The Principle of Occam’s Razor: Keep It Simple

A while back we were talking about how “ordinary” in fiction is actually a good thing. Yes, of course, we have magical realism, we have fantasy and science fiction, but what makes stories like these work, what allows us to lose ourselves in them, are the ordinary touches, often in characterization—the authenticity of the human interactions and emotions. Married couples bicker, kids love dogs, young girls develop crushes on celebrities—these sorts of things are common in the human experience.

The principle of Occam’s Razor—used most often in math and science—says the simplest explanation is probably the correct one, and I think in fiction we need to adhere to that. Simplicity should assert itself in things like names of characters and diseases that kill them, in the contrivances and coincidences of the plot, and so on. The more complicated (far-fetched) things get, the harder they become to “sell” to your readers. (Or to a publisher, for that matter.)

I read a comment on a blog somewhere from an aspiring author who said (I’m paraphrasing), “People complain that the nine-year-old child in my novel is too precocious, but I don’t want to read about an ordinary child; I want to read about an extraordinary child.” Hmm. The thing is, if readers are complaining, that should be a sign, right? Unless you’ve set this child up as a genius—with the problems that would be inherent in that, such as he probably would be bullied or awkward or unlikable—he can’t just be a genius child with all this clever dialogue. It doesn’t work. And the beta readers are telling you that.

Occam’s Razor applies to plotting too. But simplicity does not mean convenient coincidence. Whether it’s a deus ex machina (Little Red Riding Hood being saved by the hunter is a classic example), special skills a character miraculously happens to have (“Oh, you didn’t know I could speak Russian?”), or a long-lost relative who appears at the moment most needed (“Luke, I know your mother would have told you about this if she hadn’t died so tragically—you have a sister”), coincidences that allow the plot to advance in a worry-free way are not authentic. And if you rescue your characters this way, if they have no real impediments, then you don’t have much of a plot.

But wait—what were once coincidences become perfectly logical plot points if you’ve laid the groundwork for them with foreshadowing. (Remember Chekhov’s Gun?) If you need a character who can speak Russian, perhaps he spent many hours in his childhood with his Russian grandfather, a sad old man who lived in the back bedroom and grieved the loss of the family dacha. He’ll need to be woven into the subplot, of course.

Make these details organic—and simple—and they’ll feel authentic. Which is what you want in your fiction.

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Tweet: Occam’s Razor applies to plotting too. But simplicity does not mean convenient coincidence.

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4 Comments

  1. Samantha says:

    Deus ex machina is my first vocabulary word of the new year. Thanks!

  2. Ellen says:

    Yes, yes, yes, Jamie, you nailed it again! As Occam’s Razor was first explained to me: if you hear hoof beats in the hallway, think horses, not zebras (unless you live in a country where zebras are common).

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  4. […] this rule of thumb: coincidences are OK to get your character into trouble, but not out of it.) So simplicity is your friend. As is […]

  5. […] one still has the burden of proof. (I mean, that’s what we see on CSI, right?) So we need to keep it simple so that things ring true. We want the plot to have an appearance, at least, of […]

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5 Trackbacks

  1. By Too Many Beginners’ Mistakes on 25 February, 2014 at 6:10 am

    […] for beginners. Yeah, it’s fiction and we’re makin’ it up, but things have got to ring true. Unforeshadowed plot devices or character traits won’t cut it either. And remember, a coincidence that gets a character in to trouble is OK, but a coincidence that gets […]

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    […] this rule of thumb: coincidences are OK to get your character into trouble, but not out of it.) So simplicity is your friend. As is […]

  3. By These Dreams Go On When I Close My Eyes on 2 October, 2014 at 6:17 pm

    […] one still has the burden of proof. (I mean, that’s what we see on CSI, right?) So we need to keep it simple so that things ring true. We want the plot to have an appearance, at least, of […]

  4. By Possible … Not Probable on 30 May, 2016 at 5:10 pm

    […] her go, though I may suggest tweaks around her, to make her milieu more authentic, say. I like to keep things simple and in the realm of the very […]

  5. By The Principle of Write What You Know on 15 August, 2016 at 12:02 pm

    […] telling details about a place or about the human condition. (I’ve written about this here and here.) If you get the underlying structure—emotions, characterization, or milieu—right (because you […]