Why small stories are (usually) best

Six years ago, I read a book review that changed my life forever.

At the time, I was working on my very first novel. This novel was precious to me, and still is (I continue to work on the final draft). It was based on a simple idea in my head that I had nurtured throughout childhood. But somehow, along the way, the idea had become less fun. As I gradually built the histories of my world, designed bitter backstories for every character, and came up with languages for my various inhabitants, I realized that everything was becoming dull, gloomy, and tedious.

Somehow, paradoxically, my story was becoming far less interesting as the stakes became more colossal. ‘Fate of the world’ style plots swarmed in my head; magical objects, grand destinies, perilous quests, the whole High Fantasy kit. It was all taking the determination out of me and making what had once been a labor of love into a tremendous chore.

Around that time, I stumbled upon a book that looked to be very promising: Fablehaven.

You might have read Fablehaven. It was a New York Times bestseller, and the book has a respectable 4.5 stars on Amazon. It’s even been optioned for a Hollywood film.

The idea of the book was quite promising as well: two kids stumble upon a nature reserve for mythical creatures.

And as it turned out, the concept was similar to what I had in mind for my own book, so I had to do more than read it: I had to do some research. I read through dozens of reviews, all full of praise and adoration.

But then, I saw something that didn’t belong. Something that confused and fascinated me: Fablehaven and Why I Hate It.

I clicked the link, and came to a very humble Livejournal page, that still persists to this day in its antiquated glory. I will not reproduce the entire review here (it’s still online), but I will paste the sentences that affected me:

What Fablehaven actually is: A generic McFantasy with a side order of “Oh bother, this plot again?”

What Fablehaven ISN’T: a story about a wildlife refuge filled with mythical creatures.

It’s strange that such an obscure piece of writing has stayed with me for all these years, but I still remember the cool, Fall evening well. I remember how my heart sank into the bottom of my stomach. I remember realizing, with burning clarity: “My book has lost its identity.” All the histories, lands, languages and races that I had constructed came crumbling to the ground in that moment, and I saw the heart of my story, which I had loved, barely beating under all that excess weight.

I saw the characters who had begun their lives in my imagination; their quirks and eccentricities, their motivations, their conflicts, and their simple desires. I saw the childlike simplicity of it all, and I realized how I had buried it under a slush pile of ‘epicness’.

My novel was no longer fun, because I had lost the essence of it, trying to shoehorn it into a bombastic mold that it was never meant to fill.

The heart of a story

So I turned it all around. I backpedaled, and returned to the heart of my vision. I kept most of what I had invented in the background, and allowed my characters to speak for themselves. I allowed them to decide what adventures they would go on. And it turned out, their simple, bizarre lives were a thousand times more interesting than the one I was trying to create for them.

Everything became fun again, almost instantaneously.

I had learned an extremely important lesson: the heart of a story is simple. The premise, the characters, and the basic setting: this is what sets everything in motion. Everything else develops over time, and it’s only a supplement to the story. Magical objects, destinies, races and languages – they can make your worlds richer, but if they aren’t the point of your story, they may very well destroy it.

But people still enjoy High Fantasy, don’t they? If J.R.R Tolkien used elves, dragons, dwarves, and invented a dozen languages to go along with them, can’t we do the same thing?

Actually, I believe this is a tremendous mistake. I think many people miss the whole point of Tolkien’s work. For Tolkien, everything began with The Hobbit. And The Hobbit began with one simple line, scribbled on the back of a random assignment that the Professor was grading in the 1930s: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

That was it. That was how The Hobbit began.

A hole, and a hobbit.

This is eventually what led to The Lord of The Rings, the first and greatest epic fantasy novel of all time.

Tolkien continued to write The Hobbit for his children. It was a whimsical, exciting story to read them before bed. He had no aspirations to publish it; no ambitions of becoming one of the most influential fiction writers of the 20th century. And because he was a philologist who studied language for a living, languages came into it naturally. Because he had a lifelong love of mythology, myth came into it as well, and then dwarves, and elves, Dark Lords, and everything that now fills The Silmarillion.

If you – like many others – weren’t fond of the explosive, bloated movie adaptations of The Hobbit, perhaps you now understand why: because the movie wasn’t about hobbits at all. It wasn’t about a Hobbit, and his crazy adventures with a bumbling troop of dwarves. It was, instead, about battles, horrors, mixed up political commentaries, and exotic tangents that were never in The Hobbit to begin with.

Whereas Tolkien never lost sight of his story’s core, the movies never seemed to grasp it in the first place.

Movie makers, novelists, and story-tellers of every kind could learn a valuable lesson from one of Tolkien’s closest friends:

Bigness in itself is of no imaginative value: the defence of a ‘galactic’ empire is less interesting than the defence of a little walled town like Troy.

C.S Lewis, to Nathan Starr

The enemy of great

It could be objected that many people, in fact, enjoyed Fablehaven.

I’ve only mentioned the opinions of one little critic. And maybe he was overlooking a lot when he decided to write off the book. Maybe he was being overly judgmental.

But in fact, our reviewer knew better than that, and even admitted: “What irks me the most is that Fablehaven isn’t really a bad book. The prose is fairly standard and the characters are believable enough.”

The point isn’t that Fablehaven was a bad book. In fact, Fablehaven may have been a good book.

But the reviewer saw one thing that nobody else saw, or cared about: what the story could have been. He saw the beauty of the simple premise – a nature reserve of fantastical creatures, and all the simple, intriguing adventures that might be had by the staff, or the visitors.

Those are all unique possibilities. Those are all possibilities that only Fablehaven could have explored, and no other book.

Instead, the writer chose a plot that any book could have had, and missed out on the unique promises of his own, original idea.

As a reader, should you care? Maybe not. If the book is still enjoyable, even if it isn’t as good as it could be, there’s no harm in it.

As a reader, you shouldn’t care. But as a writer, you should.

As a writer, you have a duty not only to your readers, but to the characters you have brought into existence, and to the premise of their lives.

As a writer, you have a mission: to write the best story you possibly can. Don’t settle for less. James C. Collins famously wrote, “Good is the enemy of great….Few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good life.”

We can easily paraphrase him: “Few people write great books, in large part because it is just so easy to settle on good books.”

Write sincerely, from the bottom of your heart. Be true to your characters, deliver on your premises, and don’t worry if you end up with something simple or small. The best and the biggest stories usually start from humble beginnings.

Tell your story as it really is, let it live up to its own, unique potential, and don’t worry about the size; you owe it to your story, and you owe it to yourself.

Why everyone should plot before writing a book

Every NaNoWriMo, the Internet is aflame with the age old argument: should you plot your novel, or should you make it up as you go along? Most people have agreed on the generally civil principle that some people are better at plotting, while others are better at ‘panstering’, and it’s best to live and let live. “Whatever floats your boat,” as the saying goes.

That logic is perfectly fine if you want to write a novel, and have no special wish for it to be good. In fact, ‘freewriting‘ – or writing consistently for a period of time about absolutely nothing in particular – is highly recommended as a technique to improve your writing abilities, and loosen up the cogs of your brain to let thoughts flow more freely.

However, I would like to argue that everyone should plot their writing to a certain extent, at least when the goal is to create an interesting, readable work.

Now, let me explain. I’m not saying everyone should write in exactly the same way. Some people inevitably plan their works in much greater detail than others – they may carefully structure their work with the ‘snowflake method‘ or the ‘hero’s journey‘. Like Dostoevsky, they may fill a notebook full of character backgrounds, and like Tolkien, they may write out the histories of entire worlds before they ever start working on a story.

But I’m not saying all that is necessary. I’m not advocating any particular method, and I allow that some people flourish by ‘going with the flow’, while others find it a lot more productive to plan out every scene, character and line of dialogue before writing a book.

Nevertheless, I take it as a serious principle that every good story has a few key elements planned from the beginning.

What does Poe think?

Edgar Allen Poe did a good job of explaining this idea. Yes, that’s right, Edgar Allen Poe, the gloomy 19th century American writer with a big mustache who married his cousin and wrote a very famous poem about a raven. As weird as his works may have been, they were actually carefully planned, and before writing his poems, he planned them down to the last stanza.

In ‘The Philosophy of Composition’, Poe justified his own approach to writing like so:

Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement [conclusion; final act] before any thing be attempted with the pen. It is only with the dénouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention. ¹

So according to Poe, you should always have the ending in mind when you write a book.

Personally, I like to plan my books according to the three act structure, which means that I always have at least the setup, confrontation and climax in mind when writing, and I think everyone could stand to benefit from having at least this skeletal structure before writing the very first scene in a novel or even a short story.

Pansters are quick to point out that over-planning can make a novel stuffy and calculated, and I tend to agree. But under-planning can make a novel rambling and directionless. Without any direction, the point of a book can be hard to discern, and your writing isn’t likely to catch readers’ attention. A novel with a lot of potential can turn out mediocre if it isn’t given any thought beforehand.

Wherever you lie on the spectrum between plotter and panster, before you start writing a novel, have something in mind, and preferably a few things. You’ll thank yourself later on, and so will your readers.

Have your own take on this discussion? Leave a comment! We’d love to hear your opinions.