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Bag capacity: 5 lbs. Shit inventory: 20 lbs. Commence the stuffing.

1 January 2011

Here’s a thing: how do you tell when you’ve overdone it? You’ve had a lot of great ideas for the story you’re working on. . . perhaps too many, in fact. How do you know when you’ve put too much stuff into the story?

Doing it right: I read somewhere that The Wrestler and Black Swan, Darren Arnofsky’s last two films, were originally supposed to be the same movie, about a wrestler and his love affair with a ballerina. Good ol’ Darren wisely realized that these two very strong characters would end up taking focus away from each other, and split them up into one movie that was brilliant (The Wrestler), and one I’m still making up my mind about (Black Swan). The combined movie would have been a jumbled mess, but as two separate entities, they worked.

Doing it wrong: The second and third Matrix films. In an interview on one of the many editions of the Matrix DVDs, the Wachowski brothers said they “put every idea they ever had into these movies.” Well, it shows. I dig them, but the last two films in the series are WAY too busy, trying to cram in:

  • Neo as Jesus
  • Discussions about simulacra and simulation
  • A kick-ass kung fu movie
  • Ghosts and vampires
  • More than one romantic arc
  • A war movie
  • And about six other films

So how do you know when you’ve hit that all-important saturation point? How do you know when enough is enough? To me, the second all of the story elements overwhelm the characters, it’s time to dial it back a bit, but what about for you?

Which stories have done it well? Which have done it badly?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Nate permalink
    1 January 2011 0908

    Canon is key, especially for serial work. If the reader can take all of a story’s elements and see a cohesive, coherent canon, then game on. If not, then I think that’s where you see a lot of readers dropping off.

    I thought the writing staff of “Heroes” did an excellent job of bogging that show down with extra nonsense and contradictions of the show’s canon. It became so schizophrenic that there was no choice but to pull the plug on the show.

    Others might disagree, but I thought “Lost” generally did a good job of managing a large number of well-developed characters and diverse plot lines. Yeah, there were some questions that went unanswered, but I think a lot of that was intentional in that the writers didn’t want to demythologize (midichlorians, anyone?) some of the things that made the show fun to watch. Overall, though, the characters generally remained consistent, and story elements almost always served the over-arching plot. When they didn’t, the writers usually moved to course correct (such as eliminating the ridiculous Nicki and Paulo).

    I totally agree about the assessment of The Matrix. As you may recall, I was pretty obsessed. I watched the movies and anything that had a tie-in, such as the video games, comics, and the Animatrix. It all ended up being pretty disjointed, and that was disappointing.

    • 1 January 2011 1137

      I agree. Lost did a pretty good job, overall. And I think it harkens back to something we discussed earlier here on the blog — you can make your rules as silly as you want, but you have to follow them. Start fucking around with your own canon without a good reason, and people will tune right out. Just ask Tim Kring.

  2. 1 January 2011 0945

    When you start to think you’re George Lucas….you may have stuffed too much in. When every movie or TV show you see reminds you of something you wrote…..and when it takes you 10 years to write the novel, odds are, you’ve densely packed it.

    • 1 January 2011 1138

      Yeah, the “ten years to write a novel” thing bothers me. I know I tend to work kind of fast, but I couldn’t imagine rewriting and packing more crap in for that long. It would become unreadable, I would think. I’m sure there are exceptions, just none I can think of.

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