on telling a good story in a compelling and fresh way, we fail.
Thank you so much for all of your insightful comments. You’re right. None of my rules are absolutes. They’re just suggestions for writers who find their piece isn’t working.
You’re right about George R.R. Martin. Even still they’ve dramatically condensed his cast for television. 😉
I had started writing about how mnemonic tricks like memory palaces and linking chains, can help teach writers how our memories work, but I decided to cut it so this piece didn’t get any more bloated than it was. I don’t know why I felt like sharing that. Maybe I’ll write more about this in the future. 🙂
Uh-oh. Now you’ve spoken the mnemonic article into existence. It’s going to bug you until you write it.
BTW, in reading the end of “TaC,” I realized we share something else in common: having lost a good chunk of time to brain trauma from an accident, and the struggle to get back our selves. Before knowing this, I felt a connection to your writing and its relevance — all the more now.
Foreshadowing is one of my favorite things, as a reader. Definitely something I strive to do well as a writer. ^-^ There’s just something great about all the little hints coming together. One of my favorite authors does it so well, even though I know how his foreshadowing works I’m always in complete denial of what’s going to happen until it actually does… mostly because it is sad. It’s always reconcilable though, because it feels like it had to happen.