The Fine Art of Simplifying Matters so You Can Complicate Them
Your character has only a few sentences to introduce himself. He can’t be complicated. Look at great big, huge books. Harry Potter is an unusual child. Bilbo, naturally, lives in a hole in the ground (The Hobbit). Percy Jackson has trouble fitting in.
So, my fox is very simple.
“In County Mornallie, there lived a great red fox who fancied himself smarter than the local farmer.”
I know it seems obvious. I know it seems simple. That’s the point. As a dedicated reader myself I can tell you – one of the few things that’s hard to forgive is confusion. Mystery is one thing, but uncertainty? Ick.
Simplify your characters, their problems, and their story arcs. You can always complicate them later. But I will promise you that if you yourself don’t understand what’s going on, your audience never will.
In fact, without a simple structure, complicating becomes exactly what writing should never be, hard work. Again, save that for editing. Complications are fun. Complications are natural.
A boy who doesn’t fit in is full of potential. He is by turns charming, troublesome, awkward and promising. A “Bilbo Baggins” who lives in a hole in the ground is a true mystery, an explanation waiting to happen.
And therein lies the clue to the second part of beginning. Your characters will usually prove to be their own worst enemies. In the very act of defining them, their definition defines their challenges.
My fox is arrogant. He is also a fox, therefore vulnerable to the farmer. One slip up, and he’s dead.
The solution is obvious, the very next thing you do is accelerate the meeting of your character and his greatest challenge.
“It had become the habit of Rhys the Fox, therefore, to go into the farmyard early in the morning when the guard dogs were asleep, and steal for himself one of the farmer’s fat, simple chickens.”
Now, you have a way for your character to meet his most dangerous foe, and all you need is motivation for a story.
“And one very early morning, as Rhys was preparing to enter the farmyard, he found something that he did not expect.”
Again, note the simplicity in these early passages. Percy Jackson, known for blowing up school buses – by accident – meets something he does not expect, a monster. Bilbo meets a wise old wizard, a band of dwarves, and is dragged out of his hole in the ground to go fight a dragon.
“The farmer’s little daughter, who was only four at the time, had escaped and was playing in the little creek behind the house.”
And there you have your beginning.
In the great middle we meet the second half of that simplifying concept. Characters do not stay two dimensional. Children grow, heroes rise, and villains fall. Complications ensue.
Bilbo Baggins the Hobbit, for instance, quickly showed that he had many skills to offer, and many oddities to overcome. He was light of foot, useful for cave trolls; a peacemaker, useful for dwarves; he missed his home, not surprising; and the biggest surprise of all – he truly cared about his dwarf friends.
For the purpose of writing a few paragraphs to a page long story, we’ll skip the chapters and chapters of character building and development.
And here enters our next principle of fairytale writing:
The Magic of Sentence Structure
While you enjoy writing your story, let your imagination flow, but do yourself a favor and don’t make your sentences unwieldy. It is easier to combine short sentences than it is to adequately separate a long one. Short sentences are also less tiring to read. Try to focus each and every concept within the sentence, and only worry about the smooth blend of ideas between sentences afterwards, in editing.
“Rhys saw the little girl, blonde as the hillside buttercups, topple face first into the little stream of water.”
Rhys is arrogant, a rogue and a thief. It follows that he is likely very selfish. Moreover, he is a fox and she is a little girl.
“Rhys the Fox turned to get into the chicken house before he was discovered, but he could not move. All he could see was the little girl, floundering and choking. With a bark the great red fox of Mornallie charged forward, and seized the child by the back of her neck, and hauled her from the water.”
Here we introduce the great lesson giver of fairytales. Behavior changes. Percy Jackson was a loner, but he stuck himself out for his uncool friend, Tyson, shortly before he fought a duel with a Minotaur.
Your audience will ask themselves why the behavior changes. You don’t have to answer that. The impulses are imbedded deep within each human heart. The good, and the bad. Selfishness and love, arrogance and kindness.
Rhys is arrogant and selfish, but in a single moment he chooses to do a good deed. Why? His conscience told him what the right thing to do is. (Disclaimer: I don’t think real foxes actually have consciences, so they probably are not your best first choice for lifeguard.)
“Now you would think that Rhys the Fox would change his ways, but the truth is he was a fox, and foxes like to eat chickens. So he would come into the farmyard, and take himself one. And whenever he did the little girl he had saved would be waiting for him, sitting beside the creek, and she would pet his ears before he slipped away.”
All well and good. But this isn’t a problem. It’s a complication.
“One day, into the fine County Mornallie, came a very wicked man. And he liked to take little girls away into savage countries and sell them as slaves. So one day he came to the farmer’s house, and the little girl was sitting by the creek, petting her friend, Rhys the Fox.”
Here, again, we have a moment of choice, but it’s simpler now, isn’t it? Rhys has already put himself out for his friend.
“Rhys fought the wicked man very bravely, but although he was a big fox, he did not have the jaws of a guard dog, and the wicked man kicked him in the ribs and in the head, and Rhys fell down.”
About now it should be getting simpler. As my mother says, “it’s all downhill from here.” You have your magical sentence structure, which keeps the whole story simple and beautiful, and you have an obvious descent into an ending.
Join me next time for the ending techniques that will make any tale shine out!