Litmus Test of a Great Story

Note: This article was originally published on April 10, 2016.


In Alice LaPlante’s book The Making of a Story (recommended reading) she describes a litmus test to tell the quality of a story:

What is lost in summarizing the story?

LaPlante contends that a great story resists paraphrase—any brief, condensed run-down of a well-written story does not actually summarize it—whereas a poor story is easily paraphrased.

When I first came across her claim, I was surprised by how briefly she elaborated upon it. For a couple pages, she clarifies her point and provides a few examples, after which she moves on to other subjects. IMG_1763The reason this surprised me is that this is an impressively deep observation: the longer I considered it, the more layers were revealed to me. I find this idea exceedingly useful in understanding the distinction between a good and a bad story—which has always seemed difficult to articulate (as is shown by the massive size of LaPlante’s book on the subject).

First, let’s formally state the claim:

LaPlante’s Law: The quality of a story is directly proportional to its resistance to paraphrase. (The better a story, the more that is lost in summarizing it.)

This is a bold claim, and in a moment we will clarify and extrapolate it, but first, let’s see how it explains a pattern among the great authors:

Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Kingkiller Chronicleis asked in the majority of his interviews “What is your story about?” He always has the same answer—he is no good at summarizing his own book, and if the story could be told in one page it wouldn’t be three thousand pages long. At first, this just seems a bit snarky, but in light of LaPlante’s Law, it makes a great deal of sense: Rothfuss is one of the world’s most skillful storytellers, and he has spent over two decades on his trilogy of novels, so I would hope it would be good enough to be exceedingly difficult to summarize. (And it is good enough—reading The Wise Man’s Fear and The Way of Kings in one week was what made me decide to become a fantasy writer.)

This is also why, on the back of each of his books, he has a quote from the book, rather than the more typical description of the book.

Similarly, Brandon Sanderson writes this about his best book: “I’ve been asked to introduce The Way Of Kings to you. And I have no idea how to start. This is an odd position for me. Before, I’ve found it easy to explain my novels…Kings has stymied me each time I’ve tried to describe it. I often end up talking about its creation. (How I started work on it over fifteen years ago. How I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words worth of worldbuilding for it. How much the project has come to mean to me over the decades.) But such things describe the book but don’t actually tell you anything.”

Great storytellers have this internal inhibition against summarizing their best works because of their unconscious awareness that great stories cannot be briefly summed up. Any literal paraphrase of such a story not only sounds trite, but it also misses the point of the story:

Kingkiller Chronicle: A depressed man talks about how he blames himself for his life being in shambles.

The Way of Kings: The world will end unless humankind can quickly refound a mythical order of magic knights.

In summarizing these stories in one sentence, I have described a small portion of what happens but not conveyed any piece of what the story is actually like.

The above gave me evidence that LaPlante’s Law may be accurate, but what really convinces me that it is a fundamental truth about storytelling is considering the reasons the Law works—and this is what we will do for the rest of the article, starting with the superficial aspects of LaPlante’s Law and moving in toward the deeper underlying philosophy.

“Things Happening” Should Describe Your Story

The Wheel of Time is among the biggest epic fantasies of all time, in terms of both length and popularity. The general consensus is that the first four books and the last four books are marvelous, and the intervening six books are dull and frustrating. The reason the middle portion of the epic is nigh-universally disliked is that virtually nothing happens between books four and eleven. Robert Jordan decelerated the plot’s pace to 1 mph.

The strength of the beginning and end still support the epic’s status as one of the greatest fantasies of modern times, but the major weakness of the middle is a key problem of bad fiction: a lack of events, or plot. The reason this contributes to LaPlante’s Law is that it is more difficult to summarize stories that contain many events than to summarize stories that have fewer things happening.

The thriller genre gets by almost entirely on this principle: the more things that happen, and the quicker they happen, the more story you are conveying in a smaller space. However, “things happening” does not only refer to plot events—instead, it describes all things that contribute to the story. Characterization that affects the plot, setting elements that affect the characters, foreshadowing of later pieces of the story…basically, the lesson here is that anything that cannot be removed from the story without changing the story increases the quality of the story. The purpose of a summary is to strip away everything non-essential from a story; if every aspect of a story is essential, the story cannot truly be summarized.

Patrick Rothfuss likes to say his best quality as a writer is brevity. At first, this seems a joke—his books are between 600-1,000 pages long—but then he points out that “It’s long, but it’s tight. There isn’t a lot of wasted space. I don’t engage in long, tedious bouts of description or big chunks of explanation. It’s efficient…the goal is always the same, [to] make the book clearer, cleaner, faster.” And he’s right, The Name of the Wind is a quick ten-hour read—the first time I read it, I bought it at an airport in Boston, and then finished it at baggage claim in Los Angeles.

This aspect of LaPlante’s Law can be summarized (oh, the irony) like this: Delete every superfluous word, phrase, sentence, scene, and character, and your book will be improved.

The Heart of Good Storytelling Is Implication

There is a saying: “ ‘The king died’ is not a story, but ‘The king died and then the queen killed herself’ is a story.” The distinction is that a piece of the latter story (the queen’s motive for suicide) is implied instead of stated outright; the reader has to work to understand the full story.

Contrary to common belief, readers like to work. We read fiction for leisure, but what we find enjoyable is the thinking and effort that goes into reading a story—in this sense, reading is not an act of relaxation but instead an act of rejuvenation. Part of the counterintuitiveness of this fact lies in the use of the word “work,” which typically connotes difficulty and boredom, but here actually just means effort and energy. When I read Gene Wolfe’s The Shadow of the Torturer, for instance, what I enjoy is experiencing a full story from the bare bones laid out by the words on the page—the act of reading is not one of translation, from written words to visual scenes and stories, but one of transformation, from written words to a complete, whole story.

This is one reason (the other being the superfluity, as described above) many readers, including me, find lengthy descriptions of scenery highly irritating—we already have complete pictures in our heads. A better approach is to describe a single unusual aspect of a setting or character, and let the reader fill in the rest.

For example, the entire physical description of Rothfuss’s protagonist: “The man had true-red hair, red as flame. His eyes were dark and distant, and he moved with the subtle certainty that comes from knowing many things.” Here Rothfuss gives us three details, each rich with implication instead of mere explicit fact:

1. The man has hair “red as flame”—this implies that the hair also bends away from the head like a rising flame; it also can be taken to mean that the man has a fiery, passionate personality.

2. “His eyes were dark and distant”—this implies an inner sadness, and a preoccupation with something other than the here-and-now.

3. “He moved with the subtle certainty that comes from knowing many things”—this implies that the man is highly educated and intelligent, and is very confident in his knowledge and skill; it also implies that this confidence is “subtle,” meaning he is not blatant and forthright about his intellectual superiority.

Now, here’s the crux of the matter: Rothfuss’s original description was 28 words long, but I drew 80 words of inferences from them. The density of meaning of Rothfuss’s writing here is 80/28 = 2.857—each word is pulling about three times its own weight! Implication is a way to make writing accomplish more than it would otherwise have space to accomplish.

Writing filled with implication is writing that relies on the thoughtful interpretation of its readers. As writers, our first instinct is to make everything easier on our readers—we cut superfluous phrases, revise for flow and continuity, and generally put in a great deal of effort so our reader doesn’t have to. This is not a novel approach, either—virtually every business in the world benefits from making life easier for its consumers. (Hence why “some assembly required” furniture sells less well than actual, put-together furniture.) However, this philosophy forgets one major, unavoidable truth:

We value what we work to gain. Our minds justify effort by putting value on what we exert energy to
obtain: Anyone who has ever had the irrational thought “If I don’t eat this dessert, purchasing it was just a waste of money” (as if eating a chocolate cake will give you back the 5$ you spent on it) is guilty of this tendency.

As usual, Patrick Rothfuss said it best in The Wise Man’s Fear:

“It’s the questions we can’t answer that teach us the most. They teach us how to think. If you give a man an answer, all he gains is a little fact. But give him a question and he’ll look for his own answers. That way, when he finds the answers, they’ll be precious to him. The harder the question, the harder we hunt. The harder we hunt, the more we learn.”

This is why readers like to work. Never spoon-feed your reader information, whether it be details of the setting, revelations about a character, or a moral lesson. Instead, show your reader how those setting details affect the story; show your reader how a character’s actions reflect her innermost being; show your reader the results of following (or not following) a moral code.

A frequent complaint about Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series is that he engages in long, pedantic moral screeds—which was wholly unnecessary, because the moral lessons he was concerned with were woven into the fabric of his plot, his world, and his characters. His lecturing was, to some extent, redundant.

Let’s break down two different ways to approach incorporating implication into writing: showing and connoting.

Showing is demonstrating something instead of telling it outright—the classic “show v. tell” issue. It’s not as simple as “show, don’t tell,” however, because even though showing is often more effective than telling, it also requires more time than telling. When we explicitly tell the reader “Walt is unhappy about his cancer remission,” it only takes seven words; when we show Walt punching a towel dispenser in frustration after receiving the cancer remission news, it takes a full scene.

Showing takes more space than telling. In a short story, it is sometimes best to just state something outright, in order to save space. However, though it is less efficient, it is far more powerful to show something than it is to tell it. The reader values the information more and has more time to process the information.

We need to keep this tradeoff in mind as we craft our stories: Showing has a greater impact than telling, but telling is more efficient than showing. Neither should be used exclusively.

How can we reconcile this observation—that showing requires more space than telling—with our earlier realization that writing that relies upon implication accomplishes more in a smaller space? The answer lies in connotation.

Our earlier example of Rothfuss’s description of his protagonist was an instance of telling, but a very special kind of telling that implies more than it states outright. “He moved with the subtle certainty that comes from knowing many things” connotes more about the character than it states outright. While showing conveys information in more space than telling, connoting conveys information in less space than telling—it is the path to forcing your words to carry more than their own weight.

Consider Earnest Hemingway’s shortest (and, as he reportedly saw it, best) story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” This six-word sentence states nothing more than that unused baby shoes are for sale, but it connotes an entire background: Why would someone put up an ad selling baby shoes? Because their baby died before it had a chance to wear the shoes. Not only that—the baby, we may assume, died because of poverty or malnourishment. (Why else would the parents go to all the trouble of taking out an ad in a newspaper if they weren’t desperate for the small bit of cash baby shoes might earn them?) From the mere existence of the ad, we can also infer that the parents want others to know of their suffering, to feel sympathy for them. Hemingway’s six words give us a full, poignant tale, without actually telling us more than the smallest piece of it.

Here, he connotes by giving us facts that have certain preconditions. Humans have amazingly sophisticated processors in our brains—given a piece of input, we can model how it came about and what will result from it. This is why J.K. Rowling’s “time-turner” set off alarm bells in her readers’ heads, this is why writers can convey information that relies on their readers’ interpretation, and this is why we are able to derive the full story of Hemingway’s bereaved parents solely through its ending—a seemingly innocent, trivial advertisement for baby shoes.

This is also the reason not every character needs to tell their long, tragic backstory (at a nighttime campfire the day before they think they’re going to die): show us a character’s actions, words, and reactions, and we’ll gain an unconscious feel for their history that will be truer than any factually-accurate-but-dry résumé you could give us.

Any summary loses the implicit stories underlying the raw facts of the situation; no Wikipedia page can let you know Benjamin Franklin in the way his autobiography, and the hundred billion neurons with which you’re interpreting his every word, can.

Journey Before Destination

The same idea of human cognitive modeling applies to future events, albeit more weakly. We are often less sure of where someone will go in life than where they came from, but we may have a general idea—we know technology will continue to progress, though we don’t know all the ways how; we know the peoples of the world will slowly but steadily become less sexist and racist as the human race becomes wiser and more capable of moral reasoning; we know most (but not all) originally happy relationships will turn sour with time, because it is unlikely the participants will have the impetus or awareness to recover from tiny fights, let go of petty grudges, or put money, time, and energy into consciously building positive bridges between each other. We know all manner of vague directions the future will go in, but we don’t know the details—and that is where we can take advantage as storytellers.

One of the goals of writing fiction is to take these ethereal, unconscious connections, predictions, and inferences and transform them into something concrete. In this sense, telling a story is the practice of following the threads of your audience’s expectations and finding unexpected kinks, rips, and knots: the key to compelling narrative does not lie in the end-result of the story, but in the path taken to get there.

For example, the overall plot of Breaking Bad is obvious from the first episode—we know how it’s going to turn out, because we know the premise, the goals of the protagonist, and the inclinations of dramatic screenwriters. Nobody is surprised. Yet it is still single greatest television show of all time (not hyperbole). The reason it’s so riveting and beautiful is the series of steps on the way to that inevitable ending.

Did anyone (except Brandon Sanderson) think The Lord of the Rings would end with anything except Sauron’s loss and the victory of the right and just? The third book’s title is literally a massive spoiler about the triumphant ending: The Return of the King. Yet it is still the progenitor of the entire modern fantasy genre, and a damn good read. Tolkien takes us through his world with (almost too much) detail—that’s the point of telling us the story. The struggle against the Dark One is almost a formality, merely a convenient framework through which to showcase his world and his characters. Since its publication, we have encountered hundreds of stories with identical plots—which were, when summarized, the same
overarching story—yet none of them has Samwise Gamgee, Smeagol, or the Shire’s tobacco industry.

And now for the Return of the LaPlante: a summary, by necessity of brevity, skips all the small fragments of story in favor of the big picture, and thereby misses the point. It may mention the protagonist passed through a city, but it won’t mention the striking conversation she had with her barista, who was wearing sunglasses at night and had an ankle tattoo of a seven-legged baby pegasus. Details. Details are why we read Shakespeare instead of skimming the Sparknotes; they are the meat and measure of a storyteller, yet are too numerous and subtle to be mentioned in a paraphrase.

LaPlante’s Law: The quality of a story is directly proportional to its resistance to paraphrase. A useful tool for understanding what really matters in a story.

(I will not sum up this article here, for obvious reasons.)

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